“Love means you never have to say you’re sorry.”
That was the theme of the hit movie “Love Story” with Ali McGraw and Ryan O’Neal back in 1970. Those words were emblazoned on a poster of the two of them, which my 16-year-old self had taped up on my wall. I couldn’t wait to get into a relationship where all was understood. You just couldn’t mess up. How heavenly was that going to be!
Well… it doesn’t work that way.
Love means you say you’re sorry and you mean it. Sincerely.
Not “I’m sorry but I was doing the best I could.” Those words are hard to hear and are often meant as a defense — a way to counter or diffuse someone else’s feelings. Let’s face it — sometimes you weren’t doing the best you could. We’re all not walking around doing our best 100% of the time. We make mistakes.
“I’m sorry.” Those two words, standing alone, are what’s healing.
There was a great article in the Wall Street Journal on this topic, written by Elizabeth Bernstein. She outlines 5 steps in “good” apologizing, with quotes from experts around the country.
Many people find apologizing very difficult. Most of them grew up in families where no one apologized — for anything. It is viewed as giving up way too much control. Somehow the belief is that you’re taking a one-down position by uttering such words.
In a long-term relationship like marriage or friendship, you’re going to screw up. It may be something fairly insignificant, or you may do some real damage. You’re going to be disappointing — frustrating at times. And so will your partner.
That’s just part of it. If the relationship is good, there are things that balance that out. Fantastic, warm, loving things.
I remember asking my husband one time (he hates these discussions…) if he would tell me what disappointed him about me. Just in general.
He grimaced. “I don’t know.”
So I told him what I thought were the probable culprits – things I knew were not his favorite aspects of my personality. He smiled. “Well, now that you mention it…”
Those disappointments are tolerated in a good, healthy marriage — on both sides.
So why is apologizing one of the simple things you can do to help your relationship?
1) Saying you’re sorry means that you recognize your behavior has an impact on those around you.
Your behavior affects other people. What you say. What you don’t say. Do. Don’t do. It reflects that you notice that impact, and care about the person you may have unintentionally hurt or disappointed.
If the apology seems insincere or offhanded, the person hearing it doesn’t believe you understood that impact, and leaves the conversation feeling empty.
If the hurt is intentional? Then you have a deep and complicated problem in your relationship.
2) Saying you’re sorry avoids the cycle of fighting about who is right.
Unless a discussion is about something extremely factual, like what you ate for breakfast, we only have our perceptions to guide our opinions.
Your perception. Your truth. But not everybody else’s.
If you fight about who is right all the time, your marriage might not make it. The person who ends being “wrong” feels defensive, and may fight harder next time — just so he or she can win.
Both people end being lonely in their positions.
3) Saying you’re sorry builds trust.
It’s simple. You’re taking responsibility for your part. You’re giving to someone else what it feels good to receive. It is inevitable that I am going to be disappointing from time to time, even if it’s not for some egregious behavior. Maybe just because I’m really busy. Or I forgot an errand you had asked me to run.
Recognizing the impact that has on my partner? It’s a wonderful gift to give.
It’s not a loss of status. Not a loss of power. A gift.
A simple statement. “I’m sorry I forgot to go by and pick up those meds. I can do it tomorrow morning if that would help.”
Your partner matters.
And you let them know it.
This post originally appeared at drmargaretrutherford.com. Reprinted with permission.
Photo: Getty Images