"Love means never having to say you're sorry." This line from Love Story by Erich Segal has become a clichéd catchphrase. It sounds romantic—but it's blatantly false. Intimacy inevitably involves hurt feelings and disappointments, but they can build up into grievances unless there are repairs along the way. For love to have the best chance of lasting, you sometimes have to say you're sorry—and mean it! But this is not easy. Some people can't apologize at all, while others give facile apologies, "I'm sorry you feel that way." It communicates: I didn't do anything wrong AND you have no reason to feel that way. It's a conversation stopper and it chips away at trust.
A full apology involves two elements: taking responsibility for playing some part in the other person's hurt AND being sorry the other person is hurting. An even better apology has a third element: an explanation of your motives or situation.
My patient, Sharon, got angry at her husband for not having dinner ready when she came home from work, as he usually does. In the past, she has not apologized for her outburst or she has said something perfunctory such as, "Sorry...that was bad." But this time, after working on this in treatment, she regretted her outburst and wanted to heal the rift. She said, "I'm sorry I yelled at you, you didn't deserve that. I didn't take the time to eat lunch and I was starving and took it out on you."
But what do you do if you believe you did nothing wrong, and yet the other person is hurt and angry? This is a situation I often face as a psychotherapist. For example, Paul was hurt and angry because he felt I didn't believe him when he said he didn't want to break up with a woman he was no longer interested in because he didn't want to hurt her. I didn't think he was lying, but I DID think he had a subconscious motive—he liked having her adoration even though he wasn't interested in having a long-term relationship. He didn't want to lose her admiration; but he wanted to get rid of any obligations or demands from her. He didn't like that interpretation because it made him seem less selfless than his explanation for delaying the breakup. It's painful to own being selfish. So he got angry at me. How can I heal the connection between us, which is the most important ingredient in helping him, without apologizing for something I think is right?
"I am sorry I hurt you. I know it's painful to look at things we do that we're not proud of and I probably could have said it in a softer way. It goes against the way we see ourselves. I understand that from my own experience. It means giving up a fantasy about who we are and that's a big loss. I get that." It says, I'm sorry you're hurt, I'm sorry I caused you pain; you are not the only person in the world who has trouble with this (it's normal and I have trouble with it too) AND I don't think you are bad." He was still hurt and angry—but he was able to stay connected to me.
Some people are lucky and grow up with parents who are models for apologizing appropriately. But for the rest of us, we have to learn it. We may be able to develop it with our friends or spouses. But often our spouses or friends are not any better equipped for taking responsibility than we are—maybe even less so. So for those who never had a role model growing up, and cannot develop it with their friends or partners, psychotherapists must be good role models. For example, if a patient thinks I am being judgmental and I am, I admit it and apologize. And when Paul tells me that I could have said, "Everybody has trouble ending a relationship, it's hard, but..." He's right. I could have said it better and I'm sorry I didn't.
This is essential because the connection between us is primary and has to be maintained. Also, when I can admit wrongdoing and apologize without the patient leaving, he learns that he can admit wrongdoing and apologize without losing someone he cares about.