Adapted from a recent online discussion.
An effective apology has to be genuine, so find a real regret
California: In order to have a relationship with my brother, I need to apologize to his wife, whom I heartily dislike. (Twenty years ago, I noted that she got pregnant in order to make up his mind for him about getting married.) I have apologized to my brother, and now must speak to his wife, although my opinion of her has not changed. How do I apologize to her so that I can have my brother in my life, after years of estrangement?
Carolyn: The only worthwhile apologies are the ones where you admit genuine fault. So, what would you have done differently 20 years ago?
By the way, does your brother like where marriage has taken him?
Anonymous: Re: California: You were too easy on her. She's held a grudge for 20 years against her sister-in-law because she was pregnant when she got married. The brother and his wife are better off without her.
Carolyn: Really? I could see this easily going both ways. The sister-in-law may well have manipulated the brother into marriage — and California may also have seen nothing in the 20 years since to suggest she was mistaken in her assessment. You say "held a grudge," I (could) say, "has maintained a justified dislike."
I also fault the brother for telling his wife what his sister said about her. There's no better way to poison a family than to betray confidences. What did he think that disclosure would accomplish?
So, I still decline to take sides.
California again: Your by-the-way question is the heart of the matter, as I see it. My brother has adjusted to his wife's domineering personality and appears to be at peace, but he's also taciturn, so it's hard to know for sure. Underneath he's a very sensitive guy, and that's why I apologized for hurting his self-esteem 20 years ago. She's a wholly different kind of personality and that's why I am having a problem apologizing to her.
Carolyn: Then apologize for something you genuinely regret doing: "I am sorry I didn't mind my own business." Because, after all, knowing now that it didn't have any effect, butting in isn't something you'd do if you had it to do over again. Right?
Anonymous 2: Re: California: I am really sick of people saying a woman got pregnant in order to manipulate a guy. Unless she DELIBERATELY lied about birth control, he was a party to the conception as much as his girlfriend. Why did California assume it was the woman's fault? I wouldn't want anything to do with her, either.
Carolyn: Please, don't get sick of it. Like any accusation, it is too often made, and often gets thrown around by people who are under-informed and judgmental vs. informed and concerned.
However, just as abusive men will seize control of money to keep women on a short leash, their female counterparts do use their fertility as a means of keeping men in their clutches. It's effective; the father either goes deadbeat, or is around in some form for another 21 years, minimum.
Again, it's not commonly done, but it is done, so it has to be part of the conversation about alerting loved ones to potential abuse.