“Love means you never have to say you’re sorry.”
Those words were emblazoned on a poster that hung in my room in my high school years. Ali McGraw and Ryan O-Neal, stars of the hit movie “Love Story,” were blissfully gazing into a future of no conditions or expectations. My sixteen year-old self couldn’t wait to get into a relationship where all was understood, you couldn’t mess up, and you’d be accepted…completely and fully. True love would make hurting each other impossible because our intentions would never be questioned.
Whoever came up with that notion must not have had very successful relationships. Why? Because now I know what I didn’t know then. Love means you say you’re sorry and you mean it sincerely. And you say it a lot.
Honest apologies are part and parcel of being mindful in a relationship. None of us can walk around in relationships without stepping on the toes of those we love, no matter how unintentionally. When you apologize, you recognize that fact. You’re aware. You’re mindful. You value how your partner feels.
Not “I’m sorry but…“. No excuses or rationalizations. Simply, “I’m sorry.”
Can non-apology turn into manipulation? You bet…
You may have grown up in a family where no one apologized — for anything. It was viewed as giving up too much control, as if you would be taking a subordinate position by uttering such words. No one ever apologized to you as a child, and nobody took the time or made the effort to remember that you might be confused or afraid or disappointed.
This left you not only hurt, but also with uncertainty as to when, how, or why do apologize to others. What does that look like now that you are an adult? You may seem aloof, hard to approach, or even self-righteous, always defending your actions as justifiable.
If it’s your partner that won’t apologize, it can be pretty miserable. They’re never wrong and never admit to misperceptions or outright lies. Instead they admonish you, perhaps harshly, that your own reality is off. If it goes too far, it can morph into emotional manipulation, or what’s termed “gaslighting,” part of a narcissistic personality. Someone with narcissistic traits needs to control and govern your thinking, and may work to undermine your own sense of reality.
What has to change?
You can retrain your mind. You can begin to accept that an apology, and the humility that goes along with it, is not only a good thing but also something that leads to a much more solid relationship. And a healthier you.
Because let’s face it — you’re going to screw up. Nobody is perfect; mistakes will be made. Your transgression may be something fairly insignificant…or maybe not. Regardless, you’re going to be disappointing, and even frustrating at times.
It’s part of being a human being. If you both are relatively happy in your marriage or partnership, there are things that balance out the difficulties of sharing a life with another person. Fantastic, warm, loving things.
Once in the middle of a seemingly ordinary conversation, I asked my husband if he would tell me what disappoints or frustrations he had about me. He was a bit horrified, like I’d asked him to recite the Constitution, “I don’t know,” was his guarded reply, likely fearing that I’d get mad upon hearing his answer.
So I launched into telling him what I thought were the probable culprits. He smiled, realizing this was going to be a safer conversation than he’d imagined. ”Well, now that you mention it…“
Three gifts of saying “I’m sorry…”
Why is apologizing one of the simple things you can do to help your relationship?
1) You recognize your behavior has an impact on those around you. What you say. What you don’t say. Do. Don’t do. All of that affects the people who are involved with you.
Apologizing reflects that you notice that impact, and that you care about the person you may have unintentionally hurt or disappointed. If the hurt you inflicted upon them is intentional? Then you have a problem in your relationship that’s even deeper.
2) You’re avoiding 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 own perceptions to guide our opinions.
If you fight about who is right all the time, the entire relationship can become adversarial – a battle zone with constant conflict. The person who ends being “wrong” feels defensive, and may fight harder next time, just so he or she can win the next battle. Both people end being lonely in their positions.
3) You’re building trust.
When you say you’re sorry, you’re choosing vulnerability. You’re admitting remorse or regret. You’re giving the person you love the message that they are more important than your own pride. And that is a powerful message to give, and to receive.
It’s inevitable that you’re going to be disappointing from time to time, even if it’s not for some egregious behavior. Maybe you put off going to the grocery store, meaning peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are all there is for dinner. Maybe it’s because you’re too tired one Friday night to watch a movie together – a plan that you’d had all week. Maybe you forgot to pay the credit card bill on time so when your partner uses it, it’s declined.
All human mistakes.
Saying “I’m sorry?” You’re building trust.
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Originally published on November 17, 2019; updated and republished on October 3, 2021.