We were three couples out for dinner at a great new restaurant. While waiting for menus, Tom, a rabid movie buff, began reciting famous lines from films and asking us to guess their origins. Except for one Woody Allen flick, we missed them all.
"Okay, here's an easy one," he offered. "'Love means never having to say you're sorry.'"
"Love Story!" we practically shouted. It was almost too easy. Anyone who'd drawn breath in the early 70s couldn't possibly have missed Ali MacGraw's infamous deathbed words to Ryan O'Neal.
"I never did understand that," Caroline remarked, unfolding her napkin. "When you love somebody, you never do anything to make them unhappy, so you never have to apologize?"
Suzanne shook her head. "No way. It means you don't need an apology if you mess up because you have an understanding that goes beyond words." She flashed a grin at her husband and added, "It only works in movies though."
"You can say that again!" Tom agreed.
The men laughed conspiratorially, and the movie trivia game abruptly ended. We'd just stumbled across fertile, but untilled, conversational ground.
Between the six of us we've logged 78 collective years of marriage (Did I mention that we were very young in the 70s?) and not a one of us has made it through without plenty of apologies. Long experience has taught us that a sincere apology, well and simply stated, clears the air when somebody fails to love, honor and pick up the dry cleaning.
Ingrid Lawrenz, a therapist with New Life Resources in Waukesha, Wisconsin, agrees. "Taking responsibility is a sign of maturity," she says. "It's immature to get defensive or tell the other person they did something worse [than what you did]. Responsible acknowledgment staves off bitterness and sets the stage for change."
Change, of course, is the operative word. An apology without at least some semblance of improved behavior is as vacuous as a socialite's air kiss. For an apology to count, you have to express real remorse, want to change and then follow Nike's advice and "just do it."
"For years I would come home from work and hang my suit jacket on the back of the dining room chair," Tom admitted. "It made Suzanne crazy. Personally, I thought it was no big deal, but I'd always mumble 'Sorry.' Then the next day I'd do it again."
"It was so passive-aggressive," Suzanne contended. "And the apology only made it worse because we both knew he didn't care an iota."
All too true, Tom agreed. It wasn't until a similar situation popped up regarding the classical CDs he'd begun collecting that he got the point.
"It just wasn't important to me whether they all got back in their cases," Suzanne explained. "It's not like anything was happening to them. If they got a little dusty, I dusted them. But Tom saw it as a violation of the National Treasures."
Her husband readily agreed. He also noted that Suzanne's empty apologies had a certain familiar ring. "I told her I thought it was the dining room chair revisited. Finally we agreed that if something mattered to the other person, it mattered. Period. What did it really cost to put a coat in the closet or to stick a CD in a case? We still slip up, but at least we try. That's the big thing."
Ah, but what happens when the apologies continue but change never follows? That, we all agreed, is where things get dicey. For 20-some years, Eric and I have bickered about my inability to file documents. Our house looks like a page from Country Living, yet the closets, drawers, shelves and the top of my desk would give Martha Stewart the vapors.
"I'm sorry," I say when I can't find last year's income tax return. "It's here somewhere. I know it is."
And of course it is there somewhere, but that's not the point. The point is that I do not change. It's not that I don't try. I buy folders and plastic organizing trays. I've scanned books about organization. Once I even stopped writing in the middle of a deadline and watched an organizational expert on "Oprah." But any effort I make lasts maybe a week, tops.
"There's a certain amount of acceptance and forbearance that goes along with a relationship," says Lawrenz. "When change doesn't occur, we have two choices—either to be angry all the time or to work around the behavior."
Sometimes, she says, it's best to get off the apology train and take charge of what's bugging you instead of demanding that your spouse do it. "For example, if a husband who is perpetually late promises to be home in time to leave for a party and then doesn't make it, his wife is perfectly justified to leave a note saying she waited until the agreed upon time and then took her own car and will meet him there."
Tom agrees that apologies are only a beginning. "When you do apologize," he says, "you better be prepared to deliver the goods. Roses are nice, but it's been my experience that actions speak louder than flowers."
