Never say sorry?
It might be one of the hardest words in the English language, says Aida Austin, but it is one of the most important
Published 08/01/2011 | 05:00
I remember watching the 1970s film 'Love Story' when I was 16 -- the slushy Erich Segal adaptation in which Ali MacGraw fell in love with Ryan O'Neal and then died from an unspecified, protracted illness. The movie, in case you are too young to remember, was famous for the assertion that "love means never having to say you're sorry".
As an impressionable teenager, I found myself transfixed by the film, right up until the point MacGraw uttered this statement to her lover, before she resumed the business of dying.
At this juncture, I swallowed hard and then I had an odd moment. I didn't buy it. "Love means never having to say you're sorry" failed to resonate. It simply rang hollow. The film's emotional punch was abruptly undercut and my tear ducts dried up.
I baulked at the time, thought 'What a load of rubbish', and haven't changed my mind since.
I'm not alone in thinking that apologies are critical to sustaining healthy relationships. Most studies on familial conflict resolution are based on the dual premises that a) the family is the primary arena in which one learns to say sorry, and b) the capacity to seek and grant forgiveness ensures long-lasting relationships and leads to happy marriage.
A 2002 study found that heart rate, blood pressure and facial tension decreased in victims of wrongdoing when they simply imagined receiving an apology. The health benefits of a real apology surely have to be enormous.
Why, then, is it such a difficult thing to do? Why does the word 'sorry' so rarely tumble from our lips?
Happily married for 20 years, Anna believes her husband was never taught how to say sorry and, as a consequence, she has had to imagine receiving apologies more often than she'd have liked.
"This has been an ongoing issue for us," she says. "When it comes to actually saying the word 'sorry', my husband is completely constipated. He gets red in the face and starts looking around the room, like he wants to escape."
She explains how putting him to the pin of his collar in an effort to elicit a frank apology simply doesn't work. "Even though I might be feeling like I want to thump him, I've had to learn to give him elbow room, space to absorb why I'm upset and time for what I'm saying to register."
She describes how she has learnt over the years to recognise the ways in which he says sorry without saying sorry. "There will be a shift in the atmosphere," she says. "He'll look less constipated and more contrite; his shoulders might slump and there'll be a lull."
At this point, her husband is keen for Anna to 'move on', which she says would be easier if an apology was forthcoming. Instead, there will be offers of cups of tea or other displacement activities. "He'll put the recycling out or he might try to make me laugh, for example, which is a tough one."
Marriage is a delicate infrastructure and involves a certain amount of pussy-footing around partners' foibles, but the trouble, in my mind, with Anna's dainty approach is that it is just a bit too dainty. It requires the aggrieved party to practise the kind of self-restraint and patience of which I know myself incapable when I feel like poking someone in the eye.
I've never found it to be the case that forgiveness, or, to use a more secular term, closure, falls like some holy benediction out of the sky. It has to be sought and the most straightforward way of seeking it is to say sorry by, well, saying sorry. Loud and proud.
However, the expectation that unreserved apologies will spontaneously circulate within a family is just as absurd as the assumption that 'never having to say you're sorry' is robust enough a theory to survive more than the briefest road-test in real family life.
The more simply an apology is put, the better, but this can be a complicated process, particularly with children. As far as kids and apologies go, often the word 'sorry' is so couched in justifications and 'buts' that it's difficult to locate.
I'm not ashamed to say that when they start to go down this road or, worse, ask questions such as, "Why should I apologise?" I've sometimes stuck my children in a room to fight it out.
If you don't have the mettle and wits of a barrister, it's a handy option. I don't care what spleen they vent in there, just so long as they leave their argument behind them when they come out,.
This strategy has been successful: my children have conceived such a loathing for it that they apologise quickly just to avoid it. It could be argued that a forced apology is a shabby moral compromise, but I'm up for anything that will contain conflict and move things on.
This coercive approach to apologies is borrowed in principle -- but not in style -- from my late father.
Dad had the soul of a poet and a heart as soft as butter. A devout Irish Catholic, he deserved better than the six-strong bunch of warring heathens he raised, but he loved us all as passionately as we loved him.
He was a nightmarish stickler for apologies and used to exile us to a room on a regular basis in an effort to drag them out of us.
However, when he banished a couple of spitting, hissing children to whatever bedroom was closest to hand, he'd banish himself too, and there we'd all remain -- hideously closeted together until, by a process of religious attrition, he compelled us to Apologise To the Lord God First and Then Each Other.
He'd often try to engage us in esoteric debate about Love and Forgiveness, Kindness and Gentleness. To this end, volumes of Shakespeare, Gerard Manley Hopkins and the Bible would be brandished. At this point, our spirits sank.
Apologising to God often proved to be a grim impasse.
If my brother was in my bedroom, I'd watch him drop piously to his knees, bow his head and, under the guise of reciting the 'Our Father', begin to spit quietly through his hands (joined in prayer) on to my bed.
My roars of protest would erupt, immediately followed by my brother's outraged denials and, at this stage, my exasperated father would hold me in his right hand, my brother in his left and begin again.
Wringing apologies from us must, in retrospect, have been as tortuous for my father as it was for us, but he might have simplified the process by being less strict.
He was over-rigorous: apologies had to be offered but also Heartfelt, Meant and Genuinely Remorseful, which in practical terms, meant no sarky tone or dodgy inflection, and direct eye contact had to be maintained throughout.
We often stalled at 'Tell Each Other That You Love Each Other', but eventually we surrendered to the dismal task of apologising Like We Meant It to a sibling we wanted to kneecap.
I won't pretend that my father managed to bequeath any superhuman gift for apologising to his children. Our apologies can be defensive, but perhaps he did help us understand that, paradoxically, we hurt those we love the most and, in this case, only the word 'sorry', said loud and proud, will do.
Or perhaps all this only taught us how to fake it, but maybe, like the French writer Jean Giraudoux said, "the secret of success is sincerity. If you can fake that, you've got it made".