Do the right thing

I hurt my ex-girlfriend but now I know what heartbreak feels like and I want to make amends. Is that a good thing or is it selfish?

By Cary Tennis
Published December 9, 2002 8:01PM (EST)

Dear Cary,

Four years ago I was seeing a beautiful woman who was sweet, kind and intelligent. I loved her, and she loved me. We were in our late 20s and were together for two years. She loved me more perhaps than I've ever been loved in my life. But circumstances did not favor our romance, and I hurt her, repeatedly. We spent a year in a kind of weird limbo, neither on nor off. I was full of doubts about what I wanted. She wanted to get married, have kids, and there were times when I could see that happening, and I wanted it. But those times were outnumbered by the panicked thought that I wasn't ready, that she wasn't The One. I ended things once and for all a little over a year ago, and I'm ashamed to admit that I was pretty cruel to her. At the time I felt I had to escape the whirlpool of pain that had become inextricable from my love for her.

Immediately after, I met someone else, and I tumbled into love. I think it was love, it felt like love: intense longing when we weren't together, utter bliss when we were. I thought I'd finally found The One. Alas, she didn't feel the same way, and after less than a year we broke up, a couple of months ago. I'm still reeling from the loss.

I find my mind turning back to my ex-girlfriend, the first one. I haven't seen her or spoken to her in well over a year. I realize that I'm still hurting a lot from my last girlfriend, and of course the thought of this lovely ex, who once loved me so, is comforting to a guy who's feeling low like I am. I know that my motives for wanting to reach out to her aren't unselfish. And I wouldn't be surprised if she told me to go to hell; in some ways I would deserve that. But I realize now, perhaps for the first time, just how special she was. And I am now fully aware of how much I hurt her, and how sorely she deserves to have an apology from me, whether or not she chooses to accept it.

I see two possible scenarios: The more likely one is that she has moved on, and is happy and in love with someone else. In which case, hearing from me would just be an interesting, possibly gratifying footnote to an already closed chapter of her life. The other scenario is more troubling: If I find that she hasn't moved on, and has been suffering because of me for a long time, I'll feel even more guilty than I do now. But if that is the case, I think an apology from me would be all the more necessary. If I've caused her pain I need to face up to it and do what I can to make amends for it.

Now that I've been on the receiving end of rejection, I'm more aware how selfish and thoughtless I was with my ex-girlfriend. I see more clearly now that I didn't do right by her, and I would like to make up for it in whatever small way I can. Is that selfish? Should I just leave her alone, and accept that the price of my bad behavior is to remain unforgiven by her, without the reassurance that I did my best to apologize? Or do I owe it to her, and to my newfound appreciation of my wrongdoings, to speak up, to humble myself?


Dear Sorry,

I'm a big fan of making amends. But there are some hard-and-fast truths that you have to accept.

The reason making amends works for alcoholics is that we know it's either do this stuff or die in our own puke. Such stark choices focus the mind beautifully.

Making amends outside of recovering from alcoholism -- and outside of a spiritual program -- seems a bit trickier. But I think it can still bring you peace of mind and improve the lives of others, as long as you're clear on why you're doing it.

If you're thinking maybe making amends with this woman will bring her back into your life, make her think better of you, or give you absolution from your guilt, you're on the wrong track. If you're wanting anything from her at all, it won't work. Making amends is about admitting your wrongdoing and repairing the damage. That's it.

So if you're going to do it, I would stick to a script. First, you have to get clear about what you did. To do that, you need to do an inventory -- write down all the bad things you did until you see a pattern of behavior. It would help to share this with somebody; if it was a 12-step thing, you'd do that for sure. But this is a modified, secular kind of 12-step lite, so just make sure you get down on paper all your crimes. Because you need to know what pattern of behavior has led you to conduct yourself the way you did. You need to come to a fundamental understanding of your nature. Are you a liar and a cheat, for instance? Hey, no problem, join the club. But you have to know that. Otherwise, you're going to be making excuses to her why you sort of lied and kind of cheated but you'll be arguing circumstances, etc., because it will be too painful for you to admit the truly debased and contemptible nature of your actions.

See, when you're an alcoholic, you already don't have much trouble admitting what a puke you are. Being such a good guy and all, though, you are probably going to resist the radical notion that you are a shit. I don't mean self-hatred; I mean recognizing your humanity. We're all shits in different ways, so lighten up.

Anyway, after you have cataloged your many abuses and have seen firsthand just what a shit you can be, contact her and tell her you want to make amends. Tell her the exact nature of the wrongs you committed, except if there are some things you did that she doesn't know about that would hurt her needlessly. You tell her you know you were wrong to do the things you did, and tell her you're sorry, and if any of your wrongs can be righted by tangible restitution, you make that tangible restitution. That means paying back money or returning stolen property, for instance. And then be willing to do whatever is necessary to be on the best terms possible. That could mean be her friend; it could mean never bother her again, whatever seems the best for her.

And then that's it. You're done. You don't wait around too long for a thank you. You've done your part. Maybe you'll feel better. But that's not the point. The point is that you did the right thing.

Want more advice from Cary? Read Friday's column.

Cary Tennis

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