Ok, a heartfelt apology is definitely a good thing, especially when accompanied by change. But is it possible to apologize too much?
"Yes!" Caroline answered, punctuating the word with a wave of her fork. "If an apology goes on too long it turns into a rationalization or justification of the behavior. Make it short and sweet, and mean it."
"Yes," Caroline's husband, Garrett, agreed. "I spent the first ten years of our marriage apologizing for stuff I didn't even do."
But why? Lawrenz contends that couples fall into the habit of over-apologizing for many reasons. Justification of behavior is certainly one of them. But so is being a pleaser. Very often, she says, a pleaser and a blamer will team up because it feels normal to both of them. It's behavior they saw modeled as children, and they're comfortable with it. Contrary to popular belief, men can be pleasers and women can be blamers just as easily as the other way around.
The problem with apologizing when you don't believe you've done anything wrong is that you perpetuate the cycle of blame. While it's tempting to go for the quick fix—just say you're sorry and be done with it—the under lying issue never gets resolved. There's also a sense of control that comes from being a nonstop apologizer, Lawrenz says.
"If one person carries the shame in the marriage, he or she sometimes feels a kind of power. They say to themselves, 'I can make it better. I know I can. All I have to do is try harder.'"
Another much more universal reason for over-apologizing is simple misuse of the word "sorry." Just as we choose the word "love" to describe what we feel for both our spouse and the curtains in the Pottery Barn catalog, we say "I'm sorry" both when we really did something wrong and when we are trying to convey empathy. We say, "I'm sorry it rained for your company golf outing" and "I'm sorry you had a bad day at work" when what we really mean is, "I feel bad that those things happened to you."
Sounds nit-picky, perhaps, but, as Lawrenz points out, there is no way we can control the weather or the outcome of a mate's work day. All these unjustified sorrys add up, diluting the effect of the heartfelt, appropriate apologies that acknowledge times we've hurt or disappointed our partner.
The Quality of Mercy
Of course, the natural outcome of any sincere apology is supposed to be forgiveness. But how long do we have to wait to be forgiven?
"Depends," Suzanne said. "If I'm on the phone and accidentally burn dinner, I think that's an offense that should be forgiven pretty quickly compared to, say, if I deliberately told Tom's mother that he was thinking of leaving the family business when he'd asked me not to."
Yes, we all agreed, the seriousness of the issue is a huge factor, as is the depth of contrition and the effort to make amends or demonstrate positive change. But my husband brought up the fact that some personality types are quicker to get over their anger than others.
"I tend to need time," he said, "whereas Eileen can be mad as blazes one minute and happy as a clam five minutes later."
It definitely helps to know your spouse's style and try not to take pouting personally. If you know your mate needs time to regroup, then find something to do and give him or her some time. When asked about this issue, Lawrenz quoted from a sign that hangs in the waiting room of her office. It says, "I am not responsible for how others treat me, how others treat others or how others treat themselves. But I am responsible for how I treat others and how I treat myself."
"It rests in the other person's soul to forgive," she says. "You can't force it. It's very important to know when you've done your part."
Forgiveness is a process. Sometimes it comes quickly, sometimes it takes time. And sometimes it even comes before an apology is offered. The offending cat—or kid—does something cute, you laugh and poof! the annoyance is gone. The bottom line, however, is that you should not have to beg or grovel for mercy if you have responsibly owned up to your failings. God doesn't require it, and spouses shouldn't either.
After the waiter took our order, Tom hit us with one more trivia question.
"In the movie What's Up, Doc? what did Ryan O'Neal say when Barbra Streisand reminded him that love means never having to say you're sorry?"
Easy! He said what any married person would say: "That's the stupidest thing I ever heard!"
Eileen Silva Kindig lives in Ohio with her husband, Eric, and her daughter, Caitlin. She is the author of several books, including A Simply Beautiful Wedding (InterVarsity Press).
1999 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine. Click here for reprint information on Marriage Partnership.