“Love is never having to say you’re sorry.” The line from Love Story, Erich Segal’s 1970 movie, has passed into the collective unconscious. In our culture, it’s taken for granted that this statement is true, along with the six degrees of separation and anything you read in a fortune cookie. Wrong!
In the opening scene of my new mystery, Death Will Help You Leave Him, my protagonist Bruce Kohler finds himself driving uptown to East Harlem in the middle of a rainy night with his sidekicks Barbara and Jimmy. A friend’s abusive boyfriend has been found dead in her apartment, and Barbara, world-class codependent that she is, gallops to the rescue, dragging Bruce and Jimmy along with her. Here’s a somewhat abridged version.
“Tell me again,” I said. “Whose apartment is it? And who’s the corpse?”
“Her pigeon’s boyfriend.” Jimmy swiveled to look at me. Bad idea. The car skidded on the slick wet surface of Third Avenue.
“Pigeons have boyfriends?”
“My Al-Anon sponsee,” she elaborated. “Luz. Her apartment, and don’t say ‘corpse.’ She found her boyfriend dead on the floor when she came home. She was hysterical when she called me, and the cops are there.”
“So when do Al-Anons call their sponsors?” I asked. “Short of sudden death.”
“When somebody else’s life starts flashing before their eyes,” Jimmy said.
Barbara swatted his upper arm, not hard enough to endanger us.
“Cut it out, that’s not fair.”
“When they can’t stop saying, ‘I’m sorry,’” he said. “You know it’s true, petunia.”
“Cops. Do they think it’s murder? If so, ‘I’m sorry’ wouldn’t be the smartest thing to say.”
So saying “I’m sorry” all the time is codependency. It’s taking responsibility for everybody’s behavior, not just your own. It’s not your fault when the 800-pound gorilla steps on your foot. So don’t apologize.
But does that mean never saying you’re sorry is love? I don’t think so. It’s not even so much that not apologizing means you never admit you’re wrong. It’s more about the myth that if you really love someone, you can read each other’s minds. “You know I’d never want to hurt you,” this mythical unapologetic lover might say. “You know without my telling you that if I do, I’m sorry.” No communication needed. No acknowledgment of a mistake. No renewal of the connection. No proof of self-awareness. Would that really feel like love?
Let’s try an analogy. What if we said, “Love is never having to say ‘I love you’”? You know I love you. We can read each other’s minds, right? So why do we ever have to say it?
I’m reminded of a clever and delightful song by country artist Pam Tillis:
I knew he didn't have any money
Yeah that's why he couldn't buy me a ring
Oh and just because he bought himself a brand new pickup truck
Really didn't prove anything
And he never had to say he loved me
I could see it every time he smiled
Just call me Cleopatra everybody, 'cause I'm the Queen of Denial.
It’s important to be honest about your own behavior. If you’re wrong and you regret it, speak up. If you love your partner, spit it out. Frequently. If people don’t talk to each other about what’s going on and how they affect each other, how is the love between them ever going to grow into a durable intimacy? Erich Segal solved the problem by cheating: his heroine gets a terminal illness and dies at the age of 25. According to Wikipedia, the story is considered one of the most romantic of all times. I can’t help imagining countless promising relationships foundering on the rock of unrealistic expectations as young lovers get pissed off and break up, either because their partners don’t say, “I’m sorry,” or because they do, thus “proving” that it isn’t really love.