“Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”
It’s the catchphrase of “Love Story,” the iconic 1970 film that catapulted Ryan O’Neal to true heartthrob status. I fell for O’Neal and this somber romance as a pre-teen (in the 1990s, thank you very much), and the movie stuck with me.
But I really hate that catchphrase.
I’ve never understood it. Does love render an apology useless, or does it mean that if you really love someone, you’ll never do anything so wrong that it demands an apology in the first place?
The latter is demonstrably false. We’re human, and our special gift is screwing up.
No, the film suggests that you don’t need to say you’re sorry when you’ve hurt someone you love — that they already know. That your love is enough.
But, I’ll give it to ya straight.
I always thought that was a bunch of crap.
The other day, my anxiety was at a high. Many people, like me, know the nagging feeling of persistent and aggressive anxiety all too well. In times like these, it sits on your chest in wait, building and compounding upon itself, until it explodes in a tizzy of sheer panic or rage. It manifests in all kinds of ways.
That’s what happened to me. Complete panic and total rage. And I took it out on my husband, who doesn’t deserve it.
And after I calmed down, I told him I was sorry. I felt terrible.
My husband’s reaction? “You don’t have to apologize. But thank you.”
And naturally, that movie line popped into my head.
What would make him say that?
I thought a lot about it.
I think, as someone who made a commitment to love me, my husband understands my struggles. He also understands my flaws and my personal demons. Without completely sharing in my innermost experience, which no one can do, he appreciates what I go through because he knows it more intimately than most. He has a front-row seat and an open window.
And because he knows my heart and my intent, he knows I don’t mean to be spiteful or cruel. He understands the nature of my struggle, and he knows that if my behavior is difficult, I must be going through something just as horrific, or worse.
Most of the time, when we do or say something hurtful or unkind, it’s coming from a place of fear or pain. Because hurt people *hurt* people. That’s our nature.
And that’s how I’ve come to better understand this classic film’s famous phrase — the one that’s bothered me for the better part of 25 years.
• Love means I accept you for who you are, flaws and demons and all. Love means there’s an unspoken understanding between us that you will make mistakes, and you’ll do things you’ll regret, and you’ll use hurtful words. So will I. Love means you’re far more than the things you say and do on any given day. And so am I.
• Love means I see the unique goodness of your heart. I know its beauty and its tenderness and its passion and its empathy and its warmth. I also see its pain, its bitterness, its trauma, and its despair. I hope you see the same in me.
• Love means that we can’t exist in a deep relationship without the experience of heartache. But that’s okay, because these things were designed to coexist. That’s the way they were created.
• Love means that I know you’ll react to your own suffering. You’ll do it thousands of times, or more. And I’ve already forgiven it. Even before you say you’re sorry. And even if you don’t.
But…I’m not overlooking my husband’s afterthought of thanks. Even if all these things are true, and I believe they are, there’s still something meaningful about acknowledging your own wrongdoing. There’s something incredibly important about openly addressing the hurt you’ve caused, even — or especially — when you don’t think you were wrong.
A genuine apology says that you’re aware of your brokenness, too. You know it impacts other people. You don’t want to lead with it in your relationships. You don’t want the brokenness itself to be bigger or more powerful than your willingness to do the painful mending of its pieces.
It says you don’t want to cause suffering.
And those are completely beautiful, totally human qualities. Those are qualities that should be celebrated, right alongside love itself.
So, maybe love *does* mean never having to say you’re sorry. You don’t have to say you’re sorry to be forgiven. You don’t need to say you’re sorry for your own heartache to be appreciated or understood. Love is strong enough to cover it all.
But love suggests you should say you’re sorry anyway.