Those three little words that were schooled into my head as a boy: “I forgive you.” My encouraging parents made sure that following every little spat I had with my little brother, the instigator would say, “I’m sorry” while the victim would follow with, “I forgive you.” Often times distortion of who was the instigator and who was the victim existed, so more often than not, we both would end up saying each response to the other. I give much credit to my parents for instilling this essential element of relational growth, maintenance, and success into the both of us from a young age, contributing to the close relationship he and I have today.
This idea of participating in an action or process of extending to someone a type of exoneration, even if sometimes we are reluctant to do so, is something many of us do regularly. However, many find it difficult to forgive, as the emotional and sometimes physical toll it takes on them seemingly precludes them from participation in this process. Yet, there are great benefits to extending forgiveness, as well as great detriments to not doing so.
Much research has been done on the personal, intrapersonal benefits of forgiving, and the detriments of not forgiving another. That is, studies show people unwilling to extend forgiveness to someone who has done them harm will often withdraw from social relationships and tend to experience deep loneliness. Additionally, a loss of trust occurs more often than not, discouraging them from ever developing future close relationships. Depression and anxiety are often leading causal reasons, but one particular motivation often overlooked is deeply rooted in stress.
It has long been discovered that our bodies are incapable of dealing with stress; that is, high-levels of stress can lead to a deterioration in health. One study of many, linking stress with an unwillingness to forgive, examined the immediate emotional and physiological effects occurring when participants recalled hurtful memories and harbored resentments (i.e. unforgiving) equated when they nurtured empathic viewpoint taking and perceived extending forgiveness toward real-life wrongdoers. Results indicate unforgiving feelings encouraged more aversive emotion, significantly higher electromyogram (EMG), skin conductance, heart rate, and blood pressure. With physical deterioration comes the emotional and mental decline as well. Take adultery for instance.
Loss of trust is an expected repercussion of marital infidelity. From discovery of the unfaithfulness, uncovering the extent of the unfaithfulness, and dealing with the long-term residual memories of the unfaithful’s deeds are often devastating to emotional and mental recovery. However, extensive research, from a variety of infidelity cases, supports the overall conclusion that although infidelity causes significant relational damage for couples and results in a loss of trust and relationship stability, that couples can be reconciled and trust may be returned as couples work through forgiveness. Sometimes, though, reconciliation never comes, leading to separation and eventual divorce.
In these cases, victims of infidelity are often left emotionally and mentally stunned. Unable to function. Unable to focus. Unable to move on. Left asking questions like, “How will I be able to trust, find happiness, or even get out of bed again?” Though there are multiple avenues one in this situation may go down in order to reach full recovery, one vital stage is this: forgiveness.
Through much of my own research, I’ve explored the thoughts, motives, and feelings of both instigators as well as victims of marital infidelity. Though each participant’s response was respectively unique to each situation, one common theme arose: extending forgiveness was essential to personal healing. In all of these cases, although exercising complete forgiveness was sometimes a process for them, when forgiveness was finally extended, these individuals received emotional satisfaction and an intrinsic desire to progress forward with their lives regardless of whether or not reconciliation had or might occur. All participants holding this overall collective view indicated they would have otherwise felt justified to hold resentment and bitterness against their spouses for those offenses.
You may have been wronged by someone along the line of atrocity that goes beyond the bounds of human comprehension. You do not have a choice of whether you can be guaranteed this person will ask, “Will you forgive me?” But, you do have a choice to say, “I forgive you” regardless if they hear you say it or not. A large degree of your happiness depends on it. Your relational progression is essential to it. Your health is even at risk because of it.
Forgiveness: A simple word instilled in many of us from childhood, though only one essential ingredient to personal and relational fulfillment in this life, running hand-in-hand with grace and selflessness.
For more articles written by Zack Carter, Ph.D., regarding how to steward well your communication in an effort to improve your self and your relationships, please check out his Psychology Today blog column by clicking the link below:
Clear Communication deals with the day-to-day blind-spots in communication. Blind spots in communication are defined as those thoughts, words, or actions you may or may not be cognizant of as you live day-to-day, but often times can negatively affect you and others in the long run. Want to know how to avoid communication blind spots in your personal and relational development? By raising your awareness of these blind spots, in both every day and in social and digital media settings, you can potentially elude relationship heartache and devastation. Achieving relationship success in this 21st-century environment requires healthy, consistent communication stewardship. This blog will help you learn about how to apply social psychology in your personal and relational settings to avoid these blind-sided communication moments. My goal is to educate my readers on how strategy and intentional communication behaviors are necessary to the development and management of your self, and your relationships.
Carter, Z. A. (2016). Married and previously married men and women's perceptions of communication on facebook with the opposite sex: How communicating through facebook can be damaging to marriages. Journal of Divorce & Remarriage, 57, 36-55.
Day, L., Maltby, J. (2005). Forgiveness and social loneliness. Journal of Psychology, 139, 553-555.
Fife, S. T., Weeks, G. R., Stellberg-Filbert, J. (2013). Facilitating forgiveness in the treatment of infidelity: An interpersonal model. Journal of Family Therapy, 35, 343-367.
Friedberg, J. P., Suchday, S., Srinivas, V. S. (2009). Relationship between forgiveness and psychological and physiological indices in cardiac patients. International Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 3, 205-211.
vanOyen, C. W., Witvliet, C. v., Ludwig, T. E., Vander Laan, K. L. (2001). Granting forgiveness or harboring grudges: Implications for emotion, physiology, and health. Psychological Science, 12-2.
Worthington Jr., E. L., Scherer, M. (2004). Forgiveness is an emotion-focused coping strategy that can reduce health risks and promote health resilence: theory, review, and hypotheses. Psychology & Health, 19, 385-405.