The Healing Power of Remorse: In the 1970 movie, “Love Story”, the line “Love means never having to say you’re sorry” became universally famous. The movie, based on the eponymous book by Erich Segal, popularized the concept, furthered bolstered by the pop psychology of the era, that true love required an unconditional acceptance of the beloved, regardless of other factors. A false notion indeed. Love in the Coupledom requires far more than the magical wishes of the childish notion of acceptance. In fact, love in the Coupledom is sharply determined by how one is treated in the relationship. Behavior is the measure of love, not words nor wishes.
You Know that I Love You: How do you know that someone actually loves you? Flowers, diamonds, sex and vows. Not quite. It is all in the behaviors. How we treat others really represents not only how we feel about them, but also who we are. The oft stated expression of “You know that I love you honey” typically follows bad behavior. When a member of the Coupledom hurts his/her partner, either by what she/he did or didn’t do, the opportunity for mature love knocks at the door. Healing power moves like a gentle stream through the process of listening to the hurt partner, imagining yourself in their shoes, and genuinely feeling remorse as expressed in the words ” I am so sorry that I hurt you”. Several things are at work here. Conveying understanding and sincere regret that the person you love feels pained by something you said or did not only soothes but may, over time, help to restore trust. Whether it be the betrayal of an affair, or a pattern of forgetting promises, a birthday or picking up the pizza, only a sincere grasp of the meaning of that behavior to your partner can begin the process of healing and attachment so necessary to the Coupledom.
Some Can Do It and Mean It. Some Can’t Do It. Some Can Do It and Don’t Mean It: Which one are you? Which one is your partner? In my work with couples, I am struck by how often this ability is split right down the middle. One member of the Coupledom is the apologizer. The other almost never says the “S” word. One reason seems to stem from the belief that saying you are sorry is admitting that you are bad and the other one is good, a dangerously mistaken notion. Other misconceptions that render harm to the Coupledom are those of winner and loser, a leg up or a leg down, higher and lower ground. Having the edge or losing it. Or simply the embarrassment of having to acknowledge an imperfection….oops, guess I am not perfect after all. Bravo!
Clarification of the “S” Word: Saying that you are sorry is not stating that you are bad. Nor does it make you less, inferior or the loser. Nor is it giving your partner leverage over you. Rather, it expresses an understanding that something you did has caused discomfort or pain to your partner. It doesn’t connote intention to hurt. It connotes understanding and regret. “I am sorry that I forgot to tell you that my mother is coming over tonight”. Underlying that apology can be a new understanding. “I can see that this can look like I didn’t care about your feelings. I am sorry for that and will be sure to give you a heads up next time.” Simple. You are not admitting intention… just the appreciation that your attitude felt hurtful. It is never the detail but the meaning to the partner of that detail.
Competition in The Coupledom: Often a couple develops a competitive attitude towards their interactions, each laying claim to the “good one” position. Sibling-like in its tone, a couple can fight about who does more, cares more or loves more. This is a recurrent theme in the couples that I see and undermines their ability to hear each other and successfully grapple with the impact of their choices on their partner and the Coupledom. Forsaking the rather child like notion of good and bad for the more adult concept of taking responsibility for one’s behavior and also striving to understand the people we care about, moves the Coupledom in the direction of genuine mutual affection and respect.
Sorry Implies a Commitment Not to Do It Again: When the “S” word is used, the significance of regret, remorse or a new understanding of your partner’s feelings has to be followed by future efforts to prevent the repeat of the same injury. Defensive explanations undermine the ability to hear and change. Clearly, feeling blamed for an unintended hurt often compels us to explain that we had no idea. But more to the point is saying “Now I understand what this felt like to you and I won’t do it again”. That lowers walls, shows caring and expands the generosity of emotion so needed by both partners. Remember, there is always a third party to the relationship, the Coupledom, the domicile of the relationship, and protecting it by deepening understanding amongst the members strengthens the entity. Nothing makes it stronger than being able to say you are sorry and mean it. Nothing weakens it more than fighting to prove you are right over striving for mutual understanding.
If The Coupledom is Stalled: When sorry doesn’t mean anything to your partner, it is time to seek expert help. Years of hurt calcify and to chisel down to the softer material of relationship may depend on getting a third party to act as a guide back to attachment and trust. Don’t wait any longer, get help or the Coupledom will shatter into pieces that even all the kings horses and men can not rebuild again.
Stay Tuned for Follow Up Post on Forgiveness and The Coupledom
© jill edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W., 2010