Katherine Feeney July 04, 2012
Apologies get better with practice.
This is one expression of 2½ words that wields fantastic power. Not saying you are sorry can kill an entire relationship. Saying sorry falsely can poison pure love. And saying sorry to ears unwilling can feel like a harpoon to the heart.
But an apology only goes so far without forgiveness. Is forgiveness a condition of love? If you cannot accept an apology, does that mean your relationship is over?
Fresh research from Stanford University, published in the Journal of Social Relationships, aims to answer these questions, and the findings have interesting if not unexpected consequences for anyone who has ever had to beg or give forgiveness.
From the diaries of 60 committed relationships each rated from within on a scale of satisfaction, social psychologist Karina Schumann found the more happily-in-love a person was, the more likely they were to forgive and be forgiven.
Schumann suggests it’s because people highly satisfied with their relationship perceive their partner’s apologies are “sincere expressions of remorse,” rather than some fickle throwaway line barely coloured by truth.
And while the paper makes for interesting reading, it’s the title question that really got me thinking:
Does love mean never having to say you're sorry?
There’s an art to apologising. There is an art to forgiveness as well. Sometimes, the art is inspired by ‘dark’ motivations – a desire to fool rather than repent – which doesn’t diminish the skilfulness, but does threaten positive outcomes.
But from a good and honest perspective – the ideal place to come from – the art is about forgoing ego for the sake of the other. It’s about saying ‘I’m sorry’ without a ‘but’, and asking for forgiveness without expectation.
Like any fine art, it takes practice and time. Natural ability goes some way, but even raw talent can be improved by regular application.
Unfortunately, we aren’t encouraged to apologise, or forgive. Not properly anyway. ‘Say you’re sorry’ a teacher might to a squalling pair, though the louder message is ‘do as I say, and you won’t be punished by me, a third party, who wasn’t injured by your actions in the first place’.
Meanwhile, forgiveness is thought of as a favour. Something granted, not something gained.
All this occurs largely because ego is more readily revered than relinquished today. We are told to cling on to our selfs and fend off attacks from the others. We focus on boosting our confidence by boosting our self esteem, by putting ‘me’ first and putting the ‘I’ in individual.
In short, we live in a culture of selfishness, not selflessness. This makes for clumsy apologisers. And even clumsier lovers.
For how many relationships are ruined because people cannot do this? How many chances at love are ripped from the realm of reality because someone couldn’t say sorry, and someone else couldn’t forgive?
Too many, I believe.
But does love mean never having to say you're sorry?
In the sense that true love requires pure selflessness, yes - but this is romantic perfection. It is something to aim for, not something to anticipate on average. Saying sorry can be a very big and good part of a relationship when it encourages active thought about the impact of your behaviour on your lover. Apologies also allow for forgiveness, which can bring a couple closer than ever.
We all make mistakes.
It’s how we recover that counts.
Do you think you know how to apologise? Do you know how to forgive? What do these words mean to you? And how have they impacted on your relationships?