By Matt Eschler, PhD, LMFT
In a romantic scene from the 1970s movie Love Story, a young man apologizes to his lover for his bad behavior, and she replies, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” I imagine that never needing to say you’re sorry could sound like the epitome of trust! I trust your intentions so much you will never have to say you are sorry for anything; I will always assume the very best.
However, the truth is this: the only way you can achieve perfect trust is by saying “I am sorry” every time you cause harm. When counseling couples, I actively teach that saying you are sorry is one of the keys to an intimate relationship.
Bruce Lee is one of my heroes. He displayed immense grace and discipline. He was once heard to say, “Mistakes are always forgivable if one has the courage to admit them.” Lee achieved pure greatness in Jeet Kune Do. This form of fighting requires immense discipline and training. Marital intimacy requires you to be disciplined and to train nonstop. The foundation of marital training is building trust by being disciplined enough to admit your mistakes and being able to forgive and be patient with your partner’s mistakes.
Remember that forgiveness is not one decision nor is forgiveness a “feeling” that settles over you. Forgiveness is a journey of several decisions and is a consequence of many actions. Forgiveness is restorative to the forgiver and the forgiven. A sense of relief is restored to the forgiven and a sense of personal power and strength is returned to the forgiver.
We are told to repent whenever we offend and to forgive and “let go” of the offenses we suffer. Enjoying solid, loving “relationship repair” is a two-person job. The roles of each partner are clear and require a deep sense of humility. At the heart of each harmful instance is an offender and an injured person. The offender is required to be accountable for the harm and make reparations to the extent it is possible. The injured one is required to forgive the harmful offense and allow it to be repaired to the fullest extent possible. The most intimate couples will turn the repentance process into a healthy ritual. It looks something like this:
Step One: The truth is told about a harmful act. Both persons involved (the offender and the injured person) describe their experience, asking each other questions until they understand each other’s point of view.
Step Two: The offender owns his or her role in the harmful act.
Step Three: The injured person describes the feelings and the experience from his or her perspective.
Step Four: The offender expresses empathy for those feelings and demonstrates an understanding of how this event has hurt the injured person.
Step Five: The injured person asks for fair and possible restitution.
Step Six: The offender follows through with as much restitution as possible.
Step Seven: Both the offender and the injured person discuss the meaning of the event and describe what they learned.
Practicing repentance will strengthen your resolve to be a stronger, more romantic partner. Practicing forgiveness will allow you to turn the corner from feeling like a victim to becoming a more empowered person.