Recently, a number of men I know have mastered a nifty manoeuvre: the art of saying “sorry” without actually saying the words. Typically, the culprit in question does something like this: come up from behind and hug the offended party. Sometimes, he sweet-talks.
Unapologetic: Men are experts at not saying the word ‘sorry’.
“You look cute when you are mad,” he’ll say.
Naturally, she (or he, if they are a gay couple) will smile, if grudgingly. Women are suckers for the word “cute” when it is applied to any part of their anatomy. Hardy much-married ones who fail to crack their lips for this type of blatant flattery will elicit a stronger response.
“Okay, okay. I accept it. I admit I was wrong. Let’s move on, shall we?” he’ll say.
It seems churlish to refuse, particularly when he is hugging you. From the back. So her lips curve into a semblance of a smile—not the true one where the orbicularis oculi muscle rises and forms crow’s feet, but the false non-Duchenne smile where the lips merely curve upwards. The smile-grimace that says, “Okay, I’m being gracious. I accept your apology.” Pursed lips. Apology accepted. They move on. Only later does the wronged woman realize that the word “sorry” has never passed his lips. It wasn’t an apology. It was a non-apology that achieved its end. It is at this moment, when she is stroking his hair as he lies contentedly in her lap, that the woman in question realizes that she’s been had.
I don’t mean to sound sexist when I say that men are masters of the non-apology apology; of saying sorry without actually using that word. Beverly Engel, psychotherapist and author of The Power of Apology, says the same thing. Women have a tendency to over-apologize, she says. Being a woman, it’s in my interest to agree with her. Actually, the apology count varies from relationship to relationship. In some, the men apologize more. In others, the woman apologizes more. In all relationships, each person thinks that they are the ones who do most of the apologizing.
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In relationships that have lasted over five years, the whole apology process is messed up anyway. Very rarely do people in a relationship apologize because they want to; because they have realized the error of their ways; or even because they want to soothe away their partner’s hurt. These are peripheral concerns and such apologies do happen, but about as often as Hailey’s comet. In most quarrels, he (or she) apologizes, not because he thinks he is wrong but because he thinks he is virtuous. Oh, no, he is going to take the high road and apologize anyway, even though the whole thing was her fault. He’s going to be the better man and show her how it’s done. So he sidles up to her, swallowing a little against the coldness of her countenance, and utters three words with all the conviction of a convict asking for parole: I am sorry. As he says this, he expects a shower of rose petals, the rising throb of church organs, a halo, a smile at least. He expects her to look suitably mortified at how wrong she was, and gaze admiringly at the extent of his sacrifice. What he gets is…silence, at best. Usually, he gets the same accusation that started off their quarrel in the first place: “Why say sorry when you don’t mean it?” she’ll mutter. “You work so late and then come home and expect me to be there to serve you dinner. I have a life too, you know. I’m not a maid. I want a career.”
What happened to the church organ and the rose petals? What happened to the halo, for God’s sake? He had said “sorry”, hadn’t he, which was more than she could summon? Instead of worshipping him as a marital hero, she was treating him as the convict. So he storms off and vows never to say “sorry” again. That’s how it starts.
By the time five years roll around, both partners are willing to do anything just to avoid the “S” word. He will buy her diamonds, compliment her ad nauseum, or carry bags of garbage out of the door. She will wordlessly offer a hot dinner plate, served with a contrite expression; massage his neck; give him an umbrella as he walks out the door, all in an effort to express remorse without actually saying anything.
Whichever party apologizes first, it is usually the one who cannot stand the ugliness; the one who wants to smooth things over and return the relationship to normalcy. If it happens to be the woman, it’s because an apology isn’t tied up with her ego. Women are egotistical about many things: their recipes, clothes, posture, their sideways come-hither glance that is supposed to reduce their boyfriend, spouse or significant other to putty. But apologizing isn’t a power play for the women—or men—who apologize.
Usually couples in long-term relationships fight about the same things over and over again: in-law interference; how to share duties when each person thinks the other isn’t doing as much; proving that she or he is No. 1 on the long list of your priorities; showing you care when you have a demanding job; child-rearing philosophies; the usual. Each partner is wedded to one way of doing things and even though they fight about it, each is convinced that their way is better. They say “sorry” but in a half-hearted “I know this isn’t going to change anything but I’m going to do it anyway” kind of way. Many couples keep tabs on who said sorry and have a tacit agreement to alternate. If she said “sorry” this time, next time, he’d better cough up the words. After millions of times of coughing up those loathed words, is it any surprise that spouses have become adept at the non-sorry sorry? If anything, we should have thought of it much earlier.
There is, however, one thing in a marriage worse than the apology. That’s up next week.
Shoba Narayan has considered smoke signals and Braille as instruments of torture…ahem…apology. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org