Written by Writer’s Corps member Emily Desanctis
“I’m sorry” carries a lot of weight when it’s genuine. Saying it requires vulnerability to admit wrongdoing and the hurt that that wrongdoing has inflicted on the person you’re apologizing to. To be truly sorry means feeling regret or sorrow over an unfortunate situation and your role in it. But in unhealthy relationships, people often say, “I’m sorry” not to express genuine regret; instead, they use it to manipulate their significant other. In such cases, these words mean something else entirely, including the following five possible meanings and their synonyms.
1. A declaration made out of selfishness
Synonym: I don’t want to feel guilty anymore
I feel guilty because of what happened, and guilt isn’t a good feeling. I’m saying that I’m sorry to make myself feel better, not you.
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2. A means to end a dispute that the apologizer would prefer to avoid, often for lack of caring
Synonym: This conversation is over
I’m tired and bored with this disagreement so I’m using these words to end it. I probably don’t believe it or don’t care enough to get to the real issue and so I’ll say this, so you’ll stop pressing for more. It may seem that I’m submitting to your point here, but in fact, I’m using this phrase to avoid doing so.
3. A method of appeasement to control another person
Synonym: I’m in control
I’m telling you what you want to hear not because I mean it, but because I know it will appease you and then allow me to pull your strings as I desire. If I don’t say it, there’s a high likelihood of some outcome occurring that I don’t want to happen—maybe you’ll stop talking to me or leave me home alone while you go out with your friends or break up with me for good. “I’m sorry” is simply a tool I pull out from my toolbox to prevent these things from happening.
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4. A phrase designed to elicit an apology from the other party, whereby the original apologizer can deflect full responsibility to that other person; usually said in a hostile or sarcastic tone and often followed by an explicit or implicit “…but this is really your fault”
Synonym: you should be sorry
I wanted to hurt you and I did exactly what I knew would do so. But you started it—like always, you did something to make me upset: you weren’t where you said you’d be, you smiled at that stranger in an overtly flirtatious way, you took too long to respond to my text. Even though you might pretend that you didn’t mean to hurt me, I know that’s a lie. This is really your fault; in fact, you should be apologizing to me.
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5. A means of furthering the test of how far the apologizer can push the other person’s boundaries and get away with it
Synonym: I’m testing you
I know what will hurt you and I do it with pleasure. I’m testing you to see what I can get away with—to see what you’ll put up with and what you won’t. “I’m sorry” is just something I say before I do this again—maybe the same exact way, or maybe slightly differently. Don’t worry, over time you’ll become desensitized to this; it will simply be “normal,” and so I’ll continue to push further so I can provoke you to react and keep myself entertained.
The hidden meaning behind any disingenuous “I’m sorry” is the same: I’m not really sorry because you deserve it. This is the lie that manipulators who lavish false apologies spread.
But no one deserves to be harmed, whether physically, emotionally, or with words. If your partner keeps telling you “I’m sorry” and you continue to feel worse, watch their actions. Are they really acting like someone who regrets what they’ve done, or are they doing it again, or maybe in a slightly different way? When it comes to determining if you’re in a relationship with a healthy partner, what they do is more important than what they say.