Love means saying you’re sorry-7 tips to make things right

by Leah McClellan

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There’s an old song by The Sounds of Sunshine called “Love means (you never have to say you’re sorry).” You might know that line better from the 1970 movie Love Story, which was the inspiration for the song.

I don’t know the song very well, and I saw the movie on TV awhile back and barely remember what it was about. But that line stuck with me because, no matter how I look at it, it doesn’t make sense.

When you love someone, it doesn’t mean you won’t slip up and do something foolish (or worse) and need to apologize.

And no matter how much two people love each other, that doesn’t mean an apology isn’t ever needed. Quite the contrary. We’re all so imperfect and different from one another—no matter how similar or how well-matched as lovers or friends—and we all make mistakes once in awhile. And if we don’t apologize sincerely when we’ve hurt someone, no matter how slightly, what does that mean?

For me, when I realize I’ve let someone down or stuck my foot in my mouth and hurt someone, even inadvertently, I feel it.

Something like compassion or empathy rises up in me when I become aware of the damage I may have done. I want to undo it, clean up my mess, fix things. The best way I know to undo something (that can’t really be undone) is to apologize—sincerely.

Sometimes it’s a small matter. Maybe I’ve jostled someone while getting on a train or I don’t have time to join a friend for lunch. In these cases, just a quick “I’m sorry” is all that’s needed to let people know they matter and that I have goodwill for them despite my blundering imperfections or things beyond my control.

“I’m sorry” is sometimes just a sign of respect and an acknowledgment that someone else exists and is just as important as I am.

Apologizing makes the world a nicer place. What does it feel like when someone bumps into you (or commits some other minor offense) and just keeps on going, literally or figuratively? What if that happened ten or twenty times a day?

To me, most of the time what was done is no big deal. How it’s handled—the attitude—is what’s important.

What about the big things?

You forgot someone’s birthday. You broke a promise. You didn’t do what you said you would do. You didn’t do what someone else, fairly enough, expected from you. You said or did something mean, whether carelessly, in anger, or for some other reason. You let someone down. Someone’s hurting, and it’s because of something you’ve done. What can you do?

Here is what I’ve learned about three little words—I am sorry—that can mean so much.

1. Apologize when you realize you’ve done something insensitive or unkind, whether or not someone complains. Plenty of people won’t tell you when they’re hurt. A quick but sincere “I’m sorry” can push darkening clouds away to let the sun shine again.

2. Apologize for what you’ve done, not for the other person’s reaction. For example, say “I’m sorry for mentioning that at the party. Is there anything I can do to make it up to you?” Don’t say, “I’m sorry your feelings are hurt” or “I’m sorry you were embarrassed.” That’s not taking responsibility for your actions. In fact, with a certain tone, it can mean quite the opposite. It won’t hurt to mention that you feel badly about hurting or embarrassing someone, but don’t make it the focus of the apology.

3. Never placate. To placate simply means to pacify or smooth things over or do something just to appease someone’s anger. Don’t say you’re sorry unless you truly regret your actions and you’re sincere. Placating is self-serving, nobody really likes it, and there’s little value in it over the long run.

4. Focus on the other person, not yourself. Beating yourself up is not the same as an apology, and wailing about how stupid you are (or whatever) only makes things worse because it forces the other person to pay attention to you and your problems instead of getting over what you did or said. Do what you can for the other person’s comfort or needs. If an explanation is appropriate, offer it, but do so with the intention of comforting the hurt person—to gain his or her understanding to lessen the blow—not to get his or her pity.

5. Avoid over-apologizing. Don’t make “I’m sorry” your middle name because of constant worry about offending someone. Be confident and learn where the boundaries are in most situations. Develop your knowledge of your own moral compass, and be familiar with other people’s rules and boundaries. That way, you’ll know when you’ve stepped over the line and when an apology is appropriate.

6. Accept an apology gracefully, no matter how minor the situation is. Don’t laugh it off or make a joke of it. When someone apologizes sincerely, he or she is vulnerable. He’s opening himself up and saying “Hey, I’m imperfect, and I did something wrong. I care about you, and I hope you’ll accept me anyway, warts and all.” A simple, “That’s OK, I understand—thanks” will do when it’s something minor, and a discussion might be in order for something major. And remember the saying “to err is human, to forgive divine.

