Intentions Don’t Matter: On Making Amends

I’ve been thinking a lot about amends lately, for a variety of reasons.  I’m now firmly in my early 40’s and I’m able to look back on some of the patterns of my life. I’ve also had several conversations lately with different people about the processes of apology, amends, and reconciliation. And the topic has come up in reference to some recent online controversies and the ensuing discussions about responsibility, whether people can actually change, and how we can assess that.

As I’ve said before, I think that the ability to give and receive genuine apologies is one of the most important tools to maintaining healthy relationships and helping them thrive. I think that it’s also important to remember that although one’s intentions are relevant and might be a mitigating factor, they don’t absolve us of our responsibility to make amends when we do something that causes someone harm.

Most of us have had the experience of either saying or hearing someone else say “I didn’t mean to do it,” as if that’s supposed to fix the situation, remove any responsibility, or make an apology irrelevant. And while I do think that inadvertent harm requires a different response than deliberate harm, that doesn’t mean that the harm didn’t happen.

If you have a cup of coffee on the edge of your desk and I accidentally knock it onto the floor, I’ll clean it up and get you a new one. It doesn’t matter that I didn’t do it on purpose- I did it and I should fix it. So why do we sometimes forget that when we hurt the people in our lives? Why do we sometimes say “I didn’t mean to hurt you” and then expect them to immediately let go of their anger and forgive us?

I think that there are a lot of possible reasons and frankly, I don’t think it matters. Or more accurately, I think it’s an important question for us to each ask ourselves when we engage in this pattern, but the answers will vary a lot and unless you’re part of my life, your motivations for it aren’t my business. Go figure it out. You’ll be a much better person for it.

But my point is that our intentions don’t absolve us of our responsibility to fix things as much as we can. That might mean cleaning things up. That might mean taking the time to hear the anger that another person feels in response to our actions, to not avoid or flinch from it. It might mean offering an apology, or it might mean expressing regret without apologizing. It might mean asking what we can do to resolve things. And as part of that, it can certainly include saying that it was an accident (assuming it was), as long as that’s not an attempt to dodge responsibility for making amends.

I get a lot of practice at offering and receiving apologies. Many years ago, my partner and I agreed that if either of us felt hurt or anger, we would talk about it instead of letting it fester. We realized that the only way that would work would be if we learned how to apologize to each other, so with the help of a kick-ass therapist, we figured out how to do it. We apologize for the many small things that happen, as well as the fewer big ones. We know that it’s an essential ingredient to keeping things from causing resentment, which will destroy a relationship faster than you might realize.

Fortunately, we’ve both learned how to be more graceful in our interactions with each other because we’ve learned to not try to dodge responsibility when we’re clumsy. In some ways, being told that I’ve made a mistake is a gift because it helps me make things better. One thing I’ve discovered is that no matter how much work it might take to process things and get to a place of genuine apology, it’s always less than the amount of time and energy that goes into resentment. Plus, when we do feel anger over something that has happened, the many times we’ve practiced apologizing and making amends makes it much easier to trust that we’ll be able to do it again.

Another thing I’ve learned is to thank other people when they tell me that I’ve done something that hurt them. Whatever the situation, it takes a certain amount of trust and a willingness to have difficult conversations to bring it up. I try to appreciate that, especially when I’m also having my own defensive reactions or difficult moments. Even if the root cause was a misunderstanding and I have no responsibility for the situation, I still thank people for bringing it up.

I also think that it’s important to find ways to make amends, if it would help the injured person or support the relationship. Amends are how we demonstrate our willingness to make things right, as much as possible. It doesn’t have to be a complex process, though it does need to be something that’s relevant to the recipient. It doesn’t count if it’s not what they need. That requires us to listen to them, even if we want to hide from our mistake, get defensive, or feel shame.

But as I think back on the many people who have passed through my life, I realize that it’s inevitable that I hurt some of them. I never did it out of malice, but I’m quite sure that I did it out of cluelessness, selfishness, being impolite, emotional reactivity, inexperience, or even just having a moment of tunnel vision and not being able to see anything beyond what I wanted. It’s easy to do something that hurts another person and sometimes, we don’t even know that it happened. That’s not an easy thing for me to acknowledge. And yet, I think it’s also simply part of being human. I want to offer myself the same fierce compassion that I would give a friend who shared this with me. If I get stuck in a shame spiral over it, I won’t be able to stand from a place of personal power and do what I think is right.

The difficulty, of course, is that I don’t always know what harms I’ve caused. So I’ve decided to do two things about it. First, I’m going to ask some of the people in my life if there’s anything that I did that caused them to feel hurt or anger, and ask them if they’d like to talk about it. Second, I’m writing this post and inviting anyone from my current or past relationships, friendships, and communities who comes across it to let me know if there’s anything they would like to clear up with me. If I have done something that hurt you, I invite you to get in touch so we can talk about it. You can contact me through this form, either with your name and email or anonymously, as you prefer. Obviously, if you do it anonymously, that will limit what response I can offer, but that’s up to you.

