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Forgiveness

When and How to Apologize: An Attachment Theory Perspective

The ins and outs of what makes an apology work.

Have you ever tried to apologize to someone, but the apology backfired and made the situation worse? Have you ever apologized when you really were not sorry? Or has someone else’s apology to you come across as insincere and made you feel worse? The problem is that no one typically receives lessons on how or when to apologize.

Consider feeling bad about a hurtful thing you said to your partner. You think about it for a day and feel guilty and want to authentically say you are sorry and re-establish the connection. You tell your partner that your behavior was not right and apologize. Instead of saying it is OK and forgiving you, however, your partner starts to escalate emotionally and agrees that you really were a schmuck. You start to feel defensive again as your partner goes back into your negative behaviors. Ten minutes later, you are still taking the onslaught, feeling angry and wanting to lash out, and wondering how you could have been so foolish as to attempt an apology in the first place.

Most of us apologize to others without fully considering our own motives, whether apologizing will get us what we want, or how the other person will receive and process our apology. My goal with this post is to explore these motives, talk about optimal apology strategies, and look at how your attachment style can have a powerful effect both on your motives and on how you react when you are apologized to.

Attachment styles are highly relevant here because apologizing is a primary strategy that people use to reengage and maintain attachments and connections after there has been a rupture in a relationship.

Attachment theory as conceptualized by Bowlby, Ainsworth, and countless other researchers articulates how the type of parenting you experienced as a child led you to establish relatively stable ways of viewing the world, think about yourself and others, and process emotions. Your ability to regulate (control) your emotions, and your social attitudes, have lifelong impacts on how you think about apologies, forgiveness, and reconciliation.

People with secure attachment styles are strong in empathic attunement, self-awareness, and emotion regulation—all essential skills needed in negotiating a relationship repair and reconciliation. Thus, securely attached people should be relatively effective in delivering apologies.

Schumann and Orehek (2019) propose that an effective apology communicates concern, a desire to maintain the relationship, and to restore the relationship to how it was before the transgression.

Schumann (2014) suggests that effective apologies are likely to contain the following eight elements ( available online here ):

  1. Expressing remorse.
  2. Accepting responsibility.
  3. Attempting to repair the damage.
  4. Offering an explanation that does not deflect responsibility.
  5. Promising to behave better in the future.
  6. Acknowledging the harm that was done.
  7. Admitting wrongdoing.
  8. Asking for forgiveness.

Schumann and Orehek’s research indicated that securely attached people tend to engage in more comprehensive apologies, meaning that they are more likely to use a greater number of the eight strategies listed above. Research by Ashy, Mercurio, and Malley-Morrison (2010) indicates that secure attachment also was one of the best predictors of positive attitudes toward forgiveness. Securely attached people are more open to forgiving relative to those with insecure attachment styles. It follows that those with secure attachment styles should expect positive things to come from apologizing and to engage in this behavior more frequently.

But about 45 percent of the population has one of the three insecure attachment styles. Thus, even if you are secure yourself, you should read this material so that you can understand how insecurely attached people you interact with think about and process apologies.

People with anxious/preoccupied attachment styles , may have difficulty regulating emotions and may have a tendency to get emotionally hijacked. When they are activated, they are likely to feel strong emotions that lead them to think of painful events and other past transgressions. They are likely to desire and welcome the apology and yet are also likely to be reactivated by it and re-experience strong emotions. Attachment researchers have termed this paradox “revolving anger.” Consider how an anxiously attached toddler behaves in the “strange situation” research paradigm. In this situation, the toddler is briefly separated and then reunited with his/her mother. Researchers observe and code the child’s reactions across this separation and reunion. An anxiously attached toddler is immensely relieved and leans into his mother's comforting arms when she picks him up, only to start yelling at her and hitting her moments later. ( See this video.)

Now think about the last time you tried to apologize and comfort your anxious relationship partner. People with anxious styles may have a need to re-process what happened in order to release negative emotions and reach a state of forgiveness. In order to get to that point, they need to have ambiguity eliminated and to know that you “get it” if you are apologizing to them. They need a more comprehensive apology with time for them to process with the offender after the apology is delivered.

Example: An anxiously attached person and a relative have a tense interaction in front of others at a family gathering. The anxiously attached person wants to apologize but the other (dismissing) person approaches them first and apologizes for their behavior. The anxious person starts to say they are sorry for their part, too, but the other person cuts them off, restates the apology, and quickly ends the conversation. The anxiously attached person has no chance to process their side of the interaction and leaves the exchange more bothered than they were before.

If the anxious/preoccupied person is apologizing: Get clear on your motive for apologizing. Just wanting to be forgiven and to get back in another person’s good graces so that you do not have to worry about being disliked or experience negative emotions yourself is not a good reason.

If the anxious/preoccupied person is being apologized to: Before apologizing to your anxiously attached friend or partner, commit to your course of action. If this person escalates and reengages in expressing anger toward you, do not run away, remain emotionally and physically present, listen actively, and do not become defensive.

People with dismissing attachment styles are generally uncomfortable feeling vulnerable, experiencing interpersonal conflict, or acknowledging weaknesses or wrongdoing. They tend to make external attributions for their own failures and deflect fault, often blaming the victim for their behavior. Delivering a comprehensive apology might be experienced as highly aversive to the dismissing person because it requires that they admit shortcomings, express a desire to change, take responsibility for their harmful actions, and ask for forgiveness (Schumann, 2014).

