In 1970 Erich Segal wrote the book Love Story, which was turned into a blockbuster movie starring Ali McGraw and Ryan O’Neal. The most famous line in the movie arguably was, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry”. I would beg to differ with that sentiment, however, and would suggest that instead love means learning how to say “I’m sorry”.
None of us is so perfect that we will never make a mistake or by virtue of neglect or oversight never treat someone poorly. Breaches in a relationship are common and most of the time we recover and move on. Whether it be with a life partner, child, parent, sibling, friend, or acquaintance, recovering from a relationship rift may depend on the nature of our apology. But, what characterizes a good apology?
Janis Abrahms Spring, Ph.D., in her book, How Can I Forgive You?, recommends several guidelines for a good apology: First, she recommends taking responsibility for oneself. She suggests that in order for an apology to take hold we must first acknowledge our role. Second, she recommends making our apology personal. It’s not just that we did something wrong, but we did something wrong to you. Third, she suggests making our apology specific. We need to describe exactly what we are apologizing for. Fourth, she emphasizes the importance of making the apology heartfelt. Sometimes, she writes, “we apologize well, but to rid ourselves of our own guilt, to make our lives easier, or to avoid conflict…” But, we need to apologize to the other person, not just to save ourselves. In her book, Abrahms Spring gives examples of some bad apologies. Saying things like: “I’m sorry for whatever I did wrong” or “I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings”, or “I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry” (but don’t ask me why) are examples of not taking responsibility for our own actions in an honest and specific way. These types of apologies do not lay the groundwork for relationship repair or possibly even for relationship growth.
Those of us who are parents or who work with children recognize the importance of teaching them how to take responsibility for themselves and develop empathy. Teaching them how to say “I’m sorry” is an important skill in furthering these goals. We can do this by modeling how to give an appropriate apology and by apologizing to our children when we have aggrieved them. When we apologize we would want to be genuine and take responsibility. In order to learn from the experience and grow the relationship it may also be helpful to discuss ways to avoid making the same mistake again.
When we are apologizing it is also important to realize that we cannot control the response of the person we are apologizing to. That person may or may not accept our apology, may need more time, or may even suggest that we will never be forgiven. Expecting a certain response may affect our own apology or our behavior consequent to our apology. Remembering that each person is responsible for his or her own behavior is a healthy part of all relationships.
No matter how much we love someone, or in general get along, there will inevitably be rifts in our relationships. Learning to take responsibility for ourselves and genuinely apologize when we have hurt someone or have behaved unjustly is essential for relationship repair and growth. We are not born knowing how to apologize. This is a learned behavior that can be nurtured in ourselves and in our children.
Marcia Kaufman, Ph.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist