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When a romantic partner makes a mistake, or treats you badly, it can create difficulty in the relationship. Assuming you decide to stay, you are left with a choice - should you forgive them or not? Ultimately, the goal is to reestablish the relationship and prevent them from hurting you again. But, will forgiveness motivate them to "see the error of their ways"? Or, is holding them accountable for their actions the key to making sure the situation does not happen again?
There are two theories that answer this question (McNulty, 2011):
1) Reciprocity - The theory of reciprocity states that individuals owe others who do favors for them. Forgiving a mistake falls into this category of "favors". So, the person forgiven owes the person who has forgiven them. Therefore, they should be motivated to act better (because they are bound to reciprocate the forgiveness with good behavior in return). According to this line of reasoning then, forgiveness is the key to behavior change.
2) Operant Learning - The theory of operant learning illustrates that behavior only changes with consequences. Forgiveness, in this case, removes the negative consequences of the offending partner's behavior. They don't lose anything, or have to make any restitution for their actions. As a result, they do not learn to change their behavior - and they are likely to reoffend again. According to this line of reasoning, not forgiving is the key to behavior change.
Research on Forgiveness and Romantic Relationships
To answer this very question, James McNulty (2011) conducted a 4 year study on newlywed couples. He measured each partner's tendency to express forgiveness in the relationship (at multiple times throughout the study). He also measured each partner's perceptions of their spouse's levels of psychological and physical aggression. These behaviors ranged from insults, sulking, and spiteful comments, to pushing, grabbing, and hitting.
McNulty (2011) found that partners who forgave were more satisfied in their relationships. They also appeared less neurotic and more agreeable. Furthermore, there was some evidence to support that forgiveness resulted in lower negative behaviors from one's partner in the short-term.
In the long-term, however, withholding forgiveness appeared to be the key to a well-behaved spouse. Partners less likely to forgive saw a steady drop in their spouse's aggression across the 4 years of the study. In contrast, partners more likely to forgive, saw no change over time in their spouse's aggression levels. Therefore, in the long-run, holding an offending partner responsible for his or her behavior appears to motivate positive behavior change.
What This Means for Your Relationship
Given the research above, it could prove useful to follow a two-part strategy with an "offensive" partner:
For First Minor Offenses - it might be wise to forgive. Point out your partner's negative behavior and make it explicit that you are forgiving them (to activate Reciprocity). Don't just let them "off the hook" without bringing up the subject. Tell them that you know what they have done, you feel hurt, but you are choosing to forgive them. If you'd like something in return, ask them for it too. Then let the situation go. Enjoy feeling good about yourself, your relationship, and your ability to forgive.
For Repeat Offenses Over Time (or Serious Ones) - it can be better to hold a partner accountable. Clearly, your "being nice" has not motivated them to change or act appropriately. Therefore, they must reap the negative consequences of their actions (using Operant Learning). Again, point out their behavior and express that you feel hurt. Remind them that they have performed this behavior in the past (if they have). Then, express to them the "consequences" of their actions. What do you need them to do to make it up to you? How will they "earn" your forgiveness? What will the ramifications for the relationship be if they do not choose to comply (or they reoffend again)? Be clear, specific, and matter-of-fact in these consequences. Find a solution that you are comfortable with and get their explicit agreement to follow it too. Then monitor their behavior until they have completed the consequences and earned your forgiveness.
Relationship transgressions are never easy to set right. It is often hard to decide whether to forgive a partner's wrongdoing, or hold them accountable. But, this "mixed" strategy can offer a happy middle solution. You can receive the rewards of forgiving your partner for first and light misbehaviors. You can also hold them accountable for "repeat offenses" and "serious mistakes" - motivating their better behavior in the future. Overall then, you can be kind...but not a pushover.
One final point. Depending on the nature of the relationship problem, you may need more support than this one article. While this framework is a "general" guide and can be helpful, each forgiveness decision is different (and complex). Therefore, it may prove beneficial to seek out professional counseling and support, especially for hurtful or dangerous situations (such as infidelity or physical abuse). A professional counselor can help you further decide when to stay, how to forgive, and what consequences are appropriate to repair a relationship. Professional support can be found in the Psychology Today Therapist Directory here.
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Until next time...happy dating and relating!
Dr. Jeremy Nicholson
The Attraction Doctor
Previous Articles from The Attraction Doctor
- McNulty, J. K. (2011). The dark side of forgiveness: The tendency to forgive predicts continued psychological and physical aggression in marriage. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37(6), 770-783.
© 2011 by Jeremy S. Nicholson, M.A., M.S.W., Ph.D. All rights reserved.