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Love means actually wanting to say you’re sorry
Or: Why the tagline from “Love Story” is some bullcrap
In college I fell for a boy who loved Love Story. We looked exactly like this:
He thought the tagline “love means never having to say you’re sorry” was the apex of amor. The peak of romance. Hashtag #relationshipgoals — before hashtags were a thing. (We didn’t really look like that, but we were cute and young and carefree at pre-rebrand SUNY-Binghamton in 1992.)
And you know what? Maybe the tagline is correct.
But if and only if - you’re Buddha-level enlightened. You’re Julian of Norwich, cloistered lovingly with your cat.
Maybe in those cases, your love is truly unconditional.
But for you and me?
I daresay: nope nope nopity nope.
Never needing to hear, and never wanting to give, an apology?
Uh, that feels just a tad emotionally detached (just a tad!) and a more than a tad unrealistic.
IMHO love definitely means actually wanting to say you’re sorry if (and inevitably when) you screw up.
Because no one’s perfect. If there’s one thing I know about the future, it’s that I’m going to fuck up, and more than once, and probably bigtime, guaranteed.
(Unless we die tragically young and impossibly beautiful as a 25 year old Radcliffe alumna, like Jenny in Love Story. Then you can be conveniently frozen in time, in selfless-love, beachy waved, high-waisted bell-bottomed, 1970’s white waif perfection.)
Um. Now I’m thinking about the 1970s: ponchos and clogs, floppy hats and knee boots, my favorite fashion lewks.
We were talking about something more important than 70s looks.
I was saying: when we do inevitably mess up, people get hurt.
So … if you’re not sorry when you hurt someone, I mean … do you really care about the other person?
And if you’re the person who has been hurt, and you respond to the hurt with, “Shh, say nothing, my darling sugar-booty! True love means you never, never have to apologize to me….”
Hm. I hazard to say you’re a sucker, a martyr, a liar or all three.
Never having to say you’re sorry is a recipe for soggy boundaries, advantage-taking, and simmering resentment.
(Btw, the boy I fell in love with in college was and is a lovely human. We remain friends. I do not know his current stance on Love Story.)
So: it’s a good idea to get good at apologies.
Especially if you want to be a decent human.
A lot of times in Restorative Justice circles, our Repair Agreements (an agreement constructed by everyone in the circle to try to repair harm and “make things as right as possible”) include a written or verbal apology. There’s a reason for that.
They mean something to everyone involved.
Sometimes it’s helpful to have a template to work from.
Especially if you messed up BIGTIME and you don’t know where to start.
Or if you’re working with someone who harmed someone else — and apologizing in a sincere and comprehensive way is new (or overwhelming) to them.
I think of an apology as basically “say sorry,” followed by, “now I know better and I’ll do better.”
I like to start thinking about an apology using the basic questions we ask in Restorative Justice:
What happened? (Describe the incident. What were you thinking and feeling at the time? What have you been thinking and feeling since?)
Who has been affected and how?
What needs to be done to make things as right as possible?
Start and end with “I’m sorry.”
Don’t ask for anything, including forgiveness. Your apology isn’t homework for the person harmed. [If you are white and apologizing for a racism, do leave the door open for hearing about other ways you’ve messed up. But don’t assign it as homework.]
Center the person harmed. Remember: you are apologizing because you caused them harm.
Don’t create more harm. If apologizing or talking about the incident will create more harm, don’t.
Say what you’re apologizing for (without creating further harm), why that was f*cked up to do, what I learned, and the changes I’m making to be sure it won’t happen again.
Then, apologize again.
I am writing to apologize for the harm I caused you.
I am so sorry.
What happened was: (briefly recap the harm, without excuses)
For example - “we were talking and I said something hella racist.” “I took our game of touch football way too far and broke your nose.” “I stole your phone.” “I lied to you about sneaking out of the house.” etc.
How I feel about the incident is: (name the emotions you feel about what happened, and WHY you feel that way)
For example - “I feel regret because I did not mean to hurt you, my friend.” “I feel angry at myself for making a bad decision.” “I’m embarrassed and ashamed that I said something racist.” etc.
What I have learned from reflecting on this incident is: (name some things you’ve learned about yourself through this process)
For example - “I need to learn more about racism and how to be a better friend and ally.” “I need to learn how to handle my competitive streak better.” “I’ve learned stealing hurts people. Our friendship is more important than a new phone.” etc.
Going forward, I will do things differently. This includes: (list some of your goals or changes)
For example - “I am taking a workshop on racism and I am open to learning more about ways I say or believe racist stuff.” “I am learning how to focus on having fun in team games instead of getting so worked up about winning.” “I am attending a class on anger management,” etc.
[Leave door open for them to be able to respond, if appropriate. This isn’t just about “dumping” an apology and running away. This is about relationship and accountability. At the same time - this is not meant to require any action on their part. It’s a balance.]
