Wouldn’t it be great if everyone is ever-forgiving? Let’s imagine that you have just come home after a long day and your partner — who had a day off — is sitting on top of a pile of chores and hoping that you could make time for those. Well, you at your maximum level of exhaustion are not about to put up with your partner. You ended up yelling at your partner who, to be fair, just wondered if you would have time to share the chore with them. Now, all that you are hoping for is to skip the fight and pray for your partner’s forgiveness. So let’s talk about this virtue in close relationships — forgiveness.
When we talk about forgiveness, we think of it as a really good thing. Forgiveness allows us to make mistakes and make up for them; it shows the potential and desires to make a relationship work. However, the tendency to always forgive does not necessarily mean happily-ever-after. McNulty (2008) looked at forgiveness in marriage through a longitudinal scope. The results showed that despite the positive main effects of forgiveness on marital outcomes in the sample of 72 newly married couples, the tendencies to forgive interacted with how frequently their partners exhibit negative verbal behaviors (McNulty, 2008). In other words, the more negative the partner behaved, the less one’s forgiveness benefits their relationship. Although forgiveness in general benefits marital relationships, this benefit is less evident if your partner often upsets you and frequent forgiving is needed in your relationship.
But then how do you know it is time to stop forgiving and move on?
You probably won’t ever know for sure — but scientists are here to help you out. Finkel et al. (2002) discovered that the level of commitment promotes forgiveness in close relationships. The association between commitment and forgiveness is built upon the intention of individuals to persist and remain dependent on their current relationship, which is supported by the findings in McNulty’s study (2008). This intention of remaining in a relationship can be so strong that individuals are willing to forgive their partners for betrayal. But isn’t betrayal bad? Shouldn’t we run from those who cheat? But what if they are truly sorry and will never cheat again if we just forgive them this time?
The key to answering these questions is trust. Strelan et al. (2017) looked at the determinants of forgiveness in close relationships with a particular focus on post-transgression trust. The results are well expected — trust always plays an important mediating role in the forgiveness process, even when apology, empathy, hurtfulness, and other variables specifically associated with transgressions are considered (Strelan et al., 2017). If you and your partner really trust each other, you are more likely to forgive each other and such forgiveness will lead to positive relational outcomes. However, if this trust is broken, or the partner repeatedly behaves in manners such that forgiveness is demanded, the trust will diminish and individuals are less likely to forgive. In that case, positive outcomes in relationships will be difficult to achieve.
In short, forgiveness is a good and important aspect of close relationships. However, people do not and should not always forgive each other. Forgiveness will not necessarily turn a bad situation into a positive one, and will not turn a toxic relationship into a healthy one either.
McNulty J. K. (2008). Forgiveness in marriage: putting the benefits into context. Journal of family psychology: journal of the Division of Family Psychology of the American Psychological Association (Division 43), 22(1), 171–175. https://doi.org/10.1037/0893-318.104.22.168
Strelan, P., Karremans, J. C., & Krieg, J. (2017). What determines forgiveness in close relationships? The role of post-transgression trust. The British journal of social psychology, 56(1), 161–180. https://doi.org/10.1111/bjso.12173
Finkel, E. J., Rusbult, C. E., Kumashiro, M., & Hannon, P. A. (2002). Dealing with betrayal in close relationships: does commitment promote forgiveness?. Journal of personality andsocial psychology, 82(6), 956–974. https://doi.org/10.1037//0022-3522.214.171.1246