This material is an excerpt from Chapter 10 of my book Making Sense of Forgiveness with New Growth Press.

We have been reflecting on the restoration of trust after forgiveness. We are skittish about restoring trust because we have all, to some extent, been burned by manipulative repentance; that is, when the person who hurt us says they’re sorry, but they really just want the relationship to return to its unhealthy patterns. It is often hard to put into words what was unhealthy in these interactions, which only adds to our hesitancy. Our goal in this chapter is to identify key markers of manipulative repentance.

To acknowledge that there are healthy and unhealthy forms of repentance is both common sense and biblical (2 Corinthians 7:8–13). On this, everyone—secular and sacred—agrees. The difficulty is in discerning disingenuous repentance. Mature and discerning people can witness the same conversation and walk away with distinctly different impressions about whether a given expression of remorse represents genuine repentance, sorrow for being caught, or a tactic to gain relational leverage.

There are a number of phrases that can point to manipulative repentance. Before looking at them, let’s consider two common misconceptions that tend to blind us to manipulative repentance:

The first misconception is that manipulation is about method. This misconception can be corrected by understanding that manipulation is about why or how something is done (motive) more than what is said or done (method). There is no exhaustive list of manipulative phrases. Every phrase listed below has a context in which it could be legitimate and appropriate. The goal of manipulation lies in the motive (e.g., to resist change, to minimize responsibility, to blame shift), and is effective at fooling the person being manipulated because the phrases can be used innocently.

The second misconception is that manipulation requires forethought. Manipulation does not require careful planning or intellectual cunning. Many people who are using remorse to gain an advantage or avoid responsibility are not aware of what they’re doing. Their immediate goal is to escape the discomfort of the moment. This desire to escape shapes the way they define words and frame questions. That is what manipulation is: manipulation is defining words and framing questions (by verbiage or emotions) in such a way that makes a healthy response from the other person seem selfish, mean, or unreasonable.

Phrases that may point to manipulative repentance:

1. “I know I’m not perfect.”

This phrase communicates, “Your expectations that I respond decently (e.g., speak kindly, fulfill my commitments, be honest about my schedule, etc.) are unreasonable. You are holding me to a perfectionistic standard. To avoid being confronted by you, I would have to be perfect. You should feel bad for being judgmental and harsh.”

The phrase “I know I’m not perfect” frames an expectation that the other person owns their faults as an expectation that they never sin. Offering forgiveness does not require that someone never sin. It does require that they be humble about their sin and committed to growing.

2. “I’ve never pretended to be someone I’m not.”

This phrase communicates, “You knew who I was when we started this relationship, so you are being unfair by expecting me to be decent.”

This confuses genuineness with righteousness, authenticity with holiness. By this standard, someone could be consistently hurtful, and we would still be to blame for their sin because we chose to be in relationship with them. But we would also be condemned as “unforgiving” for ending the relationship. The question is not whether or not I know your persistent patterns of behavior, but whether those patterns honor God and others.

3. “You are bringing up stuff from the past.”

This phrase communicates, “We can only talk about events, not patterns of behaviors.”

Often this impasse is reached when the individual going through the motions of repentance is unwilling to see that the offense (e.g., intoxication or belligerence) was part of a larger pattern (e.g., addiction or abusive speech). If there is a pattern of behavior and this pattern goes unacknowledged, then the other person is, in effect, demanding that we respond to every instance as the first occurrence.

4. “You know I am not the kind of person who would do that . . . that is not what I meant.”

This phrase communicates, “Your experience of me is not an accurate depiction of reality. My self-perception and intentions are more accurate than your experience.”

These phrases leave the supposedly repenting person in charge of defining the event for which forgiveness is being sought. For instance, if we’re addressing stalking behavior, the manipulatively repentant person might say, “You know I wouldn’t do that. I was just trying to make sure you were safe. I was worried about you. I’m sorry if it made you uncomfortable.” The self-perception of the sinner (i.e., making sure you’re safe) is being imposed as a limit on how their actions are interpreted (i.e., can’t be stalking). The result is that the offended person loses voice in describing their pain. The offending person remains in charge of the narrative.

