You Need Help: Do I Owe a Girl From My Past an Apology in the Present?

Q:

When I was in my early twenties and a hot mess, I ended a friendship with a girl I grew up with who I also had developed intense feelings for. At the time I did not realize that I liked her romantically, I just felt betrayed and hurt by a deteriorating friendship.

Now, eight years later I’m in dyke mode and we’ve reconnected partly because I have come out to some family friends who are also gay. This reconnection though is rocky. I have apologized, of course, but there hasn’t been a conversation. I know that I’m the one who needs to initiate it, as the prodigal dyke. But I’m not sure how far to go.

Do I owe her a full explanation? “Oh your hair kept getting shinier and I kept getting more frustrated every time you jabbed my side with your elbow at the movies?” Or should we just move on, reminiscing occasionally but not lingering in the past? Do I tell these family friends and ask for guidance on how to move forward? They are both lesbians so they have certainly been in this territory before in some capacity. Or is this holding them hostage with a secret?

I’m so scared. I know I need to say more and that I can’t run away but it’s so embarrassing to have to admit this. I feel that these family friends have known the whole time (it was painfully obvious I’m sure). I also feel that I am really just protecting myself here. And if I want to be honest and brave, I owe myself the truth.

I should also add that I don’t feel I have fully apologized. I have said “I’m sorry” and “I’m sorry” but there hasn’t been a moment of true reckoning and accountability which I know is important. But in order to do that I would need to face the truth with her and it makes me feel ashamed.

If you were her, would you even want to hear it?

Or is this just some Gatsby/Daisy Buchanan shit? Has she become a symbol to me? Do I just need to let go?

She’s definitely the person I’ve hurt most in the world and I have a tendency to project and assume. I’m still learning how to communicate my needs, etc. and that’s partly because I felt so silenced in my relationship with her by the end. Of course there’s no villain here but there is pain and I need help navigating it while avoiding additional debris.

How do I escape this whirlwind?

– Should I Confess?

A:

Hi SIC,

I have a bad memory generally, but most of the few vivid remembrances I have of my youth are regrets — usually times I’ve hurt someone. I have sympathy for my younger self, have apologized and or forgiven myself, and understand why I did the things I’ve done. But once in a while I’ll get a flash of memory and cringe. It’s difficult to recognize that you’ve hurt someone, and to feel like you haven’t made it right. The guilt can weigh heavily on you and even seep into your self-image. Can you still be a good person if you’ve done that and haven’t somehow properly atoned? In kindergarten we learn to apologize when we’ve hurt someone, and you seem convinced that “reckoning” and “accountability” is the right move here — your question is mostly about how. I’d pump the brakes, though, and question this assumption.

Guilt and regret are frequently the uncomfortable, but natural consequences that we carry for having made mistakes. Sometimes they’re necessary. Would we ever do better if we didn’t feel bad about the bad things we’ve done? Anyone who doesn’t cringe at the memories of things they did when they were younger might not have grown much as a person. We have to be careful with the impulse to apologize. Ask yourself why you want to apologize again. Why wasn’t the first one adequate?

Do some journaling or otherwise do some deep introspection. Do you want to apologize because she’s still hurt, and your apology and further explanation could validate that hurt and provide her closure? If you think she’s still confused about it, maybe thinks it was her fault and she likely feels guilty about it, and would benefit from understanding exactly what went down, then giving a fuller apology could be the right move — if you’re doing it for her benefit.

Because if you still feel guilty, and hope that apologizing will make you feel better? Or you’re worried that she’ll always feel some type of way about you, and you want to regain the status of “good person” or “nice friend” in her mind? Or if you hope an apology and explanation will absolve you of your shame and embarrassment? Then you shouldn’t do it. It’s selfish. It’s about you and your feelings, not hers. If you “owe yourself the truth,” you can own that truth and sit in your shame and do the only wholly productive thing to do with guilt and/or shame: better. The best apology is changed behavior.

It should go without saying that if you’re hoping to rekindle something romantic with her via the apology/explanation, that’s also 100% the wrong move.

I don’t think this rises to the level of Gatsby-esque tragedy. You said the reconnection was “rocky,” but didn’t say how. Is it just rocky for you, emotionally? Do you expect everything to go back to how it used to be? It’s very likely that she doesn’t want to hear it, is long over it, and the desire to bring it up now is just a selfish impulse. You’ve been turning this over in your mind for years, but it’s likely that she doesn’t care that much. You might even just be projecting that she’s the person you’ve “hurt most in the world.” You’ve seemed to reconnect without major issue, or you probably would have mentioned it, so she doesn’t appear to have overly hard feelings about it.