I’ll admit that I feel a good sized chunk of fear about this. And I’m familiar enough with this particular fear to know that this is one that I need to lean into. I once heard someone say, “That scares me. So of course, I have to do it.” That’s very much what this feels like to me. I’m not willing to coddle my fear or submit to it. I would much rather live my life with integrity and that means being willing to make amends, whether it was my fault that I hurt someone or not.

As I step out into this rather vulnerable place, it occurs to me to ask you- what do you do when you discover you’ve hurt someone? Are you able to set aside your “I didn’t mean to” and listen to them? Are you willing to take their pain in and bear witness to it? Can you express regret or apologies, as fits the situation? And what do you do to make amends? What makes that easier (or at least, less challenging) for you?

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14 Responses so far.

  1. Melanie Venus Rose says:

    Thank you so much for this Charlie. As someone who has recently felt very hurt by someone who does not feel any need to apologize, it is a soothing balm to realize that there are people out there who get it and are willing to share their path to connection and forgiveness.

  2. Jane says:

    Thank you for this. I wish the marriage counselors we’ve had could have keyed in on this, helped us stay on track with this and not get side tracked. I also really like your article on resentment. A big challenge to the relationship is when a person has buried resentments against someone from the past, but it manifests in the perception they are being slighted by their partner and it seems that nothing the partner does can make amends. With that heaped upon the normal difficulties of hearing or expressing and working through the real issues while staying calm and focused, I’d be out if it weren’t for the kids. It’s easier to deal with the stress of coping with what we have than the additional challenge of splitting the family.

  3. kat says:

    Hi! as a 12 stepper, I have used amends as a way of repairing the damage done in my past & found that the amends process is one of the MoST healthy things I can do for myself & my relationships. But yes, intention makes no difference at ALL and many of those affected by the addiction of another person are WicKEd worn out from someone not meaning to hurt another. In my own Amends process, its been recommended to me that I refrain from using “I’m sorry” to begin. There were a ton of recommendations I will not enumerate here, but the idea that I must change and practice new behavior, “I was wrong”, and “how can I fix this between us” are ALL important points I MuST convey if I’m going to be successful in my Attempt to make a verbal amend. Past that, there is also a Living Amend, where Nothing I can say will fix a relationship. By showing up and doing the daily work to become and show I am a responsible parent, child, best friend, lover, et al., I am able to amend the relationship over a period of time… which is dependent on my work, the situation, and my ability to truly just do my part without expectation of forgiveness.

    Actually, that’s important in & of itself. I do the amend so that I can look the world in the eye whether the other person forgives or not. This cannot be my motivation. otherwise, I will never succeed. it has to be about cleaning up my side of the street Only, and with or without forgiveness I must be able to do the deal & move through it.

    Hope this helps someone. There’s plenty of literature out there in step work around amends also.

    “Resentment is the “number one” offender. It destroys more [people] than anything else. From it stem all forms of spiritual disease…” from page 64 of ‘Alcoholics Anonymous’

  4. Andrea O. says:

    Yes, I agree with those who are always in favor of making amends but how do we make amends with people who hurt you in a very discrete way, making everyone think you were the one to blame? To make this short, I got married last November and my husband’s ex decided to show up to our wedding uninvited. She assumed it was ok to be there with her boyfriend, whom she dated immediately after my husband and who happens to be my husband’s first cousin. My husband and his cousin didn’t talk for months and even though they brushed things off and began to talk again, we are never invited to any friend gatherings or parties that the cousin and my husband’s ex host.  I have always tried to be courteous with her in the past and just glimpse and smile to break the ice since we have never met personally but she has always evaded me and has tried to make my husband and I feel awkward when she is around by being loud and trying to call attention. The problem is that I had someone tell her at my wedding (outside of the venue) to please leave the wedding and that I had nothing against her but that I didn’t appreciate her presence when she knows very well that this is a very awkward situation for her, her bf and my husband. Especially if she slept with both of them. I did not want to feel awkward by having a woman who slept with my husband at my wedding. I am no one to judge her but I realized she wasn’t there with a good intention when she ran past my husband and I while we were standing outside our venue and waiting to enter and she didn’t even look at us or congratulate us. I do not know why she has a problem with me. To make this short, my husband’s cousin left the wedding after she left and my husband’s family is now upset with me. Was I wrong? Should I apologize? I am a people pleaser and I do not like to be in any conflict with anyone but I hate to see how my husband’s family has excluded us from family gatherings and events. I do not know if I should write an apology or clarification letter to them or what to do to make this work. I will be honest, I do not feel jealousy but I also do not really know this woman enough to want to build a relationship with her. What should I do?

  5. Andrea O. says:

    Just as a side note, I am 7 months pregnant and I do not know whether I should invite my husband’s family or not to my baby shower. I am stuck!

