In Erich Segal’s novel, Love Story, the heroine remarks to her husband, “Love means not ever having to say you’re sorry.” This was a powerful statement that reflected the attitude of the times. The social movements of the 1960s and 1970s promoted an unapologetic lifestyle. Liberal feminism encouraged women to make no apologies for your sex, for your success, for your faults, for your behavior, for anything because you are who you are. Even now women are being criticized for apologizing too often. For feminists, being generous with apologies means undermining yourself. This, however, is not sound advice for women or for men. In their rush for the equalizing experience, must feminists devalue the redemptive experience as well? The problem is not an excess of the polite, reflexive “I’m sorry” we say all the time, but an unwillingness to deliver authentic apologies which confess true remorse and promise reform.
The fall of men like Mark Sanford and Tiger Woods have turned our attention to the rise of apology. Apologies are not only pervading private affairs, but also our news headlines. Today, many will be scoring Tiger Woods’s public apology, dissecting his words and gestures, scrutinizing the content and delivery. Yet, most of what will make his apology count will be done in private, within the insulation of his marriage. Still, it will give people a chance to reflect on why we apologize, what we look for in apologies, and what actions must follow an apology to render it meaningful.
There is something to be said about the ritual of issuing and accepting apologies and its restorative power. It forces us to face our weaknesses and limitations, directly and honestly. It can also allow those wronged to begin to move on. Although we may be able to forgive the people we love without ever having to hear them say they are sorry, it does not make a thoughtful apology less profound for those who issue it and those who receive it.