Relationships: Love means knowing to say you're sorry

In the 1970s blockbuster "Love Story," Ali McGraw whispered the now famous line to Ryan O'Neill: "Love means never having to say you're sorry."

I totally disagree.

Loving relationships do best when people are prompt and prolific with their apologies.

In fact, the strength of any union can be measured by the partners' abilities to appropriately admit to and resolve their faux pas.

Families are fertile breeding grounds in which emotional mishaps occur. Sometimes the errors take place as a result of an intentional behavior, such as the selling of a car that you later wished you'd kept. Others happen out of ignorance or oversight, as when you accidentally say something wrong to your sister-in-law.

But the result is always the same. One member of the relationship feels wronged by the other. The well-being of the bond is strained until the issue is addressed. The sooner the offender admits the error of his or her ways, the sooner the healing process begins.

Five keys

Effective apologies are expressed with both words and actions, and they possess the following five essential characteristics:

Be authentic: Attitude is everything when it comes to making an apology. It must be sincere and free from any hints of anger or aggression. An abrupt or irritated, "OK, OK, I'm sorry. Now are you happy?" just doesn't do the job.

Accept responsibility: Apologies are an admittance of guilt. The offender identifies what he or she has committed an error, then says, "Yes, I am to blame."

Express remorse: After offering a confession, the person expresses sadness or regret for what has happened. Even if you feel that you're being wrongly accused or that you are truly innocent, an apology can still come in handy: "I'm really sorry that this has become an issue. I don't want anything to damage our relationship."

Offer restitution: The guilty person does his or her best to set things right. You may offer to replace something that was damaged or drive the carpool an extra day because you forgot.

Lay out a plan for reform: You let the offended person know that your behavior is going to change as best it can. The strategy may be casual: "I'll write the appointment on my calendar next time." Or it may be very serious: "I'll pull off the road and rest if I start to feel tired while I'm driving." It may even involve a lengthy retraining process: "I need you to point out to me when I'm being sarcastic so I can learn how to stop." Your speech and behavior make clear to all involved that you're trying to improve.

Cease fire

Apologies have an uncanny ability to de-escalate almost any conflict. When one member of a disagreement backs away and says, "I'm sorry," the interaction instantaneously becomes calmer and more easily resolved.

And contrary to some misperception, apologies are not an expression of weakness. They do admit that a transgression has taken place, but they make no comment about the offender's character or capabilities. In fact, most folks would agree that a well-expressed apology is a signal of emotional maturity and commitment to the relationship, two traits that are valued and appreciated in most households.

Of course, making an apology doesn't mean the offender is off scot-free. Words must be backed by actions that show the transgressor has actually changed. An empty "I'm sorry" with no new policies is like a broken promise that no one is going to believe.

Finally, if you are the recipient of an apology and the transgressor has expressed a heartfelt mea culpa, the ball is now in your court to forgive what the offender has done. Too often people hold onto grudges long after the guilty party has sincerely said and demonstrated "I blew it."

Certain offenses, such as having an affair, may indeed require more than one apology combined with ample time and behavioral changes. But then it becomes necessary to let go of past hurts to rebuild your relationship today.

Linda Lewis Griffith is a local marriage and family therapist. For information or to contact her, go to lindalewis