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Dr. Margaret Rutherford Headshot

3 Vital Reasons to Say 'I'm Sorry'

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"Love means you never have to say you're sorry."

That was the theme of the hit movie Love Story with Ali McGraw and Ryan O'Neal back in 1970. Those words were emblazoned on a poster of the two of them, which my 16-year-old self had taped up on my wall. I couldn't wait to get into a relationship where all was understood. You just couldn't mess up. How heavenly was that going to be!

Well... it just doesn't work that way.

Love means you say you're sorry and you mean it. Sincerely.

Not, "I'm sorry but..." Just "I'm sorry."

There was a great article in the Wall Street Journal recently on just this topic, written by Elizabeth Bernstein. She outlines five steps in "good" apologizing, with quotes from experts around the country.

Many people find apologizing very difficult. Most of them grew up in families where no one apologized. For anything. It is viewed as giving up way too much control. Like somehow you are taking a one-down position by uttering such words.

In a long-term relationship like marriage, you are going to screw up. It may be something fairly insignificant. Maybe not. You are going to be disappointing. Frustrating at times.

That's just part of it. If you are happy in that marriage, there are things that balance that out. Good things. Fantastic, warm, loving things.

I remember asking my husband one time (he hates these discussions...) if he would tell me what disappointed him about me. Just in general.

He grimaced. "I don't know."

So I told him what I thought were the probable culprits -- things I knew were not his favorite aspects of my personality. He smiled. "Well, now that you mention it..."

Those disappointments are tolerated in a good, healthy marriage. On both sides.

So why is apologizing one of the simple things you can do to help your relationship?

1. You recognize your behavior has an impact on those around you. What you say. What you don't say. Do. Don't do. It reflects that you notice that impact. And care about the person you may have unintentionally hurt or disappointed.

If the hurt is intentional? Then you have a problem in your relationship that is even deeper.

2. You avoid the cycle of fighting about who is right. There are many of us who struggle with admitting that unless a discussion is about something extremely factual, like what you ate for breakfast, we only have our perceptions to guide our opinions.

Your perception. Your truth. But not everybody else's.

If you fight about who is right all the time, you might not make it. The person who ends being "wrong" feels defensive. Not understood. And may likely fight harder next time just so he or she can win.

Both people end being lonely in their positions.

3. You build trust. It's just that simple. You are taking responsibility for your part. You are giving to someone else what it feels good to receive. It is inevitable that I am going to be disappointing from time to time, even if it's not for some egregious behavior. Maybe just because I am really busy. Or I forgot to stop by the pharmacy.

Recognizing the impact that has on my partner? It's a wonderful gift to give.

Not a loss of status. Not a loss of power. A gift.

A simple statement. "I'm sorry I forgot to go by and pick up those meds. I can do it tomorrow morning if that would help."

Your partner matters.

And you let them know it.


Would love to hear your comments on this! You can read more of Dr. Margaret at http://drmargaretrutherford.com. Thanks for reading!