Generally, it’s best to apologize quickly and completely in an effort to preserve the relationship.
I define effective apology as the willingness to value the relationship more than the need to be right.
But sometimes there are compelling reasons not to apologize. Here are five such reasons.
1. When an apology would cause harm.
Delayed apologies—apologies for an event that occurred long ago—are risky. The victim may welcome an apology even after years or decades. Or the apology may revictimize the victim. Here’s the test: if you conclude that your apology is guided more by redemption for yourself than compassion for the victim, than let a direct apology go. Deal with your issues in confession or therapy.
2. When it’s likely that you will repeat the offending behavior.
Be honest. If you can’t commit to ending the offending conduct, then an apology is just another excuse.
3. When you’re not prepared to provide restitution.
You can’t talk your way out of a situation you acted your way into. If you borrowed your friend’s car and got a parking ticket, then you have to pay the fine as the central part of the apology. If you can’t afford to do that, then you can’t afford the apology.
4. When the offense hasn’t happened yet.
Apologizing in advance is bogus. The very essence of apology supposes accepting responsibility for an event that has already taken place, expressing regret that it happened, and promising not to repeat the behavior. Apology is not a get-out-of-jail-free card. To suggest that a proposed behavior is less regrettable if you pre-apologize for it and then do it anyway is just moral laziness.
5. When someone else is responsible for the offense.
It’s meaningless for you to apologize for, say, the excesses of The Crusades. You weren’t there. In technical terms you have no standing to apologize. By the same token, if the party who should apologize refuses to do, you can’t do so on their behalf. What if the offender works for you? You can certainly apologize for your own carelessness (deficiencies in hiring or supervision, for example), but one responsible adult cannot apologize on behalf of another adult.