It is 4:50 p.m. on a Thursday and you are just finishing up at work. You have to leave no later than 5:00 p.m. because you promised your ex that you would pick them up from the train station at 5:25 p.m. to go out to dinner.
Just as you are preparing to leave, your boss comes over and gives you another task to do. He says that the sooner you can get it done, the better, but that he understands he is springing it on you last minute. You look the task over and estimate that it will take you about 15 min to complete.
Unfortunately, it turns out that the task is taking much longer to finish than you originally expected. You try to call your ex, but they are on the train and the signal is weak. You try to send them a text message and your battery dies.
Although you know you will be late to pick up your ex, you decide to stay and finish the task. You end up leaving the office at 5:45 pm.
As you are leaving the building, it is pouring rain outside. You arrive at the train station meeting spot 35 minutes late and see your ex standing there, soaking wet and shivering in the rain. They are obviously upset.
When your ex gets in the car, they say “Where have you been? I’ve been waiting for you out here for 35 minutes.
1) Do you make yourself emotionally vulnerable, accept responsibility, offer a full complete apology and try to repair the damage done?
2) Do you become defensive and justify your actions, give excuses and/or get upset that your ex is upset. You didn’t have a choice, you tried to reach them and it is not your fault that it rained. If they had their own car, you’d have met them at the restaurant instead. Or:
3) Do you say nothing at all?
Attachment theory posits that our attachment styles influence how we choose to respond when we have upset or hurt someone close to us.
Two studies titled Avoidant and Defensive: Adult Attachment and Quality of Apologies published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships set to examine the link between attachment styles and apology quality.
One of the hypothesis was that closeness to the person hurt accounts for the quality of the apology. Researchers were particularly keen to test whether avoidants feel less close to someone and are therefore less motivated to repair the relationship or whether they simply care less about their relationships in general.
They hypothesized that, because people high in attachment avoidance are less comfortable making themselves emotionally vulnerable to their attachment partners, are less empathic toward others, and are less willing to engage in constructive conflict resolution behaviours, they should be less willing to offer comprehensive apologies.
Furthermore, because avoidants are more likely to respond to their attachment partner’s negative emotions with hostility and defensiveness, researcher anticipated that avoidants would employ more defensive strategies in their responses.
Participants were told to imagine hurting someone they considered a dear and very close friend and then rate their likelihood of using apology elements and defensive strategies.
As anticipated, the findings were consistent with how avoidants behave when their relationships are under threat: Rather than engaging in constructive behaviours aimed at protecting and repairing the relationship, people high in avoidance tend to distance themselves and engage in hostile and defensive behaviours aimed at protecting the self.
The findings provide evidence for the process by which avoidants emotionally disengage: After upsetting or hurting someone, they invest less effort trying to understand the other person’s feelings and perspectives and more effort in defensiveness and self-preservation strategies.
Researchers also found a positive association between an avoidant’s rating of closeness to the victim and apology comprehensiveness. The closer they felt to the victim the more likely they were to offer a comprehensive apology. This is because avoidants who feel close to their victims have a strong need to be viewed positively by that person, this motivates them to downplay the negativity of their actions and the impact on the relationship, which in turn stops them from deactivating and pulling away.
The findings for anxiously attached participants were less consistent. The analysis suggested that someone with attachment anxiety might provide a full and deep apology if they scored low on avoidance (Preoccupied Attachment Style), and when they scored high on avoidance (Fearful-Avoidant), they distanced themselves and engaged in hostile and defensive behaviours aimed at protecting the self.
Participants were told to recall an offense they had committed that was currently unresolved and write an e-mail to the person they had hurt. They were given the following instructions:
“We would now like you to write an e-mail to the person you hurt. Please use this e-mail to address the offense that you committed against them, saying whatever it is that you would like to say to them about this event. At the end of the study, we will ask you to log in to your e-mail account and send the e-mail.”
In emails they wrote and intended to send to their victims, researchers found less frequent use of apology elements and more frequent use of defensive strategies among participants with higher levels of attachment avoidance. These emails were also judged as being less effective overall and as conveying less vulnerability to the victim.
In addition, researchers found that more avoidants were more defensive in their responses only when they had committed severe offenses. Nearly all offenses reported were relational in nature (e.g., insulting, lying, arguing, cheating, breaking the person’s heart).This finding suggests that an angrier victim and recognizing that one’s behaviour was quite harmful might be required to trigger an avoidant’s defensive responses.
This is consistent with past studies that found that the more avoidants perceive negative emotions in their partners, the more they display hostile and defensive behaviour.
As in the first study, the findings for anxiously attached participants were less consistent. When told to imagine how they would respond when they had upset or hurt someone, anxiously attached individuals tended to engage in relationship-promotive behaviours, perhaps because they care about maintaining their close relationships.
However, when are actually faced with an opportunity to respond, their self-protective motives kick in and guide them toward less constructive behaviour.
How important is an apology?
An apology is a very emotional experience that requires emotional vulnerability and prioritizing of the relationship over self-protection.
Research suggests that the decision to apologize or not can have important consequences for the relationship with the victim. By apologizing, the offender is engaging in behaviour designed to connect with the victim. Effective apologies communicate concern for the victim and a desire to preserve the relationship, and although people apologize for a variety of reasons, the ultimate goal is usually to restore the relationship to what it was before the offense occurred.
Fortunately for relationships, apologies are quite effective at achieving these ends. Among other benefits, apologies help victims feel validated, improve their evaluations of their offender, decrease victims’ aggression toward the offender, and increase victims’ empathy for and willingness to forgive the offender. As such, apologies are considered one of the most powerful strategies that offender can use to promote reconciliation.
Do avoidants apologize when they hurt you?
The studies above suggest that they do, but avoidants are more likely to disengage during times of conflict as a way of protecting themselves and to regulate the insecurity they feel with their close relationship partner.
Perhaps, as the study suggests, minimizing the expression of “negative” emotions might make an avoidant less hostile and defensive, more willing to put aside self-protection goals, invest effort to understand your feelings and perspectives, and seek connectedness. But again, as the study says, whether all the above can happen depends on how the avoidant rates closeness to you.