Schumann and Orehek’s (2019) research indicated that the more avoidant someone was, the less comprehensive their apologies were likely to be, the less empathic effort they took in crafting their apologies, and the more defensive they were likely to be.

Schumann’s (2014) defensive strategies include:

  1. Attempting to justify one’s behavior.
  2. Blaming the victim.
  3. Making excuses.
  4. Minimizing negative effects.
  5. Attempting to deny involvement in the offense.

If the dismissing/avoidant person is apologizing: Get clear on your motive. Just wishing the other person would suck it up and move on is not a good enough reason to apologize. I have seen many dismissing clients apologize to their partners when they clearly did not believe they did anything wrong or see a need to change their behaviors. They tend to believe that their apology should be accepted at face value and they should be forgiven without having to go more in-depth processing what happened.

For example, a dismissing person in couples therapy apologizes for a name-calling outburst and expects everything to be forgiven simply because of making the apology. They might state, "My partner knows that I’m sorry.” But often the partner is looking at the therapist shaking their head, saying, “(S)he doesn’t get it.”

Watch out for the word “ but ” coming immediately after an apology. This signals that one or more of the defensive strategies listed above is about to be implemented. Remember that these defensive strategies will quickly cancel out any apology.

If the dismissing/avoidant person is being apologized to: Be prepared to have the dismissing/ avoidant person tell you not to worry about it and act like nothing happened. This person may have no desire to experience the closeness needed to hear you bare your soul and acknowledge your shortcomings. They may prematurely end the conversation and leave you feeling unresolved and even angry. If they do this, tell them that you want to talk it through a little more and ask if they can stay present with you for the discussion. Don’t just start processing it out loud if they aren’t ready. They will shut down anyway. And if they do end the conversation or shut you down, simply realize that you did your best to do the honorable thing and move on.

People with fearful attachment styles generally want closeness but are too afraid of being hurt to get close enough to other people to get it. They are likely to have been wounded emotionally by those people they depended on most in childhood. They also are likely to have witnessed multiple intense relationship ruptures without subsequently getting to witness those relationships get repaired. And so, they are not likely to have much in the way of a roadmap for how an effective apology works. They also are likely to have relatively poor ability to control their emotions and may misperceive others' motives and intentions. Hence, they are likely to be highly distrusting, skeptical, and on-guard for being harmed or manipulated.

People who experienced more hostility and volatility in their parental environment are likely to have more negative attitudes toward apologies, forgiveness, and reconciliation. Not surprisingly then, Ashy, Mercurio, and Malley-Morrison (2010) found that negative and rejecting attitudes toward apologies, forgiveness, and reconciliation were related most strongly with fearful attachment.

If the fearful person is apologizing: Practice controlling your emotions in advance of the apology. You may not be able to pull off the apology if your emotions are too close to the surface. Of course, you know yourself best and will want to balance being emotionally present and authentic with being able to apologize without freezing, attacking, or running away. Write it down on paper before trying to do it in person because when you are in person your thoughts may become disorganized and you might not remember what you wanted to say.

If the fearful person is being apologized to: They may tell you to take a hike and that you are not forgiven. If they do, try not to get angry; that will just prove to them that you were not sincere and were being manipulative. In another scenario, they may attack you and bring up other transgressions that you were not even thinking about. If this happens, just remember that your friend or partner has become emotionally dysregulated by vulnerability entailed for both of you in this experience and you are likely to be perceived as scary. Just assure the fearfully attached person that everything is OK and that you are still there for them. Ask them if they need some time alone to process what you said.

These are some basic ideas of how to work with apologies based on each person’s attachment style. But this is just the surface of a complex topic. If you need more help navigating these issues, a therapist with knowledge of attachment theory would be a good resource.

In the meantime, keep in mind some common themes:

  1. Do not go into an apology expecting to be forgiven. You may not be. And, no matter what, try your best not to lash out or get angry at another person for not forgiving you. Sometimes we do bad things and simply have to pay the price for our actions. Lost relationships and some level of pain are sometimes a part of that. Example: My son, says “I’m sorry, dad. Do you forgive me?” This means, Can I avoid the consequences for my behavior? The answer is yes, I forgive you. But no, you still get to have the consequence.
  2. Do not apologize when doing so could harm the person you are apologizing to or other people. Think it through carefully.
  3. Do not apologize for one thing and bring up your partner's separate transgressions in the next sentence
  4. Do consider your motives for apologizing and recognize the extent to which you are doing this for you or the other person.
  5. Above all, remember that you also are a person who deserves your respect, kind words, and support. Be kind to yourself and honor your own well-being.

References

Schumann, K., & Orehek, E. (2019). Avoidant and defensive: Adult attachment and quality of apologies. Journal of Social & Personal Relationships, 36(3), 809–833. https://doi.org/10.1177/0265407517746517

Ashy, M., Mercurio, A. E., & Malley-Morrison, K. (2010). Apology, Forgiveness, and Reconciliation: An Ecological World View Framework. Individual Differences Research, 8(1), 17–26. Retrieved from https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=49314724&site=eds-live

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