There are a lot of factors that make relationships work well. One of the most important keys to a successful, long-term relationship is forgiveness. The act of forgiveness is immensely powerful and humbling. Some people have a hard time with it, usually due to past hurts that they can’t release. Without forgiveness, however, your relationship is likely to suffer.
Why is forgiveness so important? What is it about forgiveness — and this other, mystery factor — that makes them so important to the long-term success of a relationship?
Relationship researchers have long examined how different conflict strategies — the way couples fight — impact a relationship’s health. Interaction patterns that are characterized by criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling predict higher relationship dissatisfaction — and eventual divorce (Gottman & Notarius, 2002). Partner hostility and lack of warmth are strong signs the relationship is heading toward an eventual breakup.
We know from prior psychological research that forgiveness acts as an important component in relationships and helps to promote most positive, effective conflict strategies (Finch et al, 2007). Yet forgiveness often seems like an afterthought in a fight, overlooked, and not always expressly given.
Forgiveness Helps Heal Relationship Wounds
Forgiveness can be seen as a type of coping strategy used in response to the stress of dealing with transgressions, betrayals, offenses, and wrongs in a relationship. Tsukasa Kato proposes that forgiveness is an important part of “constructive coping, which refers to actively seeking to improve, maintain, or sustain a relationship without aggravating others when encountering an interpersonal stressor” (Kato, 2016).
The ability to forgive one’s partner is one of the most important factors in maintaining healthy romantic relationships. – Fincham, 2009
Kato (2016) was interested in further exploring how forgiveness helps a relationship over the long-term. So for his study, he recruited 344 Japanese adults, 18-28 years old, who were in a committed relationship but were not married. They filled out a survey about their relationship, then Kato had them fill out the same survey again 10 months later, along with their current relationship status (were they still in the same relationship with the same person?).
The survey measures included the Forgiveness of Partner Scale, a measure Kato developed in 2015 to help assess forgiveness and benevolence in a relationship.
Almost one-third (just over 31 percent) of participants’ relationships broke up during the 10-month period. And in terms of the relationships that stayed together, the research had this to say:
Those with intact relationships reported significantly higher scores for benevolence, relationship satisfaction, and romantic love, and significantly lower scores for unforgivingness than did those whose relationship had broken up.
But forgiveness by itself is apparently not enough. Because the relationships with the highest romantic satisfaction in this study also had the highest levels of benevolence or kindness. Yes, being kind to your partner is very important, and something that’s often overlooked in relationship research.
Lessening unforgiving behavior (e.g., by forgiving your partner more often) helps, but it appears to just return the relationship to a “state of neutrality,” rather than increasing the positivity of the relationship (Kato, 2016). It’s fine to go back to neutral, but a relationship is destined to stagnate and slip toward entropy if it’s not growing and becoming more positive. The more a relationship was characterized by kindness and forgiveness, the higher the relationship satisfaction.
Why Forgiveness + Benevolence Work
Forgiveness with benevolence works by helping to repair the relationship after a conflict has caused harm to its integrity. Combined, the two appear to act as an important coping strategy, just as individuals might use exercise to help cope with stress in their life. People prefer kind people more so than unkind people, so it’s no surprise to see that relationships that score high in kindness also score higher in satisfaction.
If you have a hard time forgiving your partner for perceived or real transgressions against you, or after some mutual fight, take it is as a warning sign about the future health of your relationship. The good news is that forgiveness is a coping skill you can learn, just like any other. If you need help with it, consider talking to a couples’ therapist. These experts help people navigate through difficult times in a relationship to get both partners to deal with their conflict in a more positive, healthy manner.
One important concluding note — it is not helpful to forgive your partner for physical, psychological, or emotional violence against you. The research suggests that by doing that, it simply promotes more partner violence in the future. If you’re in an abusive relationship, instead of forgiving, you may benefit more from fashioning a plan to exit that relationship as soon as possible.
Fincham, F. D. (2009). Forgiveness: Integral to a science of close relationships? In M. Mikulincer, & P. Shaver (Eds.), Prosocial motives, emotions, and behavior (pp. 347–365). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Fincham, F. D., Beach, S. R. H., & Davila, J. (2007). Longitudinal relations between forgiveness and conflict resolution in marriage. Journal of Family Psychology, 21, 542–545.
Gottman, J. M., & Notarius, C. I. (2002).Marital research in the 20th century and a research agenda for the 21st century. Family Process, 41, 159–197.
Kato, T. (2016). Effects of partner forgiveness on romantic break-ups in dating relationships: A longitudinal study. Personality and Individual Differences, 95, 185–189.
Thanks to ScienceDirect for providing access to the research discussed here.