What Would It Take for You to Forgive Your Partner?

New research shows the emotional steps needed to achieve true forgiveness.

Posted Sep 19, 2020

Let's say you generally get along well with your partner, so you were taken by surprise when this person, to whom you are so close, let slip to other family members that things weren’t going well for you at work and your job is now at risk. This was something you shared with your partner that was not intended for widespread distribution, or any distribution at all. How could your partner be so careless and disrespectful of your need for privacy?

It’s natural to trust a person with whom you have a close relationship. This is the individual who knows your secrets, dirty and otherwise, because you’ve built a solid bond through mutual sharing and support. You’ve told your partner everything, including information about yourself that may be somewhat unflattering, because you know your partner won’t think any worse of you. You don't even mind letting your less attractive side show in moments of frustration because you feel so safe around your partner. Now that the bonds have become frayed, will they ever be fully restored? 

Thinking back on the details of that unhappy revelation, your dismay in your partner and your feelings of chagrin only get worse. You replay the event over and over in your mind, and nothing seems to be able to make the rumination stop no matter how much mental effort you exert to push it out of your thoughts.

According to a newly-published study by UK authors Saima Noreen and Malcolm MacLeod (2020), of De Montfort University and the University of Stirling, it's that forced effort to forget which makes forgiveness less and less achievable. Noting the so-called “ironic” aspect of memory, Noreen and MacLeod argue that the more you try to forget something, the more difficult it becomes. In their words, the existence of such ironic effects in memory suggests that all your efforts to forget unwanted memories can therefore "fall on stony ground” (p. 1). If you can get out of this trap, then the memory could fall away, and you’d be ready to see your way to forgiveness. What would allow you, in this case, to "forget" to "forgive"?

From the theoretical perspective known as “construal theory,” it's the creation of psychological distance that can provide the key to overcoming the ironic memory effect. Once you can put the transgression further and further away in the rear-view mirror, you won't have to try to push it out of your memory. However, there's a catch. Jump-starting the forgiveness cycle is the only way to gain that psychological distance. Forgiveness should, according to this reasoning, make forgetting that much easier.

How, then, can you flip that forgiveness switch, the one that will blur your recall? To answer this question, the Noreen and MacLeod study tested a model to find out if they could experimentally induce psychological distance via different types of forgiveness instructions. Their online sample of adult participants read scenarios in which they imagined themselves in the hypothetical situation of discovering a relationship partner having an affair.

In one condition of the experimental forgiveness manipulation, the British authors instructed their participants to engage in the seemingly impossible task of feeling empathy toward the wayward partner. Bringing the situation closer to home, a second study involved having participants imagine being empathic after an actual transgression in which they were the target of another person’s offense.

The question was whether, after being encouraged to use empathy, participants could start to gain psychological distance, as measured by the item “If the offense happened to you, how distant do you perceive the offense to be from you?" The ratings to this item could range from a scale of 1 (feels like yesterday) to 10 (feels like a very long time ago). 

The findings indeed supported the predictions of construal theory that the participants instructed to engage in emotional forgiveness found it easier to forget as their psychological distance increased. In the words of the authors, once the wheels of emotional forgiveness become set in motion, a “virtuous circle” follows that promotes further and deeper forgiveness. Eventually, the problematic details become lost to memory without even having to try.

In another feature of the study, Noreen and MacLeod noted that it's not enough to engage in simple "decisional forgiveness," where you only continue to harbor a grudge but determine not to seek revenge. You can maintain a relationship with the transgressor, but you won’t experience a restoration of trust. This type of forgiveness might be enough to allow you to get along with a co-worker or relative who's wronged you, but it won't necessarily work with your closest relationship partner.

To sum up, the findings of this complex and fascinating study suggest that true forgiveness involves a variant of the maxim “forgive and forget.” The path toward true forgiveness is to “forgive, forget, and then forgive some more.” You will need to exert the greater mental effort to kick-start the process despite what was for you a painful experience. Fulfillment in close relationships may require the occasional willingness to dig down deeper into your empathy reserves, but once you’ve done so, it will be that much easier to restore emotional harmony.

Facebook image: fizkes/Shutterstock


Noreen, S., & MacLeod, M. D. (2020, September 3). Moving On or Deciding to Let Go? A Pathway Exploring the Relationship between Emotional and Decisional Forgiveness and Intentional Forgetting. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/xlm0000948