7. Give the other person time to process the hurtful deed and your apology, especially if it’s something big, and remember that how “big” something is depends on the person involved. Don’t expect immediate forgiveness or that everything will be just fine right away. Be patient with someone’s feelings, especially anger, and don’t lash back. Ask if there’s anything you can do to make things better. Answer questions and explain, and demonstrate your sincerity by not repeating the action, whatever it was.

In many cases, a simple but sincere apology is all that’s needed to make things right again when they’ve gone wrong.

You might have some explaining to do, though, and your best bet is to just be honest. Why get defensive and counterattack or make excuses or do anything other than say “I’m sorry” when you’ve done something that hurt, confused, or made life difficult for someone? Just get real, say you’re sorry, explain and reassure as needed, and be done with it. Don’t get into an argument over it, and don’t do it again.

What about you? What are your tips for handling difficult situations when you’ve done someone hurtful or something difficult was done to you? How do you handle a false accusation or something really, really big? Comments are always welcome.

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{ 8 comments }

Joe Wilner

Leah,

Very helpful post! Knowing when we have hurt another and getting a sense of remorse is what keeps the human race from falling apart. In this sense, remorse is a positive thing, and learning to apologize and say we’re sorry is a necessary capability. You mentioned empathy which is the first character trait people need to have. If we can sense how others feel we gain develop greater social and emotional intelligence.

Leah McClellan

Hi Joe, Great way to put it. If we didn’t have compassion and empathy of some sort, we would never have a civilization or a culture or nation or any way to have a group of people live together. I think what stops a lot of people from apologizing is ego issues, pride, need to be right, fear of “punishment ” in some form even if just loss of face (or maybe going back to childhood and triggers and that sort of thing)….so many things. Thanks for stopping by.

Arvind Devalia

Leah, that line from “Love Story” has also always bugged me.

Love means having to sorry over and over again for all the hurt we cause our loved ones, both intentionally and without knowing.

I have found that apologising with sincerity and authentically means a lot to the other person. People really get it when you are coming from the heart and truly mean your apology.

Of course, one should apologise without any expectations – if you have really screwed up, then be prepared to live with the repercussions, no matter how painful.
Arvind Devalia´s last blog post ..10 Top Relationship Tips for the Royal Couple

Leah McClellan

Hi Arvind,

Glad I’m not the only one. You remind me of how, over the years, I might be upset with someone or hurt by words or actions, but all I’ve ever needed is a sincere apology…how can I stay upset when someone is truly sorry? Of course, it’s my job to handle my emotions/reactions and so on but still, an “I’m sorry” really goes a long way.

And you’re right; an apology doesn’t guarantee forgiveness and we shouldn’t apologize with any expectation for ourselves or not think there won’t be repercussions. The point is to help the other person heal, not to get something. Thanks for stopping by :)

Angela Artemis

Leah,
Seeing that movie when I was teenager had a hugely negative impact on what I thought relationships were supposed to be like. Of course we’re supposed to be say we’re sorry and own up to whatever it was we did. These types of messages rattle around in the mind for years and “run” our behavior until we realize what’s happening. Great post!
Angela Artemis´s last blog post ..Do You Have “Technology Intuition”

Leah McClellan

Hi Angela,

Very interesting point you make. We get so influenced by movies and songs but, at the same time, the people who create the movies and songs are just passing along a message that’s already prevalent in the culture. And we run our lives by it–well put–exactly. I have a book called Love Knots that goes over all these hidden assumptions in relationships, in particular; I should do a post on that. Or maybe a post on all the songs that have influenced me! :)

Joy

Thank you for sharing! Sometimes people carelessly use “I’m sorry”…children are often taught to quickly apologize by throwing out those two words..and I understand the gesture, but often the meaning is not there. In my life, and what I’ve taught my children, is when I’m sorry is applicable a hurt is present, so do what you may to fix that hurt. Sorry doesn’t mend what is broken, but it does open the door to healing..And yes, we are imperfect, but we may work on living mindfully aware so that I love you is most often heard and practiced and I’m sorry is very infrequently needed:)

Leah McClellan

Hi Joy, I agree, if the meaning isn’t there–regret and a desire to help someone heal from our hurtful actions–then there’s really no point. And “I love you” is much better than a need to say we’re sorry!

Thanks for stopping by :)

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