Forgiveness In Romantic Relationships

Romantic relationships bring happiness and joy into many peoples’ lives. But unfortunately people are bound to break their partner’s trust and expectations. This can often lead to one party wishing to seek revenge, to cause hurt to the offender, or simply withdraw themselves from the relationship. Alternatively, they may choose to forgive their partner for their mistakes.

Forgiveness can be understood as a process where the victim begins to change their cognitive perspective of the offender’s actions. The victim may begin to try and understand the reason why their partner broke trust. This may lead them to a realisation that the offender did not act out of malice or from being deliberately hurtful.

Forgiveness changes cognition of the victim from, “I must forgive because,” to one of, “I want to forgive because.” Through this process the victim’s feelings of hurt and betrayal begin to subside. The victim may no longer harbour feelings of revenge or avoid contact. They may start to become civil toward their partner, and may even engage in conversation. 

The main goal of forgiveness is to restore harmony again into a couples relationship. Research has indicated that forgiveness is more likely to occur when there are strong feelings of commitment and satisfaction in the relationship. When there is satisfaction the victim is less likely to make an inventory of their partner’s past errors and will focus on their constructive behaviours. In high quality relationships there is greater empathy and a deeper understanding of extenuating circumstances around their partner’s mistakes. This in turns leads to the transgression being less personal, less hurtful, and easier to forgive. 

Forgiveness is particularly relevant when there is infidelity. Forgiveness is particularly difficult with infidelity because it is often viewed as being planned, and not an isolated incident. The victim is more likely to see the perpetrator as blameworthy which make it difficult to forgive and reconcile the relationship. Incidentally research has found that men have greater difficulty in forgiving infidelity than women. Forgiveness is also linked to how the partner discovers the truth about the infidelity. 

There are four different discovery methods; 1) the transgressor openly admits to the infidelity; 2) the transgressor admits to the infidelity after being questioned; 3) the transgressor is caught “red handed” and 4) the infidelity is discovered by means of a third party. As would be expected, research has indicated that there is a direct correlation between forgiveness and discovery. The least likely chance of being forgiven is when it is discovered through a third party. And the greater chance of forgiveness is when the transgressor admits to their infidelity. The victim may view the act of honesty as an attempt to save their relationship, which makes them more willing to accept their partner’s explanation. Also another indicator of the willingness to forgive is the presence of an apology, saying “I’m sorry” or, “I was wrong” acknowledges the mistake and suggests that there is genuine remorsefulness.  

Christopher Swane - Relationship Counselling and Psychotherapy - Wellington New Zealand