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When You Should and Should Not Forgive

Three questions to consider, including whether it makes you a doormat.

Dmitri Maruta/Shutterstock
Source: Dmitri Maruta/Shutterstock

As much as we culturally admire the ability to forgive—it’s associated with magnanimity, spiritual growth, and, of course, religiosity—it remains a somewhat thorny issue from a psychological point of view.

In layman’s terms, the ability to forgive is widely seen as evidence of how high humans rank in the chain of being—animals don’t forgive, after all—so it conveys a moral superiority.

But from a psychological point of view, two key questions remain: Why do humans forgive and, when they do, how do they hope to benefit?

As Frank Fincham wrote in an article with arguably the best image and title ever—“The Kiss of the Porcupines”—the human conundrum is that we need and want closeness and intimacy, but that need simultaneously leaves us vulnerable to being hurt, disappointed, and even betrayed by those closest to us. If it weren’t for "the quill problem"—in Fincham’s metaphor, two porcupines cuddle to stay warm, getting closer and closer, until a quill pierces skin and they have to withdraw—there’d be no need for forgiveness.

Intention—or, more precisely, an individual’s perception of another’s intention—is central to forgiveness. You don’t feel the need to forgive when the branch of your neighbor’s tree wipes out your car’s windshield; you just want the name and number of his insurance carrier. On the other hand, if your neighbor smashes in your windshield with a tire iron in a fit of pique over some alleged slight, forgiveness is about the only thing that will stop the relationship from devolving into a violent feud, apart from a restraining order.

1. What is forgiveness, anyway?

Here’s where it gets tricky, because what passes for forgiveness in common parlance is often confusing.

According to Fincham, forgiveness is not acceptance; if you’re able to accept your neighbor’s personality—“Craig has huge anger management issues”—you don’t need to forgive him.

Forgiveness also isn’t a synonym for reconciliation. While it’s true that the act of forgiving can lead to reunion—“It was only a one-night stand, after all, and we’ve been married for 10 years; I’m forgiving and staying”—you can also choose to forgive and to divorce an unfaithful spouse.

Moreover, cultural tropes aside, forgiving is not forgetting, or denying, either. And forgiveness is a process, not a single act. Again, you don’t need to forgive your fellow subway rider who accidentally smacks you with his backpack; the words, "I’m sorry," will suffice. But when someone close to you hauls off, literally or symbolically, with a hand or words, saying “I forgive you,” should be as understood as “I’m working on forgiving you.”

If you factor in what science knows—according to the work of Kurt Gray and Daniel Wegner, pain caused intentionally hurts more than the unintentional kind—you begin to see the quandary more clearly.

2. Is forgiveness an evolutionary step forward?

As Jeni L. Burnette and her co-authors note, even while living cooperatively, ancestral humans had to deal with theft, mate poaching, failure to share, and the like, and they probably resorted to behaviors meant to deter future incursions—simply put, revenge. While revenge as a deterrent was supposed to restore cooperation between parties—a very important aspect of ancestral communal life—it could equally lead to further disruption.

Enter the cognitive adaptation researchers have called forgiveness systems. What’s interesting here is the assumption that if such a cognitive system exists, it has to have a way of assessing the value of forgiveness—a kind of thinking that addressed the profit-and-loss of the approach. So, as the authors posit, there would have to be a trade-off between the value of the retaliatory deterrence, on the one hand, and the value of the transgressor’s future contributions, on the other.

One supposes the thinking might have gone something like this: “Okay, he stole my mate, but he’s the strongest guy in the tribe, and the best hunter. There are other unattached females here, but only one hunter like him.” Such a system, the authors posited, would work best when the relationship value was high, and the exploitation risk low; additionally, it would not just inhibit retaliation but generate “behaviors that are designed to coax the exploiter to increase his or her regard for the forgiver.”

In a series of experiments, that’s precisely what the researchers found.

Of course, in real life, when we “weigh” the value of a relationship or the probability that the exploiter will change his or her ways, we have no accurate scale. Our own cognitive and emotional biases can lead us to miscalculate the benefits and value of a particular close connection and, additionally, err in assessing whether or not the person we’ve forgiven will, inevitably, need to be forgiven for future harm he or she will rain upon us.

Absent a crystal ball, forgiveness isn’t always the right answer.

