“Love means never having to say you’re sorry”—a much-quoted line from the 1970 film Love Story—must be one of the silliest silver-screen claims about love (and that’s saying something). As anyone in a happy long-term relationship could attest, love means saying you’re sorry at least occasionally. A recent review of some academic literature on this topic sheds a bit more light on how, when, and why we apologize or accept others’ apologies. I’ll share some of the highlights here.
Jarrett T. Lewis, Gilbert R. Parra, and Robert Cohen summarized the findings of 15 studies on apologies in close romantic, familial, and platonic relationships for their piece in the Journal of Family Theory & Review. Most of the studies were cross-sectional surveys that asked participants about past experiences or theoretical situations, and most were set on college campuses. Since “research on apologies in close relationships is at a relatively early stage of development,” there is no universal scholarly definition of the subject yet, but five common components have emerged on the subject. An apology in a close relationship may entail “(a) acknowledgment of wrongdoing, (b) acceptance of responsibility, (c) expression of remorse, (d) offer of compensation, and (e) communication not to commit the transgression again in the future.”
Unsurprisingly, the closeness of a relationship affects how people handle committing and suffering offenses: Transgressors are more likely to apologize when in a close relationship with the victim, and “victims involved in relationships with high levels of closeness were more likely to receive an apology and empathize with their wrongdoers than were victims involved in relationships lacking high levels of closeness.” Personality traits matter, too: in correlational studies, “levels of compassion, well-being, and acceptance were positively related to proclivity to apologize, and more self-interested attributes such as narcissism were negatively correlated with proclivity to apologize.”
Gender also shapes people’s likelihood of apologizing: Women are more likely to apologize than men. In one study, participants were told “to describe up to three instances that day in which they ‘apologized to someone or did something that might have deserved an apology’ and to report all daily transgressions in an online diary for 12 days,” whatever their role in the transgression and whatever their relationship to the other people involved. As the makers of last year’s viral ad telling women to stop apologizing might have predicted, “Women reported not only committing more transgressions but also offering more apologies than men.” But they received more apologies, as well, because they reported being victimized more often.
Survey questions about both real and hypothetical scenarios suggested that this gender gap arises from different standards of offensiveness: “men were less likely to apologize because of a higher threshold of what was considered a wrongdoing, or offensive behavior.” However, “there were no gender differences in whether transgressors apologized once they perceived their behavior as offensive.”
Other studies have examined what makes an apology effective in earning victims’ forgiveness and restoring the relationship. Summing up various studies’ findings, the researchers conclude that “there appear to be four fundamental characteristics of apologies that are associated with victim forgiveness in close relationships: expression of remorse, acknowledgment of wrongdoing, offer of compensation, and acceptance of responsibility.” But here, too, context and individual characteristics can make a difference. For instance, one study found that the relative importance people assign to an offer of compensation, an expression of empathy, and “an acknowledgment of a violation of rules or norms” in an apology depends on how they see themselves:
[Those] with higher levels of an independent self-construal (i.e., viewing oneself as a unique and autonomous entity) were more likely to consider a good apology as one with an offer of compensation. Individuals with high levels of a relational self-construal (i.e., viewing oneself as fundamentally connected to other people) were more likely to consider a good apology as one including an expression of empathy. Last, individuals with high levels of a collective self-construal (i.e., viewing oneself as associated with groups or social categories) were more likely to consider an acknowledgment of a violated norm or rule of the relationship as a component of a good apology.
Applying the findings of such research to daily life is somewhat tricky: When you’ve offended someone, you should hardly try to investigate their self-construal prior to apologizing, or compose a formulaic speech incorporating the four components linked with victim forgiveness. But surely we could all stand to think more deeply about the process of restoring relationships with those we’ve hurt, and to learn what “sorry” means to different people.