“What are the three most important words in a relationship?” In premarital counseling sessions, it’s usually the bride who answers — grinning coyly and speaking demurely as she answers. Sometimes both the bride and groom answer simultaneously.
I once posed the question to a congregation of a few hundred with a wide range of ages. All the young people offered the same answer: “I love you.” Many of the older folks shook their heads.
After the service, an older couple approached me, smiling. The wife said, “My husband here said the three most important words are ‘Let’s eat out.’” I laughed and said, “Let’s is a contraction, so that’s four words.”
The folks shaking their heads had been in relationships long enough to know the most important words in a relationship are not “I love you.” While it is very important to say, “I love you,” there are at least two reasons those words are not the most important. First, saying “I love you” will be meaningless if certain other words — words that indicate true commitment to wholeness — are never sincerely spoken. Second, there are some relationships where “I love you” would just be weird. Imagine saying to a toll booth operator: “Thank you for working on Christmas Day. I love you.”
No, to build and maintain healthy relationships, we must be able to say, “I am sorry.” We can say, “I love you,” but when we humbly say “I’m sorry,” we demonstrate love. It’s like in the musical My Fair Lady when Eliza Doolittle belts out, “Don’t talk of love, show me!”
We musn’t be like Fonzi in the old TV show Happy Days when he stutters, “I’m s… I’m suh… I’m sah..sah sah…. ,” unable to bring himself to say, “I’m sorry.” Indeed, culture sometimes sends messages that apologizing is weak. Even worse, the movie Love Story popularized the ridiculous and harmful line, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” What an utterly absurd and health-undermining notion, deceptively packaged in mushy Hollywood sentimentality.
“Saying ‘I love you’ will be meaningless if certain other words… are never sincerely spoken.”
Love requires saying “I’m sorry” because an apology says, “I regret I caused harm and want to make amends. We can say “I love you,” but a sincere “I’m sorry” shows love.
And yes, that does apply to relationships other than romantic. We might not say, “I love you” to the toll booth operator, but when we are being our best to all people, we foster the various non-romantic types of love — like philia (friendship) and koinonia (community). Health requires we acknowledge when our actions harm romance, friendship or community.
I once interviewed for an administrative position at a university — a job to which I had not applied but had been recruited. I was, at the time, unemployed after a massive budget cut at the university where I had been. I desperately needed a job but had learned early in my career there are worse things than flipping burgers — or substitute teaching. So, in interviews, I asked tough questions to test the environment for how well I will fit.
In this interview, I was facing across the table a vice president, two deans and the head of human resources. After I answered their questions, they asked what questions I had for them. After a few routine questions, I asked, “How are things handled when the administration makes a mistake?”
The vice president said, “Well, the first thing we do is deny we made a mistake.” I laughed, thinking the vice president was joking. His face went white; his eyes flared. He indignantly blurted, “Well, you asked.”
“Well, the first thing we do is deny we made a mistake.”
In one of the most awkward moments of my life I drew a breath and calmly replied, “Well, you approached me about this position because I’m a family therapist whom you hope will help with relationships. I tell my clients and my students that to have healthy relationships, we must be able to say, ‘I’m sorry.’ We won’t say ‘I’m sorry’ if we can’t even admit we made a mistake. I have worked at a place where the leaders were not able to admit a mistake much less apologize, and I. Will. Not. Do. That. Again.”
I paused for effect, eyebrow cocked. “So, if you want me to work here, we’re going to have to work out that difference right now.”
Ha! I wish I had a picture of the four faces on the other side of the table. And, in that case, I’m not at all sorry for offending.
There have been, however, many times when I have hurt others — badly even — and owed those people a profound apology. Likewise, I have been the recipient of sincere apologies. If “I’m sorry” constitute essential words for healthy relationships, they require three reciprocal follow-through words that culture has even more subtly and effectively undermined than Love Story managed to achieve in undercutting our ability to apologize.
When we receive an apology, our tendency to say, “It’s OK” has gotten out of control. I have done things that were not and could never be “OK.” I’ve needed to hear, “I forgive you.”
Now, of course there are small things in life that happen in which it would be weird or even rude to offer an overstated “I forgive you.” An episode of the YouTube series Speak English with Vanessa offers a wonderful list of English idioms for replying when someone says “I’m sorry” for routine peccadillos. For minor infractions like a person accidentally bumping into us, English speakers say things like “It’s OK … No problem … No prob … No worries … It’s all good.”
A problem arises, though, when in response to major infractions we want to avoid relational depth by saying, “It’s OK.” I just entered “I forgive you” in the YouTube search bar. Thank you, Kelly Clarkson, for your wonderful song I Forgive You. And, oh my, a scene in Spiderman 3 depicts the beauty of the words “I forgive you.” It’s laughable to imagine Peter Parker compassionately looking at Sandman and saying “No prob” or even “It’s OK.” My goodness, that “I forgive you” is so poignant and appropriate to the depth of the situation and the sincerity of the apology.
I’m reminded of the first two days I did substitute teaching at the high school from which I had graduated. On the first day, as a class was starting, I asked a young woman to put away her phone. She glared at me and continued showing pictures to her friends. After my third request, I walked to her and confiscated her phone. As I walked back to the front of the room, I said to her, “Do me a favor, by the end of the day, I want all 2,000 students at Jefferson County High School to know I took your phone. Please loudly complain about how strict I am.” (Hey, “It’s easier to lighten up than tighten up.”)
After class she came to me with a sneer and barked, “Can I have my phone back?”
Quelling the urge to say, “May I have my phone back?” I pondered aloud. “Hmm. Let’s see. You were very rude and disrespectful to me. You not only distracted those immediately around you, you disrupted the whole class. And you challenged my authority. Maybe I am old fashioned, but when I was a kid, I was taught that if we did something wrong, there was something we were supposed to do. Do you know what that was?”
With an eye roll, she huffed, “Apologize.”
She very insincerely blurted, “I’m sorry.”
“I’d appreciate you making an effort at sincerity.”
Her shoulders slumped. She took a breath, looking to the side, pouting. I leaned to my left to draw her eye contact. She looked into my eyes and gently resigned, “I’m sorry.”
I reached in my shirt pocket and handed her the phone. She started to take it, but I didn’t let go. Her eyes met mine. I tilted my head ever so slightly toward her and gently said, “I forgive you.”
Her mouth opened in shocked disbelief. It was clear the young woman and the child within her never had heard those words. I smiled at her as I released the phone and nodded both goodbye as my eyes said, “There you go; you’ve got this.” After a few beats she turned and left, her face now filled with both awe and a return of the respect she’d been given. The next day I was walking down a crowded hall, and we passed each other.
She smiled at me.
That’s the power of “I’m sorry” and “I forgive you.”
Brad Bull has served as a hospital chaplain, pastor, substitute teacher, UPS seasonal driver helper and university professor. He holds a master of divinity degree with a major in pastoral counseling; his Ph.D. is in child and family studies. He currently serves as a private practice licensed marriage and family therapist in Tennessee and Virginia. His counseling, writing and speaking services may be reached at DrBradBull.com. If you feel like this essay was a waste of your time, he’s sorry. If, rather than focusing on the message of the essay, you are the type who got hung up on whether a contraction is one word or two, he forgives you.