Some Unforgiving Implications of Forgiveness

International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution by Taly Harel-Marian

Despite its obvious significance, research on conflict resolution has paid relatively little attention to the role forgiveness plays in addressing conflicts. When it is studied, the findings point to the clear positive implications of forgiveness, such as its central role in reconciliation between former disputants. One recent study, however, concludes that there are some potential downsides to forgiveness that should be considered.

A longitudinal study of newlywed couples published this year suggests that forgiving one’s partner for causing trouble in the relationship may encourage them to continue to offend. The logic is quite simple: partners that are not forgiven may experience various unwanted consequences for their offenses (feelings of resentment, anger, guilt, isolation, and so on). Hence, they would be motivated to avoid repeating such offenses in the future. However, forgiving one’s partner may take away such negative consequences, and so forgiven individuals may be more inclined to continue offending. Results from the studies were consistent with this prediction. The partners of spouses who reported being more likely to express forgiveness reported committing acts of psychological and physical aggression against those partners that remained stable over the first 4 years of marriage. In contrast, the tendency for one’s partner to express less forgiveness predicted decreases in psychological and physical forms of aggression.

Although this research was conducted with marital couples, these effects could easily translate to other types of conflicts such as those in the work place, among social or ethnic groups, or even national and international-level conflicts. This study raises the question of whether interventions should promote forgiveness in all cases and settings. As the study notes, it is worth carefully considering the “potential benefits of forgiveness against this potential cost of expressing forgiveness before promoting forgiveness in ongoing relationships”.

McNulty, J.K. (2011) The Dark Side of Forgiveness: The Tendency to Forgive Predicts Continued Psychological and Physical Aggression in Marriage. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, June, 37 (6), 770-783.

                        author

Taly Harel-Marian

Taly Harel-Marian is a Ph.D. candidate in the Social-Organizational Psychology program at Teachers College, Columbia University. Her primary research interests include stereotype threat, cross-cultural dynamics, work/family issues, conflict resolution, and diversity in organizations. She also holds an M.Sc. in Behavioral and Management Sciences from the Technion, Israel Institute of Technology,… MORE >

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