The Apology That Never Came...

One of the most memorable cultural messages about apologies was in the 1970 movie Love Story, when Ali McGraw tearfully told Ryan O'Neal that oft-quoted line: "Love means never having to say you're sorry."

I'm taking that as the Trump mantra. Because, after all, Donald Trump loves America. And everybody... the women, the blacks, the Mexicans, the Border Patrol... as Donald assures us... "They all love me."

Less quoted was the comeback, just a few years later, in What's Up, Doc?, when Barbara Streisand said "Love means never having to say you're sorry" and a cockier Ryan O'Neal retorted with "That's the dumbest thing I ever heard."

So what is it with apologies? Why do some feel hollow and empty while others elicit understanding or even forgiveness? What are the specific qualities of an authentic apology?

For that I turned to Dr. Harriet Lerner, noted N.Y. Times best-selling author, and expert on apologies. Her soon-to-be-released book is titled Why Won't You Apologize? Healing Big Betrayals and Everyday Hurts.

"What makes an apology sincere," Lerner said, "is that the wrongdoer feels remorse, apologizes in a direct, unequivocal way for what they have said or done... or not said or done... and promises to avoid a repeat performance."

So, first the wrongdoer needs to "feel remorse." This is not over getting caught but remorse for what was actually said or done. In the case of Donald Trump, he has to feel that he actually did something wrong, and to value the feelings of others, how they have been impacted, above his own.

Next, the apology has to be direct, and without equivocating. So, no denial ("I didn't say that at all"), excuses ("It was just locker room talk"), deflection ("You didn't understand it") or justifications ("That's not the real me"). No obfuscation or distractions ("I will knock the hell out of ISIS." "Nobody has more respect for women.")

"If the offense is serious," Lerner continued, "no apology will be accepted if the wrongdoer has not listened carefully, and without defensiveness, to the hurt parties' anger and pain."

Here is where it gets a little trickier: Who is Donald apologizing to? Who is entitled to his apology? Is it: 1) His wife because he showed so little respect for their marital vows and marital fidelity?; 2) Those women he describes going after ("I moved on her like a bitch"), dissects (legs, breasts, weight, etc.) or denigrates?; 3) The array of women he assures his youthful admirer that he can and has groped because he has so much power and fame?; 4) All women for being such a dick?; 5) All of the above.

Let's just start with Mrs. Trump, because, as a marital therapist, I do wonder what his wife is feeling and saying right now. Given how Donald was so quick to assume that Mrs. Khan must have been denied her voice, that she was being manipulated or repressed, I wonder if Mrs. Trump ever has that experience... if she feels that the smart choice is to say nothing? Is criticism of the Donald prudent or permissible to voice in the Trump kitchen? The Trump bedroom?

But, more than that, does Mr. Trump really listen? Do the feelings of others matter to him or is it just his own feelings and ego in the equation?

Or, for him, is not listening just a guy thing? Like "locker room talk"?

"In general, men have a more difficult time apologizing than women," Lerner noted. "Men are more likely then women to view an apology as a sign of weakness or losing something."

Communicating that one is taking the issue seriously and expressing a personal commitment to change is essential, Lerner explained. "There are no exact words, but the core has to include: 'I want you to know I'm going to think long and hard about what you've told me. I want to better understand why I behaved that way, and I want to make sure it does not happen again.'"

That self-awareness piece... a commitment to 'study' the transgression and learn from it .... the desire to change and be 'better.'

Apologies need to reflect personal accountability. You don't have to wallow in shame, but some guilt is appropriate.

This is complicated stuff. It's no wonder people mess it up. It takes practice. You have to really want to apologize.

Mr. Trump's default position is to blame, excuse, deny. In his reality, the bragging of a predatory sexual bully is easily dismissed as "locker room talk." And talk is just words. And words don't matter.

Because "Love means never having to say you're sorry."

And nobody loves the Donald more than Donald himself.

Harriet Lerner's book, Why Won't You Apologize? Healing Big Betrayals and Everyday Hurts, will be released by Touchstone/Simon and Schuster in January, 2017. It is available for pre-order on Amazon now.
Susan Kraus is a therapist, mediator and writer. She is working on a novel on the complexity of campus sexual assault and the recent death of evidence.