Back when John and I had been dating for three years, we were both coming back home from our separate colleges for a break. I was excited because my family had gotten tickets to see a Broadway musical, and he was going to come with us. On the afternoon of the day we were going to see the show, John called me to tell me his plans had changed, and he was going to hang out with a friend he hadn’t seen in a long time.
My feelings were really hurt, but I didn’t want to be the girlfriend who prevented her guy from quality time with his guy friends, so I played it off like it wasn’t a big deal to me.
Over the course of the night, I found myself growing more and more frustrated. I realized it wasn’t fair for me to pretend I was okay with what had happened. The next morning I called him to let him know how I was feeling, even though I felt afraid to rock the boat.
I said to him, “John, I know I acted like I was fine with everything last night, but really it hurt my feelings. I felt like you bagged me and my family for better plans.” I continued on, and he listened patiently to every word. Once I was finished, John simply said to me, “Jess, I am so sorry. I understand now how that made you feel, and I feel horrible. It will not happen again.” In the four years since then, it hasn’t ever happened again.
So often, when I have offended someone, I tend to defend my actions out of pride before I apologize. John, however, patiently heard me out as I shared my feelings with him, and he didn’t get defensive. He took the time to really understand where I was coming from. He made an authentic apology rather than just apologizing to appease me. He cared about me enough to admit he messed up without turning it around on me or trying to downplay what he did.
But recently, I was the one who had to say “I’m sorry.” On the Fourth of July this past year, John was excited to attend an annual neighborhood party. I had a good friend visiting from out of town. So, I told John to come over to my house and hang for a bit, and then I would leave with him for the party. John came over, and we were all hanging out, and I kept pushing back the time we would leave. Then plans for my friend changed, and I needed to drive him back to where he was staying. John ended up leaving my house much later than he had wanted to and had to go to the party alone, while I drove my friend back home.
I felt horrible. I knew I had let John down, and I hated that feeling. It was very tempting to play it off like it wasn’t a big deal. I found myself thinking, “It was just unfortunate timing, and I needed to entertain my friend! It’s just a shame it worked out that way.” I was surprised with myself at how hard it was to admit I was wrong and especially when I had offended someone I cared so much about!
I was tempted to defend my actions and make a case for myself in order to avoid the guilt I felt, but I knew I had to give a real apology to John. Sometimes truly forgiving someone can be even harder than having to be the one to admit guilt, but he forgave me. Never again did he bring the incident up nor did he harbor frustrations. He forgave me, really forgave me, and we were ready to move on.
The frequent exchange of “I’m sorry” as part of our conflict management as a couple is something we’ve gotten better and better at over the course of our relationship. Admitting you did something wrong doesn’t make you a bad person, it means you are a good person trying to do right for the people you love. Or if you didn’t do anything bad and it was simply miscommunication, acknowledging hurt feelings can be the first step towards healing them.
Those two words: “I’m sorry,” just like the words “I love you”: They express how you feel and that you care how the other person feels. Both phrases, I think, are key to making a relationship work.