According to the line from Erich Segal’s classic film “Love Story,” love means never having to say you’re sorry.
Which, quite frankly, has always baffled me.
In my experience, a sincere apology is a truly loving act—a way of showing that we recognise the significance of the other person’s feelings. That we understand that their feelings are just as important as our own and that they have a right to have these acknowledged and respected.
Of course, apologising isn’t always easy, but it shows that we care enough to make the effort. Often, the harder it is to say “I’m sorry,” the more necessary it is to do so.
A heart-centred apology—which makes it clear that we don’t intend to repeat our hurtful behaviour—is often the only way to stop a strained situation from deteriorating into something much worse.
How many couples would still be together if one of them had managed to break the cycle of ongoing arguments by apologising for snapping at their partner? How many long-standing family feuds would have been avoided if someone had picked up the phone and said, “I shouldn’t have lost my temper. I apologise. I won’t do that again.”
The importance of sincerity
Let me make it clear that I’m not saying that an insincere apology, meant only to appease someone, is a worthwhile thing. For me that devalues the nature of a real one.
I remember as a child that my father once refused to speak to me for three days because I wouldn’t apologise to him. After a family picnic, he’d discarded a glass jar in a stretch of woodland, and I’d just learnt at school that small animals could get stuck in jars and die. I protested that this was a silly thing for him to do and my father took umbrage at the word “silly.”
Eventually my mother tried to intervene, asking me to make a brief apology to my father, but I stuck my ground. I told her there was no way I was apologising for something where I knew I’d done nothing wrong. My mother accepted my answer and convinced my father that he needed to let it go.
A great example
My mother was a fair woman and it was her fairness that taught me the value of a real apology. Once, when my mother and I had an argument, I felt hurt. I pointed this out to her and she apologised to me for losing her temper. I remember how impressed I was that she’d done this. My considerable respect for my mother went up several notches.
So I grew up believing that when you apologise for something, you are not giving away any of your own power or dignity, but simply expressing regret that you have done something you wished you hadn’t.
When I hear people say that you should never have to apologise, I find this sad. Of course it’s wrong to be forced to apologise or feel you always have to apologise in order to keep the peace in a relationship. However, many of us do and say things in the heat of the moment, which we regret afterward, and if we expect the other person to constantly overlook our behaviour, we are not exactly being respectful to their sense of self.
Cashing in your stamps
I’ve come across couples where one partner regularly downloads the anger for everything that has gone wrong in their day, onto their partner. In Transactional Analysis (TA) that’s known as “stamp collecting.” A person goes through their day metaphorically storing up all the things that have gone wrong for them, as though they were collecting a card full of free coffee stamps. When their card is full they “cash it in,” which usually means letting off steam at someone who has caused them some trivial inconvenience, because it feels like the final straw to the stamp collector. (Remember that woman on the bus who let rip because you accidentally brushed against her? She was most likely cashing in a brimming card of stamps.)
So, for example, let’s say someone is cooking and forgets to check on the dish in the oven and it burns a little, and their partner behaves as though they’ve murdered all the children and drowned the family dog. If this situation remains unresolved, then by bedtime it’s likely that an unpleasant atmosphere will be brewing. When this goes on evening after evening, things will likely start to unravel in that relationship.
Options for change
There are a number of options here, but the important thing is that something needs to give and an apology can open up the way for this. It can come from the partner who recognises that they’ve overreacted and who says, “Sorry. That was unfair of me. I’ve had a bad day at work and I’m dumping my feelings on you. You go sit down and I’ll sort out the rest of the meal.” That way our apology is accompanied by an action, which shows we want to make some kind of amends for our unfair outburst.
It can also work the other way. If we know that our partner is having a really difficult time and that we could have been a bit more attentive to the cooking and a little less absorbed in our phone, then we can try something like: “I’m sorry. I realise that I wasn’t keeping enough of an eye on the food. You had a right to be upset after you’d done all the shopping and all the preparation, and I know you’ve had a difficult day at work. It was thoughtless of me. Why don’t you go and watch the TV and I will finish the rest of the meal.”
Of course, there is never a guarantee that our apology will be accepted. We’ve probably all been in situations where someone says, “You think you can just apologise and that’s going to make it okay!” When that happens, we do need to look at the sincerity of our apology and whether we are really committed to not doing the same thing again. The other person may need time to consider our apology and how they want to react to it.
If we’ve done something they consider unforgivable then maybe we will never get that forgiveness. However, if we don’t make a sincere apology, then it’s far less likely they will ever consider forgiving us, and at least we know we’ve tried to put things right.
Some tips for making a powerful apology
>> Forget anything you were taught about tough guys never saying they’re sorry. It can take courage to apologise, and a clumsy but heartfelt apology shows consideration of the other person’s feelings.
>> Don’t apologise if you really don’t feel sorry and have no intention of making any form of change.
>> Don’t include anything in an apology that sounds defensive or has another agenda. “I’m sorry, but you’ve done this so many times before and…” is not an apology but an expression of your feelings.
>> Consider your words when you know you’ve hurt someone’s feelings but you had absolutely no intention of doing so. People have different views about the best way to handle this with authenticity, but sometimes a simple “I’m sorry that I have hurt you. Please know that it was never my intention to do so…” can open up an opportunity to have a healing conversation.
>> Pay attention to your language when you apologise. Just as it’s important to avoid inflammatory words such as “never” and “always” and generalisations such as “you never listen to me,” when you want to express that you’re upset, so is it important to avoid them when you apologise. “I realise I’ve screwed up several times recently” is better than something like “I know you always get upset when X happens…” It’s not going to help someone forgive you if they think you’re implying they are neurotically overreacting.
>> Remember that a true apology contains a commitment to making some form of change in the future.
Relationships are about give and take and none of us gets it right all the time, but the power of apology gives us the opportunity to make amends, revitalise relationships, and keep things on a positive note.