Tim Cole Ph.D.

Intimate Portrait


The Key to Forgiveness?

New research examines the factors that lead to forgiveness.

Posted Oct 15, 2017

Daxiao Productions/Shutterstock
Source: Daxiao Productions/Shutterstock

Life without intimacy would be dreary. Our intimate relationships provide us with companionship, love, and social support. And the people we’re closest to expand our horizons by exposing us to new ideas, activities, and adventures. Close relationships are essential to living a meaningful life.

Yet, maintaining a close relationship is no easy task. Close relationships work best when two individuals can meet each other’s expectations while not losing sight of their individual needs and goals. Relationships require constant negotiation, tons of empathy, and the willingness to forgive a partner when inevitable disappointments come to light.

Being able to forgive a partner is crucial to maintaining a healthy relationship because no matter how compatible two people are, there will be times when one partner acts in ways that go against the other’s wishes. For example, a couple may agree to save money for a down payment on a condo, while a partner also splurges on a new outfit. Or two friends may plan a vacation together, only to have one person back out at the last minute. It’s not realistic for two people to always be on the same page and never let the other down.

Unfortunately, when a partner or a close friend violates one’s expectations, it results in a relational transgression—a breach of trust. This loss of trust can pose a serious threat to the relationship. When couples experience a breach of trust and struggle to repair the damage done, many relationships start a downward spiral of increased negativity and disengagement, which often leads to their demise.

Because betrayals are unavoidable, being able to work through such problems is the key to maintaining a healthy relationship. Essential forgiveness involves letting go of hurt feelings, not holding onto a grudge, and taking steps to re-establish a sense of intimacy and closeness.

Given the central role that forgiveness plays in our close relationships, it should come as no surprise that scholars have spent decades studying the issue. The research shows that being able to forgive a partner depends on a host of factors: the severity of the betrayal, the degree to which the betrayal was intentional, the remorsefulness of the offender, the sincerity of the apology offered, and the willingness of the harmed partner to understand the reasons why the betrayal occurred.

New research on the topic of forgiveness in close relationships highlights an often overlooked, but critical, factor in determining if a relationship can be saved. Across three studies, researchers examined the relative importance of a host of factors known to be related to forgiveness. The key finding? Across all three studies, the level of trust a person has in a partner after the transgression played an outsized role in the process of forgiveness.

Essentially, people who still view their partner as being caring, dependable, and predictable were more likely to grant forgiveness. The enduring perception of trust was more important than all of the other considerations examined, such as the severity of the betrayal or the type of apology offered.

If you’ve been betrayed and are struggling with forgiveness, it may help to consider the extent to which you think your partner cares about you and is someone you still see as being dependable and predictable. So, even after a partner may have splurged on a new outfit or bailed on a planned vacation, do you still view him or her as someone who cares about you and is likely to do the right thing?

Focusing on the level of trust that exists post-transgression can provide a quick, reliable assessment of how easy it will be to resolve the issue and how much work it will take to repair the damage done.


Strelan, P., Karremans, J. C., & Krieg, J. (2017). What determines forgiveness in close relationships? The role of post‐transgression trust. British Journal of Social Psychology, 56(1), 161-180.