Now, I think there are likely more important issues at play here than the apology question. Some of the things you’ve written seem to indicate that the real issue here is that in addition to guilt, you still have feelings of hurt and betrayal from the situation. Might you feel like you’re the one who deserves an apology to some degree? Might you secretly hope that broaching the subject could provide you this as well? You’ve got to work through those feelings. To be honest, they’re also likely selfish.

How to escape “the whirlwind?” Instead of seeking forgiveness from her, you might need to truly (and, on your own without involving her) give forgiveness to her — and to yourself. You made a mistake. You didn’t know what was going on, you fucked up, you apologized. Maybe she didn’t handle it well either. It’s no big deal; y’all were young, you’re older and wiser now. Things that happened eight years ago don’t have to color the present if you don’t let them. You may have to really accept that you may never have as deep a friendship as you once did; some mistakes have lifetime consequences. Some relationships never overcome their struggles. That’s okay.

My advice is that all of these feelings you’re working through are your own feelings to work through. You have to reconcile your guilt and your bitterness. None of them are necessarily about her — they’re about you. Work on yourself: acknowledge to yourself what you did, and forgive the both of you for what y’all did years ago. Of course, give her an explanation if she asks for one. But otherwise this is your issue to work through and you don’t have to drag her into it. Treat people better than you did in your early twenties, and eventually you’ll realize that you have nothing to feel guilty about anymore.

Good luck!


You can chime in with your advice in the comments and submit your own questions any time.


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Abeni Jones

Abeni Jones is a trans woman of color artist, educator, writer, and designer living in the Bay Area, CA.

Abeni has written 86 articles for us.

16 Comments

  1. Abeni , I love this answer. LW, I wonder if you’re in that mode of having recently come out and feeling ashamed of having been in the closet. When I first came out certain friends and acquaintances interrogated me, with the implication that I hadn’t been honest with them. I gave them more information than necessary out of misplaced guilt. Remember that you don’t owe anyone transparency about this stuff.

    I would really hold back with your friend unless she expresses confusion about your previous headspace and asks for more information. I was once in her position, and my friend who had mistreated me waited a LONG time to disclose that she’d been motivated by a resentful crush. Her apology focused on the impact of her behaviour on me. If she had led with ‘I was an ass because of my crush’ I might have felt like she was making excuses.

  2. Oh does this resonate. I had so many ugly friendship breakups in my late teens and 20s and thinking about some of them, and my bad behavior during them, still can make me cringe (and I’m 52).

    For me, most of my friendship drama came from a combination of really terrible boundaries, untreated PTSD and anxiety, plus some bi chaos sprinkled on top. I’ve made up with some of my former friends but not with others. I’ve apologized for some of my behavior but not all of it.

    Abeni’s advice is excellent. This is truly part of the work of adulthood.

  3. I disagree with this advice.

    1) If I had a falling out with an important friend and it was because they were in love with me and couldn’t handle the disparity in what we wanted from each other, I would want to know even if it had been a long time ago, even if it made me kind of mad to hear. I think it matters, knowing that a painful rejection happened because they valued me too much in a way that was hurting them, not because they didn’t value me at all. Most people rack up enough rejections that it’s very easy to feel hard to value. Taking a weight off the scale won’t tip the whole balance, but it won’t do nothing, either.

    2) None of the parties involved have very much to lose from LW explaining what happened. The acquaintanceship sounds very strained as it is, so even if open communication doesn’t improve anything, I can’t see how it would make anything worse, and if it did somehow, at least everyone is free from trying to make something work that isn’t going to work. LW is obviously unable to interact with this person normally because this thing that’s become a really dumb secret is haunting them. LW’s ex-friend either doesn’t care anymore (in which case LW explaining things will be awkward but not really matter) or is still somewhat hurt (in which case LW explaining things will at least give her context and might be a little painful but not in a way that’s significantly different than the way a person who’s still somewhat hurt about this would usually feel when thinking about their ex-friend). If the reconciliation fails and these two people can’t be friends, LW’s family friends are not going to think less of them for having tried to clear the air unless LW did it in a really mean way or the family friends are assholes. If if LW isn’t dramatic about it, talking about emotions won’t spontaneously generate drama, and on the offchance that it does that would be a shame but it is also your cue to stop trying because it is impossible (although I think it is a lot more likely to go well, neutrally, or badly but in a really boring way.)

    3) LW has the right to express their feelings even if it doesn’t benefit others and might cause some awkwardness. They’re a person. People can do that. The thing they did was unfortunate, but not unremarkable. Almost everyone has noped away from a friendship they couldn’t handle for some reason. That doesn’t mean people don’t have the right to be hurt by it, but it’s not like LW set their ex-friend’s house on fire and shot her dog.

    4) probably don’t try to date her tho

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