5. “I said I was sorry. What more do you want from me?”

This phrase communicates, “If anything more than my words (e.g., ‘I’m sorry’) is required in response to my actions, then you are unforgiving, mean, weak, or hyperemotional.”

This phrase often implies that an apology should be met with an immediate sense of trust and equanimity in the relationship. Any lingering sense of mistrust by the offended person is then labeled as an unreasonable and ungodly form of punishment.

You will also notice more use of first-person pronouns (e.g., I, me, my) than second-person pronouns (e.g., you, your). An excessive use of self-referential pronouns may reveal that the person repenting is focusing on their personal experience of the offense more than on the impact on the person they hurt or offended.

Notice, first person pronouns should be used in the active/ownership part of repentance.[1] However, in the description of the impact and aftermath of our sin, healthy repentance focuses more on the disruption we caused in the other person’s life. For instance, healthy repentance would sound like, “I [first person pronoun] realize when I [describe sin accurately and non-defensively] it was wrong [ownership] and hurt you by [describing effects].”

6. “There are a lot of people/couples who have it much worse than you/we do.”

This phrase communicates, “You should feel bad for complaining when the situation was not as bad as it could have been.”

This equates “could have been worse” with “not bad enough to mention.” It also portrays suffering as a competitive sport in which only those who suffer the worst merit sympathy for their hardship.

This phrase often comes towards the end of an manipulative repentance conversation. Early in the conversation, the repenting person minimizes or blame-shifts. When the offended party tries to clarify the degree of hurt, this is viewed as exaggeration. This perception of exaggeration leads the repenting person to use the logic that “this situation is not as bad as [something they consider to be worse].”

7. “I promise I will do better (without agreement on the problem or concrete examples).”

This phrase communicates, “Even though I minimize and disagree with you about the past and present, you should trust what I mean when I say ‘better’ about the future.”

Commitments to change are not bad, although these commitments should have more humility than an absolute promise. It is better and more accurate to say, “I will work on not [offensive behavior] by [specific actions towards change and accountability from mutually trusted people],” than “I will never do that again.” However, if generic commitments to do “better” are made during a disagreement, these commitments become a way to shut down communication. If someone says with exasperation, “Fine! I’ll do better next time. Can we just drop it?” they are not repenting. They are ending the conversation.

Conclusion

The question remains: how do we respond to manipulative repentance? If the relationship is safe, then we can use the concepts above to describe the unhealthy dynamic in their words and respond according to their response.

If the offending person acknowledges the coerciveness in their words, we can ask them to try again without blame-shifting or minimizing.

If the offending person will not acknowledge the coerciveness of words, then we should respond to them in whatever manner would be wisest towards an unrepentant person who was sinning in that way. Until they can express ownership for their initial offense and contrition without manipulation, they are not repentant.

Webinar Invitation

This article was written to set up the presentation for the free webinar “Identifying Manipulative Repentance.” The webinar will be Thursday October 14th at 1pm EST. My goal in this twice-monthly series of free webinars is to teach one primary counseling concept or skill each month and then provide a case study that allows participants to become more proficient at utilizing that skill or concept.

These are great events for:

  • Pastors, chaplains, and ministry leaders looking to enhance their pastoral care skills
  • Counselors wanting CEU credits to help them learn more about the intersection of their faith and practice
  • Leaders in church-based counseling ministries looking to grow in their case wisdom
  • Undergraduate students looking to discern a calling to vocational ministry or a career as a professional counselor
  • Friends and small group leaders committed to walking faithfully alongside their peers in tough times

[1] This chapter is about navigating manipulative repentance as obstacle to healthy forgiveness. If you want corresponding material on genuine and robust repentance see http://bradhambrick.com/7-marks-of-a-good-apology-vs-8-marks-of-a-bad-apology/