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After a transgression in a romantic relationship, the betrayed may feel they want to take revenge, but often will choose to forgive instead. Forgiveness can generally be defined as the replacement of negative emotions with those of a more positive outcome or attitude (McCullough, 2016; Scheiter, 2016). Ultimately, forgiveness can be explored as a method to reduce the unpleasant emotional states that arise after interpersonal conflicts (Rijavec, Jurcec, & Olcar, 2013; Strelan, McKee, Calic, Cook, & Shaw, 2013). By understanding the reasons that someone resists enacting revenge, one can better understand and facilitate interventions to lessen possible unforgiving behaviours in those at risk (Strelan et al., 2013; McCullough, 2016). Furthermore, prompting forgiveness behaviours can encourage healthier relationship functioning (Strelan, Karremans, & Krieg, 2017). With this considered, this essay will critically explore the factors that determine the choice of forgiveness after relational transgressions. Forgiveness is proposed to be largely motivated by the individuals’ morals and values, the personality style and traits of the forgiver, and the life circumstances and levels of commitment surrounding the relationship.
The belief that enacting revenge is morally wrong is a strong driver in the motivation to grant forgiveness and forego revenge (McCullough, 2016). It has been found that when the individual has chosen not to enact revenge, they often highlight that they have moral uneasiness about the action, and that any costs to the wellbeing of the betrayer are too high (Berry, Worthington, O’Connor, Parrott, & Wade, 2005; Hook et al., 2012; Boon, Rasmussen, Deveau, & Alibhai, 2017). This tends to be emphasised stronger than any other concerns. These thoughts are also justified by feelings that the individual does not want to “stoop to their level”, or they may feel immature in acting upon such a rumination (Hook et al., 2012; Rijavec et al., 2013; Boon et al., 2017; Strelan et al., 2017). This is exemplified in a study by Boon et al. (2017), which found that 70.4 % of their participants in romantic relationships thought that revenge was morally distasteful (Boon et al., 2017). However, many studies regarding morality and forgiveness are based upon self-report measures. These measures tend to have biases and a lack of introspection. In summary, the individual may propose that acting in a way that could cause harm, or eliciting the same amount of pain they felt, is no better than the betrayal to begin with (Rijavec et al., 2013; Boon et al., 2017; Strelan et al., 2017)
It is also worth considering that the culture the betrayed individual has been immersed in may affect their expectations and interpretation of the events following a transgression. As an example, more collectivist cultures tend to highly value social harmony, and will thus be more likely to support forgiving behaviours, and many may consider forgiving to be a principled decision (Paz, Neto, & Mullet, 2008; Hook et al., 2012). However, in a China-Western Europe comparison undertaken by Paz et al. (2008), the levels of resentment following a betrayer was higher amongst the Chinese participants when compared to the Western Europeans (Paz et al., 2008). These results are a contrast to what has often been found in other studies of collectivist cultures, showing higher levels of forgiveness (e.g. Hook et al., 2012). This suggests that there a multitude of factors that determine forgiveness in various cultures. Regardless, many will consider forgiveness to be an important virtue, and some even a moral, religious or spiritual imperative, and thus will be more likely to grant amnesty (Strelan et al., 2013; McCullough, 2016).
The personality of an individual can influence their motivations to seek revenge. Those individuals who display a higher negative affect have been found to be more likely to plot revenge, and display higher concerns regarding any potential costs of granting forgiveness (Berry et al., 2005; Braithwaite, Mitchell, Selby, & Fincham, 2016; McCullough, 2016). These individuals also are more concerned with self-preservation and believe less in the benefits of forgiveness (Berry et al., 2005; Strelan et al., 2013). Trait forgivingness is the tendency to forgive interpersonal transgressions over time and across situations. In studies of undergraduate students undertaken by Berry et al. (2008), trait forgivingness was negatively correlated with trait anger, hostility, neuroticism and fear. Revenge-like behaviours, however, were positively correlated (Berry et al., 2005). In summary, it has been found that those with higher levels of neuroticism were less likely to forgive.
Contrary to this, those who are empathetic and value relationship closeness are more likely to forgive. This is often found in those who score higher in agreeableness, and is negatively correlated with vengefulness (Berry et al., 2005; Fitness & Peterson, 2008; Hook et al., 2012; Rijavec et al., 2013). One major drawback is that these studies are often correlational and cross-sectional, which prevents conclusions being drawn regarding causality between variables. For example, it is possible that a positive affect and general happiness are drivers in encouraging the individual to forgive, and this in turn, reinforces the belief in forgiveness benefits (Berry et al., 2005; Braithwaite et al., 2016; Hook et al., 2012).
Enacting revenge on a romantic partner can come with unpredictable risks and therefore can be deemed impractical. Therefore, the life circumstances of the forgiver are a motivation to forgive (Fitness & Peterson, 2008). Some people do not want to “burn bridges” and ruin what was potentially a long relationship, or a relationship that has provided stability, children, or similar (Finkel, Rusbult, Kumashiro, & Hannon, 2002; Burnette, McCullough, Van Tongeren, & Davis, 2012; Strelan et al., 2013). In addition, communal relationships emphasise protecting the welfare of relationship partners. Ultimately, high levels of commitment and interdependence result in a need to persist and become more willing to forgive (Finkel et al., 2002; Strelan et al., 2017). Therefore, it may be favourable for long-term relational health, as well as self-interest, to grant forgiveness. On the contrary, it could be considered that weaker relationships may benefit from revenge as it has the potential to teach more of a “lesson” and prevent the event occurring again (Finkel et al., 2002; Berry et al., 2005). Also, forgiveness may be harmful, as the betrayed individual may put their wellbeing at risk if their forgiveness results in the minimisation of serious transgressions, suppression of anger or misplaced trust (Berry et al., 2005; Rijavec et al., 2013).
Following this, the awareness of human mortality can be a motivator for seeking social harmony and security. Terror management theory proposes that when an individual is reminded of their own mortality, they may begin to experience high levels of anxiety (Arndt, Routledge, Cox, & Goldenberg, 2005). This results in the individual seeking cultural experiences and associations that provide their life with significance, thus mediating a sense of existential peace of mind (Arndt et al., 2005; Van Tongeren, Green, Davis, Worthington, & Reid, 2013). Viewed through this lens, an individual may also rely on others as a source of security, often through the form of romantic relationships (Fitness & Peterson, 2008; Van Tongeren et al., 2013). Thus, the realisation of salience of the betrayed victim’s mortality could be a strong motivator to repair and forgive relational transgressions, as to maintain the safety provided by the betrayer (Van Tongeren et al., 2013).
Forgiveness can allow individuals to achieve a higher level of happiness, compassion for others and to appreciate their social systems. This essay has critically investigated the factors that motivate a betrayed individual to forgive a wrong-doing in a romantic relationship. The literature suggests that agreeable individuals, or those with a positive affect, are more likely to be forgiving. In addition, when the individual follows beliefs and moral guidelines that hold forgiveness as a close value, they are more likely to grant amnesty. Finally, forgiveness can be used as a mechanism to alleviate negative emotions and feelings, resulting in a sense of security and general wellbeing. Further research should be completed via longitudinal studies, which would allow for a more in-depth analysis of factors involved in forgiveness and how it functions within romantic relationships.
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