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Does Forgiveness Have a Dark Side?

Recent research suggests that forgiveness may sometimes impede positive change.

Forgiveness is widely considered to be a psychologically healthy and morally virtuous approach to coping with victimization. Research suggests that people who forgive more easily are happier and healthier than those who hold grudges. In addition, forgiveness interventions have been shown to reduce stress reactivity, increase optimism, and facilitate reconciliation with offenders.

Definitions of forgiveness vary, but most include two key elements: 1) intentionally letting go of negative emotions, such as anger and hostility, towards the offender; and 2) intentionally cultivating positive emotions, such as compassion and benevolence, towards the offender. Some definitions also involve seeking contact with rather than avoiding the offender.

Forgiveness advocates emphasize that forgiveness is not the same as excusing or condoning an offense, nor should it involve putting oneself in a position to be harmed again. Supporting this perspective, some research suggests that forgiveness can deter offenders from repeating their offenses. In one set of studies, participants reported that they would be less likely to repeat a transgression against a stranger who had forgiven as opposed to not forgiven them, and another set of studies found similar results in married couples.

Some have proposed that forgiveness could deter repeated offenses because of the norm of reciprocity, which dictates that positive acts (like forgiveness) should be reciprocated with positive acts (like avoiding repeating the offense). Others have countered, however, that the positive act of forgiveness may be reciprocated by a positive act that is not directly related to the offense, such as giving a gift.

In fact, research suggests that forgiveness may in some cases increase the likelihood of revictimization. A recent longitudinal study of newlywed couples found that spouses who expressed forgiveness more readily experienced steady rates of psychological and physical aggression from their partners over a four-year period, whereas less forgiving spouses experienced a decrease in aggression. Related studies have shown that more forgiving spouses are more likely to experience declines in relationship satisfaction over time if their partners frequently engage in negative behaviors, and that forgiveness can erode forgivers’ self-respect if offending partners have not made sufficient amends. Furthermore, in a daily diary study, spouses were more likely to report being the victim of a transgression on days after they reported forgiving their partner, compared to other days.

Why might forgiveness fail to reduce problematic behaviors?

According to theories of operant learning, people are less likely to engage in negative behaviors if these behaviors have adverse consequences. By reducing adverse consequences such as criticism and isolation, forgiveness may remove an important source of motivation for offenders to change. Supporting this perspective, one study of romantic partners found that direct expressions of anger and criticism were associated with increases in partners’ willingness to make positive changes.

Some degree of anger may also have benefits for victims as it can motivate them to steer clear of a potentially dangerous person. This is especially important in cases of intimate partner violence, where giving a violent partner a second chance could put one’s life at risk. Although forgiveness need not entail reconciliation, research suggests that people who forgive violent partners may be more likely to stay in the relationship.

Forgiveness may also have a dark side when it comes to correcting social inequality. Some research suggests that encouraging members of disadvantaged groups to forgive groups that have discriminated against and harmed them may reduce their motivation to address social inequality. In one study, indigenous Australians who were encouraged to think of an injustice perpetrated against them (the Stolen Generations) in a way that fostered forgiveness (i.e., appealing to common humanity) reported being less willing to engage in collective action on behalf of their group—this included willingness to participate in a peaceful demonstration aimed at improving the position of indigenous Australians and volunteering their time to help people in indigenous communities.

Forgiveness may quell destructive desires for revenge and retaliation, but at the same time it may reduce feelings of anger and frustration that can be channeled constructively into social change. Efforts to foster forgiveness for historic and current injustices may be most effective when they are joined together with equally strong efforts to attain justice.

The likelihood that forgiveness will promote or impede positive change, whether in close relationships or on a broader scale, depends on a number of factors, including the severity of the offense, the number of times it has been repeated, and efforts of the offending party to make amends. If an offense is severe, repeated or prolonged, and the offender does not take responsibility or try to correct their behavior, forgiveness may be less likely to elicit positive change and may be more likely to put a victim in danger.

For many people, forgiveness can bring great relief and peace, but for others it may not be the best solution. Alternative ways to cope with victimization that don’t require forgiveness include practicing self-compassion (recognizing the injustice one has suffered and offering kindness to oneself), mindfulness (allowing oneself to feel hurt and angry), and connecting with and offering support to other victims. Sometimes giving oneself permission not to forgive—without feeling a sense of moral failure—can be just as liberating as choosing to forgive.

Copyright Juliana Breines, Ph.D.

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