What is minimalism in the context of a relationship? Can the phrase “I’m sorry” be delivered without associations, expectations and interpretations overwhelming its intent? Sarah Gerard explores the complex process of offering a simple apology. Edited by Genevieve Walker & Ryan Goldberg

Simple Gestures: Saying Sorry

By Sarah Gerard

1. Learning to Unlearn

I’m learning to say “I’m sorry.” This isn’t something I’m proud of but an admission. Over time, I’ve developed a sense for where a disagreement can be manipulated in my favor. I’ve learned how to get away with lying. Even outright lies can be justified by my partner’s behavior: I wouldn’t have cheated if you hadn’t been so critical.

I’ve learned to believe my own lies. That is, if I can own up to my partner’s grievance in the first place; if I can’t just explain away the evidence, accuse my partner of being too suspicious or too controlling, and then wilt under the culture of distrust I’ve created. I’ve learned to believe those lies, too.

2. Learning to Avoid Avoidance

I’ve learned to escape when things get difficult. Which is to say, these habits haven’t worked well for me. I’ve sought out places wherein I can hide—secret lives, or secret inner lives—fantasies that only work well as fantasies, but rot in the open air. In the places where I’m alone, I’m alone with my feelings. I protect my feelings, and protect the behavior they precipitate; I don’t have to be accountable for them, or accountable for it. I don’t have to labor to make myself understood, and instead can blame my partner for failing to understand me; for failing to take my feelings and needs into consideration. What they don’t know, they can’t avoid—but they still failed to avoid it.

3. Learning the Myriad Voices in Every Conversation

They’ve hurt me. I’ve hurt them. I’ve failed to protect them.

In the past, I escaped with my body—infidelity, abandonment. I’m married now, and I want to admit that my infidelities have only served to protect an immature sense of pride. The freedom I found in infidelity before isn’t there anymore because it’s founded in dishonesty. Now there’s guilt and anger. Now there’s regret. I love my partner, so I have to learn new ways to react when I feel threatened, which is the same as learning to trust my partner. I know when we disagree; he isn’t trying to hurt me. He’s trying to guide me. I have to practice remembering. I have to be patient. I have to help him understand me. Slow down. Listen. Say “I’m sorry.”

4. Learning Resolve

I’m learning to say “I’m sorry” because it matters to me now. It’s a simple gesture but heavy with meaning—like a brushstroke separating the eye from the cheek. When I say “I’m sorry,” I remind him he’s human. He isn’t the man before him, or any other man: he is my partner. Inside my apology is the agreement that we’re working together toward a common goal; that we disagree now so we can learn to work better together later; that we will disagree gently; that we’ll protect each other. When I say “I’m sorry,” I can say it safely. I say it knowing we’ve earned our trust. I say it, though I’m still learning.

This essay originally appeared in the Minimalism issue. For more stories dealing with minimalism, check out Women’s Bodies: Apples & Pears Are Not the Only Fruit and Waste Not Want Not.