Express gratitude for their time. Say “thank you for reading this letter” in your own words.
Again, I am very sorry.
THERE’S SOMETHING ELSE that’s hella important
This is more than a P.S.
This is crucial.
Knowing how to apologize is critically important if you’re a white person living in multiracial spaces. (HINT: that is ALL white people)
It’s even more important if you are white person doing antiracist work in multiracial spaces.
And also, again, if you just want to be a decent human.
I’ll use myself as an example. Because I’m white. And I live in a multiracial society. (LIKE ALL Y’ALL WHITE FOLK.) Plus, I call myself an “antiracist” and am doing antiracist work in multiracial spaces.
Whooooo doggy, I’ve made a lot of mistakes as a human and as a white person human.
Here’s one example of a time I messed up in a racist way. And apologized.
It’s from 3.5 years ago, so I feel okay about using it publicly, because it’s not an ongoing issue in a relationship. (I would NOT want to publicly out or co-opt a conflict I was currently having because that feels icky.)
What happened was:
A young Black woman was working one-on-one with my young teen in a professional capacity.
She was wonderful.
She and I would have regular, brief check-ins after she met with Teen.
During one of these, I said something to the effect of how much Teen loved her, and how wonderful it is for him to “have” her as “his own” person that he gets “for himself” to get to talk to.
As soon as it was out of my mouth, I thought “Oh, shit.”
A lot of you are nodding, or cringing. You’re like, Yeah, J. J. Oh shit, indeed!
Some of you might be scrunching your eyebrows: Why ‘oh shit’?
Oh shit because it’s messed up for me as an older white woman to be talking with a young Black woman about her belonging to my child, or being “his own.”
“But J. J. if she were white, this wouldn’t have been an issue - it would have been fine for you to say she was ‘his own.’”
Uh, ok. Maybe. But she was Black.
And don’t give me any “colorblind” crap.
We live in a country filled-up to pussy’s bow with racism and racist aggressions, both micro and macro.
Furthermore, we live in a country that was literally built on and by chattel slavery, and our current institutions uphold White Supremacy.
And I’m not an idiot. And neither is she.
thought knew I should apologize.
But I was terrified. What if I made things worse? What if she didn’t even notice but now she would? Or: What if it was too late and she already thought I was a racist asshole? Or, worse, a “Karen”?
I maybe shouldn’t have asked my teen, but I trust his opinion on these things (he has a rad mom who taught him a lot about racism and colonizer thinking), and the relationship was important to him, so I asked. I told him what I’d said and asked if he thought I should apologize.
He was like, “Jeebus. Oh yeah you should. Mom. That is messed up.”
I asked my husband. He didn’t think it was a great turn of phrase I’d used, but he didn’t think I needed to apologize. (And in his defense, I do often make mountains out of molehills. My feelings are often way, way off kilter. He likely thought this was that.)
But I knew what was right. So I apologized.
I emailed her.
And here’s what I wrote:
… I am so sorry about the part in our check-in the other day when I used some VERY problematic language to describe how good and important you are to [teen]. (I won’t repeat the language bc I don’t want to repeat the harm.)
The way I stated that sentiment/thought was some full-on, effed up, colonizer, racist language.
I deeply, deeply apologize for the impact of my words and the harm that I may have caused you.
I do not expect you to have to take on the burden of educating me, or even responding to my apology. At the same time, though, I invite you to let me know if there are ways I can repair any harm I’ve caused, and/or if there are other racist things I’ve done or harm I’ve caused in the past -or- going forward.
Again, I don’t expect you to have to take on that educating role, but I value our relationship, as well as just appreciating you as a human being, and I am always trying to further de-colonize my brain and repair any harmful impact my words or actions have.
Care to guess how many drafts that email took? The inside of my brain looked like this, times eleven:
That last part, the part about being open to, but not expectant of, hearing about other ways I might have been racist?
That’s important for white folks to do.
Open that door — and leave it open.
It’s pretty rare that a white person openly and honestly and without falling to pieces invites critque of the ways we are inadvertently racist.
And it can be relationship, and life, changing.
It’s not easy. At least, it isn’t easy for me. I aspire to be the paragon of perfection, donchyaknow.
Anyway. My heart was pounding when I sent that email. But the world didn’t end.
I’ve since gotten more used to it.
Because I still mess up.
And I’m always trying to do better.
And I am always trying to be in relationship, reciprocal, accountable.
Apologies help that happen.
Not all apologies have to be so … formal or … nerve-wracking.
Apologies can be big and small.
A simple “I’m sorry”:
Right up there with “please” and “help” and “wow” and “thank you” and also
“Oh my God I LOVE this song - let’s dance.”
P.S. Want to know some other magic words? “I love Unruly Quaker! I value all the time (and drafts) you put into it. So I signed up for a paid subscription! And I keep sharing posts with my friends!”
Thank you, thank you, thank you.