Julia and George were on their fourth date when George made a small mistake. He ordered drinks for both of them and ordered two gin and tonics. Julia looked at George incredulously.
“George,” Julia said. “I told you I hate tonic water on our second date. It was when we were having drinks. How could you order me a gin and tonic?”
“Julia, you never told me you hate gin and tonic. I just was trying to do something nice for you. After all, I am paying.”
“It’s no big deal, George. But I did tell you. Remember, you started to order me a gin and tonic and I asked you please to get me something else. You got me a pink lady instead. You even made a joke about my wearing a pink dress.”
“Julia, I remember the dress. But you never said anything about not liking tonic water. I don’t want to argue about it. I just want to set the record straight.”
“OK, George, let’s skip it. I agree it’s not worth arguing about.”
“Julia, I just want you to tell me to my face that you never said you don’t like tonic water. Then I’m ready to move on. You never said that. Just admit it and we don’t have to bring it up again.”
“I won’t admit to that. But I will admit that I should have realized you were a jerk the last time you refused to admit to a mistake—when you talked about how great the name George is because George Washington’s portrait is on both the dime and the quarter. You wouldn’t even admit to that one. I’ll tell you now. Franklin Roosevelt’s portrait is on the dime, dummy. Check it out! Bye, George.”
George is one of those people who just cannot admit to a mistake. And for sure, he would never just ‘fess up and say he’s sorry. He is not alone.
Making mistakes is human
Many, if not all, of the major world religions recognize that making mistakes is inherently human.
If we are to believe the message of the Christian Gospels, Jesus recognized something that many of us know but are unwilling to admit about ourselves: We are all screw-ups. Jesus and his disciples obviously used different words.
The Jewish philosopher Maimonides had a similar insight, noting that when we make mistakes, we have an obligation to recognize and correct them.
The Islamic Holy book, the Qur’an, also speaks of our obligation to recognize and to correct our mistakes.
Unwillingness to own our mistakes is human, too
Yet, many of us are unwilling to admit to mistakes. We make them and then look to blame others or to deny that anything is even wrong. The inability to admit mistakes could be looked at as a character flaw. But it also can be deadly for our intimate relationships.
When we first enter an intimate relationship, we sometimes are willing to admit to mistakes—as long as they were long ago and with someone other than the person with whom we are entering the relationship. But then, in the course of the relationship, no matter how much we learned from our past relationships, we will make mistakes again. It is inevitable.
As great thinkers of major religions of the world have recognized, people are imperfect—extremely imperfect. It was such imperfection that got Adam and Eve kicked out of the Garden of Eden. Whether or not you believe in the story of Adam and Eve, it is clear that whoever wrote the story of Genesis, long ago, recognized that people have screwed up, even from the first people the Bible alleges existed on Earth.
The magic two words to help your relationship thrive
Julia walked out on George. Not everyone walks out. But if you want your relationships to survive and thrive, one way to do it is to learn how to say two simple words, “I’m sorry.”
Those two words are as close as you will get to magic words as any two words you could utter in your relationship. (“I love you” comprises three words, although in Spanish or French you can say the same in only two words—“Te amo” or “Je t’aime.”).
In the course of a relationship, the question is not whether you will make mistakes. You will. The question is what you will do when you make mistakes.
If what you care about most is preserving your fragile and immature ego, then never admit to mistakes and never say you’re sorry; and let your relationship go, slowly or all at once. If what you care most about is preserving your relationship as well as your integrity, then admit to your mistakes and, when you make them, say “I’m sorry.”
Learn from those mistakes. Your relationship will improve, and so will your showing yourself and others how human you are, and how willing you are to learn from our human tendency to make mistakes. And remember, when people make mistakes, if they are done in, what usually does them in is not their mistakes but their unwillingness to admit to them and even their tendency to cover them up! You’re better than that. Show it in your relationships!