“Three words, eight letters. Say it and I’m yours.” This was Blair Waldorf’s plea to her on-again, off-again lover Chuck Bass on the television drama Gossip Girl when Chuck wouldn’t admit to anyone his obvious devotion to her. Blair was presumably after the words “I love you,” but considering their long history of slights against each other, she could just as easily have been waiting for the words “I am sorry” to spill from bad-boy Chuck’s lips. As it turns out, the overall well-being of romantic relationships may hang as much on apologies as they do on confessions of love.
In a recent study,1 60 married or cohabiting couples (i.e., 120 individuals) responded to questions about their overall relationship satisfaction (e.g., “I am extremely happy with my current romantic relationship.”) and then spent a week keeping track of negative events in their relationships. Each night, the participants logged onto the research website and indicated how severe the negative events were, whether they had forgiven their partners, and whether they considered the situations resolved. They also noted whether they received an apology from their partners, and if so, exactly how their partners apologized (i.e., with which specific words) and how sincere they felt the apologies were.
The researchers recorded over 270 negative events, and 31% of them resulted in an apology. To determine how comprehensive the apologies were, two research assistants reviewed the apologies for the specific apology elements described below:
- Demonstrations of remorse (“I’m sorry.”)
- Acceptance of responsibility (“It’s my fault.”)
- Admission of wrongdoing (“I shouldn’t have done that.”)
- Acknowledgement of harm (“I know you’re hurt.”
- Promises to behave better (“I will never do it again.”)
- Requests for forgiveness (“Please don’t be mad at me.”)
- Offers to make up for the mistake (“I’ll make it up to you.”)
- Attempts to explain things (“I’m late because I was stuck in traffic.”)
The couples’ current relationship satisfaction was not linked to whether one’s partner apologized, but satisfaction did predict how partners apologized to one another. People in more satisfied relationships received more apologies in which their partners accepted responsibility for the wrongdoings, whereas those in less-satisfied relationships received apologies where the wrongdoer promised to behave better in the future. (A few too many empty promises in their past, maybe?)
In cases where an apology was received, the victims were more likely to forgive their partners if they were in a happier relationship, even though those wrongdoers did not necessarily offer more thorough apologies (containing more of the apology elements above). Highly satisfied people were also more likely to consider the apology sincere, even if it wasn’t comprehensive, regardless of the severity or nature of any wrong-doing; notably, the victimized partners were more likely to “forgive and forget” following sincere apologies. However, in situations where no apology was offered, having high relationship satisfaction didn’t matter. The wrongdoer was just as likely to end up in the doghouse.
The Gossip Girl pairing of Blair and Chuck may often seem ill-fated (how do you forgive your lover for trading you for a hotel and tricking you into thinking it was your idea?), but the two find themselves drawn together again and again after a few well-placed apologies and endearing expressions of remorse. However, the Upper East Side power couple (and all of us!) should beware; some transgressions may be too serious to forgive, no matter how satisfied the couple is or how sincerely the wrongdoer apologizes. Thus, without the benefit of a roomful of scriptwriters behind us, those of us living in the real world must take extra care when dealing with the consequences of our romantic transgressions.
1Schumann, K. (2012). Does love mean never having to say you're sorry? Associations between relationship satisfaction, perceived apology sincerity, and forgiveness. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. doi: 10.1177/0265407512448277
Dr. Helen Lee Lin - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Helen's past research has focused on potential problems in relationships, such as keeping secrets from a significant other. She is also interested in communication as well as the use and consumption of media in relationships, and is planning to work in applied contexts for her future projects.