“Love means you never have to say you’re sorry.”

Those words were emblazoned on a poster of Ali McGraw and Ryan O-Neal, the tragic lovers from the 1970 hit “Love Story,” which my sixteen year-old self had absorbed with teenage belief. I couldn’t wait to get into a relationship where all was understood and you couldn’t mess up. How heavenly was that going to be!

Well… it doesn’t work that way, because love means you say you’re sorry and you mean it. Sincerely.

So much of the time, however, even those words become something that sparks conflict and misunderstanding.  Why? Here are three reasons.

The three culprits of a “bad apology”…

First, they’re said to defend or even blame. These are the, “I’m sorry but….”s. The “but” tries to completely justify the fact that you hurt someone.

I’m sorry but I was doing the best I could.” (This one is repeated by a lot of parents when confronted by their adult children….) Or, “I’m sorry but you wouldn’t shut up.” Can you hear the justification? I bet you can. 

Second, they’re said to discount or even gaslight the way someone else feels and are usually meant to stop the conversation dead in its tracks.

“I’m sorry you feel that way.” And that’s it. No more discussion. “I’m sorry you’re upset. There’s no reason to be.” Whew… this is definitely a move to pull the rug up from someone’s perception of what happened. 

Third, and even worse, is the insincere or sarcastic apology. How many times have I heard, “Well, you said you were sorry, but it didn’t sound as if you meant it at all.” And you didn’t. You said it to appease, to get out of the situation, or even as a way of putting someone else down for being “too emotional” or “too fragile.”

“I’m sorry. Did I hurt your feelings again?” Those two words can cut to the quick if said in an almost cruel, uncaring way. 

Let’s face it. Many people find sincere apologies very difficult. Perhaps they grew up in families where no one apologized for anything because it was viewed as giving up way too much control. Or perhaps the belief is that you’re being weak by accepting responsibility for a problem or conflict.

The inevitability of disappointment or hurt….

However, in a long-term relationship like marriage or friendship, you’re going to make mistakes. You’re going to be disappointing, frustrating, and perhaps do something truly hurtful. And so will your partner.

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 suspects – 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 of the aisle. 

And yet, a good apology is one of the most simple things you can do to help your relationship. And even more than that, can help you grow your own sense of integrity. Here are three ideas for you to consider. 

Building integrity through an apology…

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. What you do. Or don’t do. Apologizing  reflects that you notice and understand that impact, and that you care about the person you’ve unintentionally hurt or disappointed.

If the hurt is intentional? Then you have a much deeper and more 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 is your truth, but not everybody else’s.

If you fight about who is right all the time, your relationship 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. And both people end being lonely in their positions.

3) Saying you’re sorry builds trust and mutual respect.

It’s simple. You’re taking responsibility for your part. You’re telling the other that they matter. You’re giving to someone else what it feels good to receive. It’s inevitable that I’m 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’d asked me to run.

Recognizing and respecting the impact that has on others?  It’s not a loss of status. Not a loss of power. Not an admission of weakness. 

It’s a gift that comes to be trusted. It’s a gift that’s given out of respect for the relationship. 

And it’s a gift that reflects your own integrity.

You can hear more about relationships and many other topics by listening to Dr. Margaret’s new podcast, SelfWork with Dr. Margaret Rutherford. Subscribe to this website and receive her weekly posts as well as her podcasts, plus Dr. Margaret’s eBook, “Seven Commandments of Good Therapy.”

Originally published on October 15, 2016 and updated on January 11, 2019.