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Why Love Means Always Having to Say You’re Sorry

Because sometimes there are just no other words.

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typography gif of the words i'm sorry in a heart
Kyle Letendre
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Who could ever forget that single, signature line from the 1970 quintessential romantic drama, Love Story, the one tearfully expressed by Ali McGraw’s character to Ryan O’Neal’s character in response to O’Neal’s apology after a lover’s spat? You know what I’m talking about. It’s a line that could only be created by someone who has never been in any relationship that is based on human emotions.

Am I right?

When have you ever considered that love means never having to say you’re sorry? NEVER! What does that even mean? Who says that? No one. Not a single person. Not even Ali McGraw. In fact, on March 21, 2021, during an interview On CBS’s Sunday Morning, in celebration of the movie’s 50th anniversary, McGraw was asked about her understanding of her now infamous line.

Her answer: “I don’t know. What does it mean?”

The irony of this is the fact that, in the movie, McGraw is the one advocating this perspective to her male counterpart, when in fact, we all know women who intuitively, and most often, say, “I’m sorry.”

You’re sorry over a disagreement with your spouse because YOU just don’t see it his way. And you’re sorry that your spouse had a bad day at the office because YOU will get the brunt of it since the pain is yours to bear. You’re sincerely sorry for hurting his feelings because HE took it the wrong way. You’re sorry that he suffered a muscle pull because YOU did tell him to exercise, never once mentioning anything about stretching.

And you’re sorry you scheduled a dinner out with friends because YOU should have known a month ago that he would be inundated with work on that very night. You’re sorry that the two of you missed the first pitch of the ball game because YOU obviously had something to do with the backup on the highway.

You’re sorry that YOU forgot his parent’s anniversary because, of course, that’s YOUR job. And you’re sorry that YOU are just not in the mood for a romp just because he is.

You’re sorry that your infant son is crying during the middle of the night, depriving his father of sleep. You’re sorry for the scheduling of your kids’ baseball games as they conflict with your husband’s previously planned card game with the guys — as if YOU do the sports schedules. And you’re sorry because YOUR kids busted the television.

After all, YOU did get pregnant all by yourself. But you’re sure as hell not sorry for those children, though motherhood certainly carries its own pronounced sense of contrition. What parent doesn’t feel the pain that their children experience? How often do we wish to absorb the afflictions of any of their challenging journeys? You’re sorry that moms aren’t permitted to remain in the preschool classroom because YOU love watching your son suffer as you walk away. You’re sorry when your child misses a class field trip due to his illness that YOU couldn’t make go away. And you’re sorry when you’re the only means of transportation and you’re not available on demand because YOU actually have something to do for yourself.

You’re sorry that he failed his driver’s test for the third time because YOU are his “good luck charm,” and you couldn’t take him that day. You’re sorry he wasn’t invited to join a college fraternity because YOU weren’t able to convince the upperclassmen that he is a prize. And you’re sorry that his college experience was interrupted by the pandemic and now he is stuck at home with his parents.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned as a wife and mother, it’s that love is complicated. Love can be profoundly tender and yet deeply painful. Love can be everlasting or tragically fleeting. Love can be immediate as easily as it can be evolving. The love that is shared between partners is completely distinctive to the one shared between parent and child as one is cultivated while the other is unconditional.

But no matter love’s anomalies, being “sorry” seems to be as enduring as the relationship. After 23 years of marriage and over 21 years of motherhood, I have come to learn that love means ALWAYS having to say “I’m sorry.” We say it to keep the peace. We say it to offer empathy. We say it for those moments of acknowledging wrongdoing. And we most definitely say it as a substitute for various expletives. I would even argue that the more you love, the more sorry you feel. 

You’re sorry for taking your frustrations out on your spouse because sometimes you do hurt the ones you love. You’re sorry because, hey, YOU were (uncharacteristically) wrong. You’re sorry for realizing that nothing is forever and YOU can’t imagine life without him. You’re sorry because YOU can’t turn back time. You’re sorry because sometimes there are no other words.

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