Emerging research suggests a marriage in which partners follow the time-honored tradition of forgive and forget can lead to problems.
The finding opposes the strategy of positive psychology — an approach that offered the promise that with forgiveness, optimism, kindness, and positive thinking, people can turn around their relationships even after a serious transgression.
In the new study, investigators discovered that expressing anger might be necessary to resolve a relationship problem — with the short-term discomfort of an angry but honest conversation benefiting the health of the relationship in the long-term.
Experts say the study is part of a larger effort to better understand the contexts in which some relationships succeed and others fail, and also to understand how close relationships affect our health.
James McNulty, Ph.D., of Florida State University initiated the study when he took a closer look at positive psychology and well-being.
“I continued to find evidence that thoughts and behaviors presumed to be associated with better well-being lead to worse well-being among some people — usually the people who need the most help achieving well-being,” McNulty said.
These findings lead McNulty to examine the potential costs of positive psychology. In a set of recent studies, he found that forgiveness in marriage can have some unintended negative effects.
“We all experience a time in a relationship in which a partner transgresses against us in some way. For example, a partner may be financially irresponsible, unfaithful, or unsupportive,” he said.
“When these events occur, we must decide whether we should be angry and hold onto that anger, or forgive.”
His research shows that a variety of factors can complicate the effectiveness of forgiveness, including a partner’s level of agreeableness and the severity and frequency of the transgression.
“Believing a partner is forgiving leads agreeable people to be less likely to offend that partner and disagreeable people to be more likely to offend that partner,” he said.
Moreover, McNulty believes anger can serve an important role in signaling to a transgressing partner that the offensive behavior is not acceptable.
“If the partner can do something to resolve a problem that is likely to otherwise continue and negatively affect the relationship, people may experience long-term benefits by temporarily withholding forgiveness and expressing anger.”
“This work suggests people need to be flexible in how they address the problems that will inevitably arise over the course of their relationships,” McNulty says.
“There is no ‘magic bullet,’ no single way to think or behave in a relationship. The consequences of each decision we make in our relationships depends on the circumstances that surround that decision.”