3. Does forgiving make you a doormat?

Because we are brought up to believe that being forgiving is a good thing, the cultural pressure to forgive is enormous, and rarely takes the specifics of a particular relationship into account. Similarly, most psychological research has focused on the benefits of forgiveness—which range from improved health and sense of well-being to increased conflict resolution—while relatively few have looked at the downside.

Still, some of us know from personal experience that forgiveness for a narcissistic game-player, manipulator, or inveterate liar is nothing more than catnip—a sign that what he or she did wasn’t “so bad after all,” and a prime opportunity to rationalize both their past and future behavior, too. In this case, forgiveness can be downright self-destructive; what you really ought to be doing is considering getting out, not putting yourself in the line of fire.

Not surprisingly, research shows that in a relationship with an imbalance of power, the person with power is less likely to forgive than the person without it. Forgiving someone who loves and values you less than you love and value him or her is a guaranteed trip down the rabbit hole.

In a contrarian piece of research, though, James McNulty looked at whether forgiveness facilitated changes in negative behavior over the long-term. Participants in his study were newlyweds, who’d been married an average of 3.2 months; that’s important to keep in mind since, in theory at least, these “honeymooners” should have very low levels of interpersonal stress.

Using various measures to establish the quality of the relationship—including a questionnaire and 10-minute videotaped discussions between spouses about sources of tension in the marriage—the researchers then tracked these couples every six months for the next two years, assessing marital satisfaction, marital forgiveness, and reports of negative behavior. (Negative behavior was both self-reported and reported by the spouse.)

McNulty found that with partners who demonstrated negative behavior infrequently, forgiveness was beneficial, but for those for whom negative behavior was frequent, countering with forgiveness was downright harmful. He concluded, "[I]t may be that the effects of forgiveness, like the effects of many other relationship processes, are moderated by the broader marital context and so may benefit relatively healthy relationships more than they do troubled ones.”

The problem, of course, is that the outcome is not in the forgiver’s hands, but those of the transgressor. That was the starting point for research conducted by Laura B. Luchies, Eli J. Finkel, and others, published under the title, “The Doormat Effect,” which investigated how forgiveness interacted with feelings of self-worth and respect.

The team posited that forgiveness bolstered self-esteem if the transgressor made amends and changed his or her behavior. But, they hypothesized, if the transgressor continued to behave the same way after having been forgiven, the person who forgave would experience a drop in self-esteem, among other effects. This is what they called “the Doormat Effect.”

Over the course of four studies—one of them longitudinal and lasting five years—they found support for their hypothesis. Despite the body of research seeming to recommend forgiveness as a panacea, they wrote, "[T]he responses of both victims and perpetrators are influential following a betrayal. Victims’ self-respect and self-concept clarity are determined not only by their own decision whether to forgive or not but also by their perpetrators’ decision whether to act in a manner that signals that the victim will be safe or valued or not.”

It’s all sobering, and true. And while it’s nice to echo the words of Alexander Pope—“To err is human; to forgive, divine”—it may not be universally applicable. You can’t reap the fruits of forgiveness alone; you need the cooperation, loyalty, and intent of the porcupine who stabbed you in the first place. On the other hand, forgiving someone whom you’re showing the door will most probably set you free.

Copyright© Peg Streep 2014

Check out my book, Mastering the Art of Quitting: Why It Matters in Life, Love, and Work, and visit me on Facebook.


Fincham, Frank,” The Kiss of the Porcupines: From Attributing Responsibility to Forgiving,” Personal Relationships (2000), 7, 1-23.

Fincham, Frank D., Julie Hall and Steven R.H. Beach, “Forgiveness in Marriage: Current Status and Future Directions,” Family Relations, 55 (October 2006), 415-427.

Burnette, Jeni L., Michael E. McCullough, Daryl R, Van Tongeren, and Don E. Davis “Forgiveness Results from integrating Information about Relationship Value and Exploitation Risk,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (2012), 38 (3), 345-356.

Gray, Kurt and Daniel Wegner, “The Sting of Intentional Pain,” Psychological Science (2008), 19, 1260-1262.

McNulty, James, “Forgiveness in Marriage: Putting the Benefits into Context,” Journal of Family Psychology (2008), vol. 22, no. 1, 171-175.

Luchies, Laura B. and Eli J. Finkel, James K. McNulty and Madoka Kumashiro, "The Doormat Effect: When Forgiveness Erodes Self-Respect and Self-Concept Clarity," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2010), vol.98, no. 5, 734-749.