Here’s a hint. They’re not, "Let’s have sex."
Back in the 1970s—and I know I’m dating myself—a Yale law professor named Erich Segal penned a bestselling tearjerker called Love Story. His definition of love: “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”
Straight out of the Woodstock era and ethos, it sounded good at the time. Freedom! No guilt! Just be yourself! Spread your wings and fly! It hasn’t worn well, though. Today it’s the other side of the coin we’re more likely to see: You don’t owe anyone anything. You can be a selfish bastard and that’s okay.
Sorry, Erich, but I have a different take. Love means saying you’re sorry—often.
I'll go even further. Making a habit of saying “I’m sorry” is key to a long and loving relationship.
Even in the best relationships, partners get on each other’s nerves from time to time. Joe tends to dominate the conversation at dinner parties. Jill is an interrupter. Inevitably these moments become sore spots in the relationship. Joe knows he annoys Jill when he hogs the communication space; Jill knows she bugs Joe when she interrupts. These are deeply ingrained behaviors, though, and difficult to stop. Joe gets carried away at social occasions and starts holding forth, even though Jill is gritting her teeth alongside him. Jill goes ahead and interrupts because she just can’t help herself. What she has to say is so important, and in addition, if she doesn’t get it out she might forget it!
Moments like these can undermine a relationship over time, not because they are inherently awful behaviors, but because, when persisted in despite a partner's protests, they communicate disregard. When Jill asks Joe not to dominate conversations and he does it anyway, it’s hard for that behavior not to land as, “I know what you want and I don’t care.” Ditto for Jill’s habit of interrupting, despite Joe’s many objections.
What’s the best way to make sure that minor transgressions don’t sabotage mutual respect in a relationship? With three magic words: “I am sorry.”
“I am sorry” acknowledges the other person’s feelings. They acknowledge a transgression. They take away the hurt. They put things on an even keel again.
When Jill interrupts Joe and he asks her not to, she has three choices. She can protest: “I’ll interrupt you if I want to!” This approach is not recommended unless you think having a disgruntled partner is a good thing.
Option two is to comply and say nothing. This isn’t terrible, but it's not great either. If your silence projects reluctance or annoyance, it’ll probably land as compliance under protest—and that heals nothing.
By far your best option is to comply and say “I’m sorry.” It’s kind of like vampire blood (if you're a fan of True Blood, you'll get the reference): it heals the wound immediately.
Of course, “I’m sorry” has to come from the right place to be meaningful. It can’t be rote—going through the motions never touches the emotions. It shouldn’t be inflated, either. The “I’m sorry” that sounds like “I’m an awful person” will come across as self-absorbed and not genuinely caring unless your behavior truly has been awful—and interrupting or talking too much at a dinner party doesn’t qualify.
Bottom line, a dignified, self- (and other-) respecting “I’m sorry” will do fine.
So what are the three most important words in a relationship?
Not “I love you,” though saying that frequently is a fine idea.
Not “let’s have sex,” though having sex often is also a fine idea.
No: it’s “I am sorry,” three little words that are a wondrous cure-all for the inevitable hurts, little and big, that are our lot in intimate relationships.
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