This article is part of the Why Couples Fight Series
"Love Means Never Having to Say You're Sorry" is a silly little chestnut from the 1970 movie Love Story.
In 2005, I regret to report that it was voted number 13 of the 100 all-time most memorable movie quotes by the American Film Institute.
That is unfortunate.
Because from a science-based couples therapy perspective, I can tell you that: "Love Means Never Having to Say You're Sorry" is incomprehensible BS.
The science says that if you have let your partner down...lean into your spouse and understand the impact, and say you are sorry. Say so with empathy and compassion. A marital apology is more than simply saying "I'm sorry." An apology is an attempt to admit you hurt your partner's feelings, did something really unwise, made a regrettable choice, etc.
When you apologize, you are accepting full responsibility. Trying to justify or rationalize the error is defensiveness and not an authentic apology.
Some partners apologize because they just want to wiggle out of the problem, or aspire to be seen in the best possible light (this is certainly my personal growing edge). Sometimes it's hard not to squirm under the hot spotlight of our own limitations. Focusing on your own needs when you apologize isn't really offering an authentic heartfelt apology.
Some spouses apologize in order to bulldoze the past behind them and push the reset button ("How many freakin' times do I have to tell you I'm sorry?").
But many partners choose to apologize because they are genuinely sorry for their behavior, are willing to accept responsibility. They seek to repair and make amends. Love means having to say you are sorry in a heartfelt and connected way.
It's appropriate to express shame, regret or guilt. But it should be healthy shame-focused on the harm done to your partner, and not a toxic shame which seeks comfort from your already injured partner. A key aspect of an appropriate apology is a clear and abiding focus on what you are specifically willing to do to make things right again.
You should declare your pledge to not repeat the offending behavior again. Whatever you decide to do to make amends, make sure it is significant and something that you will do without hesitation.
The Art of the Apology is to Admit It... But Say it... Don't Spray it.
The foundation of an apology is to admit that your behavior hurts your partner. The trouble is, many apologies fail to do this in a way that is both clean and clear. Apologies tend to land well if you show that you understand the extent of your responsibility, exactly how your partner was harmed, and the nature of the attachment injury.
Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist. He currently sees couples at Couples Therapy Inc. in Boston, Massachusetts, three seasons in Cummington (at the foothills of the Berkshires...) and in Miami during joint retreats with his wife, Dr. Kathy McMahon. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and the Developmental Model in his approaches.
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