(Thank you to my father for taking the time to be my sounding board and to my friend, who is the strongest proponent of this philosophy that I have ever seen.)
The essence of all abusive behavior is the inability to admit wrongdoing.
The reason that one does not admit wrongdoing may differ from person to person. It may be that one honestly, earnestly does not believe that one has done anything wrong or has hurt another person. It may be that one does not care. But the reason I have found to be most prevalent is that a person is convinced that to admit that s/he was wrong is to show weakness. And if one shows weakness, one will fall to pieces. One will come undone.
The person who believes that to apologize, to admit one has erred, to admit that one was wrong is to be weak is a person who will never accept responsibility for his actions. Here is an example of how a conversation with such a person would play out.
Girl: [speaking to a girl named Amanda and her guest] There's makeup spilled on the floor. Since it's in that corner, either you or your guest did it, so don't forget to clean it up.
Amanda: [can't help but give the girl a look]
Girl: What are you looking at me like that for? All I want is for the room to be clean.
Amanda: I find your tone accusatory.
Girl: I have the right to express my feelings. I don't know why you find my tone accusatory. All I asked was for you or your guest to make sure the floor was clean.
Amanda: Yes, but the way you asked...
Girl: I just pointed out that you had spilled something on the floor. I thought you would want to clean up what you had spilled. I'm not sure why you are making such a big deal of this.
If you know someone like this, you know how frustrating these conversations can be. The girl will never admit that she was in the wrong. She will never take responsibility for the fact that her statement was accusatory instead of a gentle reminder. And she will never admit that, more practically, she could just bend down herself in order to swipe the floor with a wet paper towel. You can explain to her till you are blue in the face that the way she is asking is wrong or inconsiderate and she will always have a rejoinder. If you tell her that she has hurt your feelings, she will say, "I have the right to express my opinion. If you're going to feel hurt, that's unfortunate, but I have the right to express my opinion." The insinuation will be that you are the one to blame for feeling hurt and that you are in the wrong.
A matter of spilled cosmetics is trivial enough, but imagine that such behavior spills over into each and every aspect of one's life. Thus, when one discusses budgets, money or blame, this friend or partner of yours is never willing to admit wrongdoing. She will deflect, manipulate or underhandedly get herself out of the situation but will not offer a sincere apology.
Here's another example. Suppose that you have ordered an expensive dinner from a restaraunt and have a doggie bag you brought home. This girl comes home and says to you:
Girl: I'm starving. What leftovers can I have? Oh! I see you have this doggie bag in the fridge. Since I know you are such a generous person, I'm sure you won't mind if I eat some.
This girl has cleverly set up a dichotomy. As long as you let her have what she wants, you are a "generous person." When you don't, you are bad, stingy, not generous, etc. She has guilted you in order to ensure that she gets what she wants. She will never admit that she is being unfair or out of line in demanding this of you. If she does apologize, it will be insincere, not a true recognition of wrongdoing. True recognition means that one changes one's ways.
My best friend is entirely different from the people I have mentioned aforehand. If I ever happened to tell him that his tone was too strong, he was hurting my feelings or that he was yelling and I didn't appreciate being yelled at, he would immediately stop and apologize. It was a sincere apology and he would do his best not to repeat this behavior. It didn't matter whether or not he thought that his behavior was fine. The important thing was that he had hurt me and at that juncture at time he wanted to express the fact that he had absolutely no desire to hurt me. At a later time, when neither of us were upset, we could discuss the behavior and figure out whether or not my response to it made sense. Obviously, if I had been out of line, I would then apologize to him. But the most important thing was to inform the other person that there was absolutely no intentional desire to hurt them and to sincerely say that one was sorry. He and I were thus very quick to apologize to one another because we were concerned with one another's feelings; neither of us wanted our friend to feel hurt or unworthy. My friend wanted to do everything in his power to make me recognize that he would not want to hurt me, as did I.
This friend is an incredibly strong person. Only a strong person can realize that behavior that he thought appropriate at the time is hurting another and be more concerned with the other than with proving he is right. To apologize to another, whether it is because you realize that your behavior really was out of line, or simply because you realize they took it that way, is to demonstrate strength. In doing this, you demonstrate that you care more about the person than you do about yourself. This can only lead to stronger and better friendships and relationships.
Of course, you should not apologize to someone if they are taking offense at truly ludicrous things. You are not a shmatta, a dishrag to be walked on. But if you can understand where they are coming from and see their perspective, it is worth it to say sorry- and to mean it. In admitting wrongdoing, you earn everyone's respect. You have mastered your own tongue, which is already difficult. The person to whom you are apologizing realizes that what you are doing is difficult and respects you for it. And both of you know that a relationship in which such caring in exhibited can only grow.
There are plenty of things I get wrong. I have learned to admit that I was wrong about them. There is absolutely no way to grow unless one can admit that one has erred or been mistaken in the past. When it comes to Judaism, I cannot count the number of times I was or am unaware of a source or the point of view advanced by another person which challenged my own. Once made aware of it, assuming it was done in a way where I could understand it, it is proper to acknowledge that I didn't know and try to incorporate this into my new body of knowledge. That might mean changing my opinion or my mind and that's fine. It's not flighty or irresponsible; it just means growing as new information is presented. It's the same thing with hurting someone else. I might not have meant to hurt them but if I did, the most important thing in the world to me is to show them I did not mean it and I am truly and sincerely sorry. How could I ever want anyone else hurting because of something I did? To apologize is a strength. To admit wrongdoing or error is to grow. There is simply no way for people to overcome or outgrow their abusive behavior if they are unwilling to take responsibility for their hurtful actions or admit any sort of wrongdoing. These are the lost. The first step in an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting is to admit that one is powerless over alcohol. Thus, one must admit one has a problem. It is the same with everything else in life. One must admit one has done wrong, one has hurt another in order to rectify the situation. You must accept responsibility. Until and unless you accept responsibility and accountability for your actions, until you learn to apologize and to say that you were wrong at times, you will not grow. You will remain an abuser all your life, a violator of people's feelings, trust and soul. And for the sake of my own sanity, I will not come near you. If I did so, I would open myself up to a world of pain. Because you won't hear me. You won't listen. You're still running, thinking that to apologize is to admit weakness. And as long as you think that, you simply cannot be in my life.
Students, teachers, electricians, accountants, plumbers, scholars, rabbanim, doctors, laypeople- it doesn't matter who you are. Please realize that to admit wrongdoing is a strength. To sincerely apologize is a strength. If you can muster the courage to say the words, I promise that I will stand to hear them. I may never forgive you. But I will respect you. I will respect the courage you had to stand and face me and sincerely tell me that you heard my words, you know that you hurt me, and you are sorry for it. I believe this is a pledge we can all honor. If you speak words of truth, they cannot help but enter my heart. You need only realize that to speak those words is one of the most impressive feats you will ever achieve. Adam could not do this. Neither could Eve. But you can. You, singlehandedly, can achieve greatness that surpasses that of the father and mother of all mankind. All it takes is the strength, the monumental strength, that comes with accepting responsibility and admitting wrongdoing. You say three words and crown God with honor. I am sorry.