This article is one post in a series entitled “When Talking about Forgiveness.”

We have been reflecting on the restoration of trust after forgiveness. One of the things that makes us skittish towards this is that we all, undoubtedly, have been burned by manipulative repentance; some of us worse than others. The very fact that it’s hard to put into words what was unhealthy in those interactions only adds to our hesitancy. The objective of this reflection is to help us in our ability to identify key markers of manipulative repentance.

To start, the recognition that there are healthy and unhealthy forms of repentance is both common sense and biblical (2 Corinthians 7:8-13). On this everyone agrees; secular and sacred. 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.

Let’s start by identifying two common misconceptions that tend to blind our eyes to manipulative repentance. Then we will consider seven phrases common in manipulative repentance.

Misconception #1: Manipulation Is About Method

Corrective: Manipulation is about motive (why or how something is done) more than method (what is said or done). There is no way to make a list of “manipulative phrases.” Every phrase listed below has a context in which it could be legitimate and appropriate. Manipulation is about motive (resisting change, minimizing responsibility, blame-shifting, etc.) and is most effective (in a negative sense of “effective”) because that phrase or action can be used innocently.

Manipulation is about motive (why or how something is done) more than method (what is said or done). There is no way to make a list of “manipulative phrases.” Click To Tweet

Implication: The list of phrases below cannot be reduced to a checklist. The description of each phrase is important to understand. If the description of how each phrase can be a part of manipulative repentance does not fit a given use of that phrase, it may not be manipulative.

Misconception #2: Manipulation Requires Forethought

Corrective: Manipulation does not require “malice aforethought” or intellectual cunning. From my experience in counseling, most people who are using remorse to gain an advantage or avoid responsibility are not aware, in the moment, of what they’re doing. They just want to escape the discomfort of the moment. This driving desire (i.e., 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. Intentionality is not necessary to have this effect.

Phrase #1: “I know I’m not perfect.”

This phrase communicates, “Your expectations that I responded decently are unreasonable. You are holding me to a perfectionistic standard. In order to avoid being confronted by you, I would have to be perfect. You should feel bad for being judgmental and harsh. You should be excited about the possibility of restoring our relationship.”

Phrase #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.

Phrase #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 repenting is unwilling to see that the event (for instance, intoxication or belligerence) in question was part of a larger pattern (i.e., 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.

Phrase #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 truer than your experience.”

These phrases leave the person repenting in charge of defining the event for which forgiveness is being sought. The intent or self-perception of the sinner is being imposed as a limit on the pain of the one sinned against. The result is that the offended person has less voice in describing their pain. The offending person remains in charge of the narrative.

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

This phrase communicates, “If anything, more than my words (i.e., “I’m sorry”) are required in response to my actions, then you are being unforgiving, mean, weak, or hyper-emotional.”

Also, this response 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 (i.e., I, me, my) than second-person pronouns (i.e., you, your). While this is not a specific phrase, the excessive use of self-referential pronouns may reveal that the person repenting is focusing on their personal experience of the offense more than the impact on the person they hurt or offended.

Note: First person pronouns should be used in the active / ownership part of repentance. 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.

Phrase #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 unhealthy 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 of “this situation is not as bad as [more exaggerative situation].”

Phrase #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. However, when commitments to do “better” are made during a disagreement about the nature of the offense, these commitments become a way to shut down communication.


The question remains, “How do we respond to manipulative repentance?” If the relationship is safe, then we articulate the manipulative dynamic and respond according to their response.

If, when manipulative dynamics of an attempt to repent are articulated, the offending person will acknowledge the coerciveness of their attempt at reconciliation, we ask them to try again to repent without blame-shifting or minimizing their sin.

If, when manipulative dynamics of an attempt to repent are articulated, the offending person will not acknowledge the coerciveness of their attempt at reconciliation, we 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 sin and contrition for the pain caused, without coercive effect, they are not repentant.

Questions for Reflection

  1. Which of the two misconceptions are you most prone to believe?
  2. Which of the seven phrases are you most prone to use? How would you respond if they were used in a conversation where someone was trying to repent to you?