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The Secret to Getting a Partner to Forgive You

The association between empowerment, self-esteem, and forgiveness.

Key points

  • Forgiveness refers to the willingness to let go of resentment and retaliation against an offender and make peace.
  • A new study investigates whether powerful or powerless individuals are more likely to forgive their romantic partners.
  • The study’s findings show that feeling empowered is associated with high self-esteem, and high self-esteem with motivation to forgive.
Source: GLady/Pixabay

A recent study, from Israel and Germany, published in the September issue of Social Psychological and Personality Science, examines the relationship between power, high self-esteem, and willingness to forgive.

The psychology of power and empowerment

Before discussing the paper, here is some background information on power, forgiveness, and self-esteem.

Power refers to the potential or ability to socially influence others and/or resist social influence.

Some people assume—perhaps due to having witnessed abuses of power—that power is coercive by nature and is associated with negative outcomes (e.g., the tendency to blame others). However, research shows power is also associated with many positive outcomes, such as greater well-being, feelings of authenticity, and success at work.

Power, especially the subjective experience of power and feeling of empowerment, is particularly important for mental health and well-being. For instance, feeling that one’s views and opinions truly matter—such as when making a joint decision with coworkers, friends, or a romantic partner—contributes to improved mental health.

The association between power, self-esteem, and forgiveness

Forgiveness refers to the willingness to abandon avoidance, resentment, and retaliation against an offender and to make peace. Forgiveness has been linked with positive outcomes, including better mental and physical health and better relationships.

The association between forgiveness and power is rather complex.

On one hand, research shows that the powerful (compared to the powerless) are less willing to make sacrifices for their partners or accommodate them.

On the other hand, powerful people (compared to the powerless) have higher self-esteem, which is associated with a greater tendency to forgive. In addition, the powerful experience more positive emotions and are more motivated to take action, pursue goals, and approach others (e.g., seek reconciliation).

So, what do you think? Do powerful and confident individuals find it easier to let bygones be bygones and to get out of the victim mentality? Or do they hold grudges and show no interest in fixing a broken relationship?

To determine which view is correct, we turn to the research by Korner and colleagues.

Investigating empowerment, self-esteem, and forgiveness

Study 1 (German sample)

Sample: 149 other-sex couples; mean age for men: 32 years old, with a range of 19-73 years; average age for women: 30 years old, with a range of 18-72 years.

Average relationship duration was 8 years (range of 2 months to 52 years).


Measures are listed below (sample items in parentheses).

  • Power: Personal Sense of Power Scale (In my relationship with my partner, I can get him or her to listen to what I say.)
  • Self-esteem: The self-regard subscale from the Multidimensional Self-Concept Scale (Do you doubt yourself?)
  • Forgiveness: Marital Offence-Specific Forgiveness Scale was used to measure two forgiveness dimensions—benevolence, meaning motivation to act with good will toward the offender, and resentment-avoidance, meaning vengeful or avoidant motivation.

Study 2 (Israeli sample)

Sample: 174 other-sex couples; average age for men was 36 years old, with a range of 19-77 years; mean age for women was 33 years old, with a range of 18-73 years.

Average relationship duration was 10 years (range of 1 month to 55 years).


The same assessment tools were used as those in the first investigation.

In addition, the authors used the interdependent self-esteem subscale from the Social-Autonomous Self-Esteem Scale. Note, interdependent (as opposed to independent) self-esteem refers to self-worth based on intimate and social relationships, such as belonging, connectedness, social roles, and status.

Feeling empowered is associated with being forgiving

Results showed “power was positively related to one’s own forgiveness and largely also to one’s partner’s forgiveness” and “independent self-esteem partially mediated and interdependent self-esteem completely mediated the power—forgiveness link for actors.”

Furthermore, “high experienced power was associated with high self-esteem, which in turn was positively related to benevolence motivation and negatively related to revenge and avoidance motivation.”

Overall, then, there were positive associations between power and self-esteem, and between self-esteem and forgiveness, with the result being that power had a positive effect on forgiveness.

Source: ITECHirfan/Pixabay


Mahatma Gandhi is reputed to have said, “The weak can never forgive.” The research discussed supports this assertion. The findings suggest feeling empowered is associated with greater forgiveness.

And this may be due to the fact that high power correlates with high self-esteem, and high self-esteem is positively related to benevolence and conciliatory motivation.

There are potential applications of these findings in many domains, including in couples therapy and marriage counseling, where therapists routinely see couples who suffer from—but cannot let go of—old hurts, transgressions, and disappointments. By empowering clients and boosting their self-esteem and self-confidence, therapists can potentially make it easier for these individuals to forgive their partners.

There may be similar self-help applications of these findings as well. By empowering your partner, you may make it easier for him or her to let go of resentments and the desire to retaliate. How?

Empowerment is associated with having greater control over decisions that affect one’s life and with reaching one’s full potential. Therefore, to empower your partner:

  • Show that you value them.
  • Express your love and support.
  • Respect their autonomy and self-determination.
  • Encourage them to reach their full potential.

Do not let barriers to apologizing stop you from seeking forgiveness, nor barriers (e.g., narcissistic entitlement) prevent you from expressing it.

If your partner is the one seeking forgiveness, remember that being forgiving is linked to greater health, happiness, and relationship satisfaction. Having said that, forgiveness should not be forced. So, if you desire reconciliation but feel unable to let go of negative emotions and resentment, consider therapy.

After undergoing therapy and working through past grief or trauma caused by your significant other’s wrongdoing, you will be in a better position to decide whether or under what circumstances you will forgive them.