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'90s FAMILY

So Who'll Apologize? Don't Bet on Him

May 25, 1997|MARNELL JAMESON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Figures a man wrote "Love means never having to say you're sorry." My apologies to "Love Story" author Eric Segal, but isn't that a deep male fantasy? What man wouldn't want a relationship in which he never had to say he's sorry?

A friend of mine called the other day. She and her husband had a tiff. Their 12-year-old daughter had complained of not feeling well that morning. My friend thought she should stay home. Her husband thought she was just trying to get out of going to school. So it was the mother who got called out of a business meeting later that day to pick her daughter up because she had a temperature of 102.

"Did he say he was sorry?" I knew the answer before I finished asking.

"Of course not," she said. And we both laughed. Now this is not a terrible guy. He's a bighearted, successful, generous, fun-loving family man who also, like a lot of men, would rather miss six seasons of football than admit he's wrong. Although experts hesitate to ascribe this trait to one gender, they do agree that the reluctance to say I'm sorry is in g-e-n-e-r-a-l a guy thing that stems from the way they're socialized.

"Men are schooled to take care of things. Women are schooled to be caretakers," says Diane Ross Glazer, a therapist at Encino-Tarzana Regional Medical Center. "Women learn to tend to the emotional aspect of the relationship and do the mending if the relationship needs it. We raise boys to be the strong one, to believe they are right. Well, what happens when strong and right makes a mistake? There's shame involved."

UCLA psychotherapist Tom Kennon prefers to ascribe the inability to apologize more to a personality type than to a gender. "If you have a person who is rigid, doesn't like to give up control and likes to make decisions, he or she will have more difficulty accepting blame than someone more laid back and egalitarian in thinking." Although, he admits, this personality type is more commonly found in males, the person carrying the most testosterone in a relationship shouldn't automatically be labeled a blame-dodger.

Kennon adds that women's changing roles have both helped and exacerbated the problem. "Women are used to making effective capable decisions every day at work. As a result, men have become more enlightened and accustomed to stronger women."

But sometimes a woman's effectiveness is not as welcome at home. "At home a man may feel this woman is trying to usurp his authority and he may feel emasculated. If the wife further exerts her power by trying to extract an apology, that only makes matters worse."

To make matters better, women can try tuning into a man's nonverbal apologies and create an atmosphere that makes apologizing feel safer. Often men who find those two little words impossible to choke out compensate in other ways. "He'll lend an extra hand in the kitchen, offer a back rub, or wash and gas up my car," says one woman.

"That is saying he's sorry, just not in words," says Irene Goldenberg, UCLA family psychologist. "His behavior shows that he feels some contrition." Another way men say they're sorry is when a similar situation arises later, they will let the woman do it the way she wanted to originally.

Of course, he can also say it with flowers.

Women also have to examine what they're doing that might make it hard for a man to apologize. "If he's learned from experience that when he apologizes she continues to berate him for another hour, he may not be inclined to apologize in the future," Goldenberg says. "When someone says he's sorry, the other person really has to forgive, then drop it."

Apologies have an upside for both parties, Glazer says. "If you own your mistakes, there's nothing for the other person to push against. There's a lot less blaming. Apologies could cut out 90% of the strife in relationships."

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