  6. Lora says:

    Hi Andrea, 
    I am no expert in making amends.. As a matter of fact because of my people pleasing / co- dependant tendencies I find  my ability to see where my fault and the fault of the other person can become blurred. 
    With that said, you cannot undo what happened at the wedding. All that probably should’ve been addressed way before the actual day of your wedding. You learn from it and move on. It seems to me your husband probably should have been the one to talk to the ex not you.
    Its important to set boundaries up to protect you and your new marriage. Like the article says resentments can kill. I would invite your new family to the baby shower they then can say yes or no. If they decline that would provide an opening to make amends. If the say yes I would also ask your new husband to step up to discuss the wedding matter with his family Face to face quickly to get it in the open.

  7. Andrea O. says:

    Thank you for your feedback. I guess I just don’t know how to start making amends. I feel as if she has disrespected me in previous occasions before the wedding and I feel As if I were to apologize, that would be insinuating that I was wrong for not wanting her at my wedding. It’s hard to explain but she is the type of person who loves having drama with other women and is not very mature in her actions. it bothers he that she will try to get my husbands attention whenever her bf is not around and she will intentionally say hi and greet my friends and skip me and continue greeting the rest. I do not understand why she acts like this towards me when we don’t know one another on a personal level. if the three of them are in the same room, you can feel the tension. My husband says he felt betrayed by his cousin and knew they were seeing each other behind his back while he and this woman dated. But he also wants me to stop trying to make amends with them when they don’t care about our feelings. I really need your advice. I’m pregnant and very depressed. I feel alone and I’ve lost my joy. 

  8. Andrea O. says:

    What if trying to make amends only gives them the opportunity to hurt my feelings? This is why I’m afraid. 

  9. G says:

    Andrea O.,
    Hey O,  There is something ive learned  from a person i hurt very much. and that was verrry difficult for me to apply in my own way because i grew up raised by a verry passive mom . you were just protecting yourself  from clearly an immature person who was  running arond your wedding day like they were still in highschool. you owe no apologie or amend to anyone. you showed strength and courage where no one else around you did and you protected yourself just as i expect your child will learn to do from watching you!  there is a pride and confidence that cant be beat when i heard ur short tid bit. dont be depresso! ur joy is your manifestation! clearly u know what to dodo and thats sumthing to start being proud of. you need not to explain to anyone or apologize for being clear on what is not exeptable at your wedding. hold ur head high. all the passive politeness is for the birds.  u want ur child to be stong, clear, and respectfull. and thats what i see here! be proud. not confused or sad.

  10. Andrea O. says:

    Thank you for your response. I was about to send them a card apologizing for any hurt feelings while they continue to act in very immature ways towards us. It is true. I do need to be a proud in this case. I focused a lot in trying to understand why this woman would do this or act this way if she clearly didn’t want anything to do with us in the first place but I’ve realized and accepted that people can be evil and truly not care. I know my husband’s friends are siding with his cousin and the girlfriend and have blamed all of this on us, and I let that affect us. But I now know that I had all the right to protect myself on MY wedding day. Thank you for taking the time to respond back. Your words mean a lot to me.

  11. JohnH says:

    Andrea, you give us a good example of making sure that the “offense” is truly ours or one that is being transferred onto us. Apologies must come from the heart and soul. Your wedding violation is a good example of others using you to get revenge on your husband and his family and blaming you for the damage done. A good first step is to go deep within and ask if this is your deal and of your making or just someone’s drama and you are part of the cast. You seem to have worked it all out and can let karma work itself out. You might want to make amends to yourself for allowing others to take advantage of your goodness and promise your heart/soul to believe in yourself and not be bullied like that again. Congratulations on your pregnancy!

  12. Andrea O. says:

    Thank you for your feedback. I wanted to share that my husband and his cousin have made peace. My husband’s cousin has been genuine and sincere with us both but the gf has not changed her attitude towards us much. I did run into her and I was genuine when I approached her and expressed any regrets for any misunderstandings because I felt I needed to be humble and let my heart be guided by what God would want me to do. I felt that my humbleness may help heal the hurt feelings inside me but she did not apologize herself to me but instead kept saying, “okay, uh huh, yeah sure, that’s fine.” I had a strong feeling she was not being genuine but I think I did my part. I cannot fix everything. They are now engaged and my husband’s cousin is in the belief that we received an invitation from her but we never did and even if we do receive it, we are not sure if we will attend. I do not trust her nor do I get a good vibe from her but I do wish her the best and a great day. I pray they have a wonderful life together, I truly do. Thanks for everyone’s responses.

  13. Andrea O. says:

    I may never understand why she has always been so rude to me. I feel I didn’t take anything away from her. We had never met in the past until I stepped into my husband’s life but I always tried to break the ice and say hi and she always ignored me. I spend a lot of time trying to figure out why she would act this way, almost as if she was jealous but as far as I know, she ended her relationship with my husband to be with his cousin. Perhaps, I will never know but I hope one day I can heal from this and accept that even if my wedding day was not the happiest as much as I expected, I do have what’s best for me,…my faith and a wonderful family.

  14. L says:

    So many apologies I’d wish had come my way. And yes, the fact that they never came has destroyed those relationships for good. Those people have demonstrated how very little I meant to them.

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