Everyone from relationship gurus to religious authorities tout the benefits of forgiveness. But new research suggests that in some cases, it may be better to emulate Elizabeth Edwards — who left her cheating husband John Edwards out of her will — than Hillary Clinton, who forgave Bill Clinton for his dalliances with a White House intern.
Hearing "it's okay, honey," may be just the fuel the transgressing spouse needs for more lapses of judgment, according to the new study of newlyweds.
Newlyweds who forgave their partner's bad behavior were more likely to face additional bad behavior the next day compared with those who stayed mad, the study showed. The benefits of forgiveness may need to be weighed against the risks, said study author James McNulty, a psychologist at the University of Tennessee.
"You may feel better if you forgive me," McNulty told LiveScience. "But the question is, what happens down the road?"
The forgiveness effect may be long-lasting. McNulty's study, published in the December issue of the Journal of Family Psychology, followed participants for one week. So it's likely that the unforgiven spouses behaved better in an attempt to get out of the dog house, McNulty said.
However, in a second study that has been accepted for publication but not yet published, McNulty followed couples for four years—and the results showed a similar pattern.
"I measured, basically, people's tendency to be forgiving and partners' tendencies to engage in verbal and physical aggression," McNulty said. "The partners of less-forgiving spouses actually showed a decrease… If I'm a forgiving person, you're going to keep [acting aggressively] for four years."
It may seem unsurprising that there's a fine line between forgiving and becoming a doormat. But those nuances sometimes get lost, said Eli Finkel, a social psychologist at Northwestern University in Illinois who was not involved in the study.
"Social scientists, theologians and clinicians have touted the virtues of forgiveness, frequently without attending to its downsides," Finkel wrote in an e-mail to LiveScience. "McNulty's work helps to serve as a corrective to the simple-minded notion that forgiveness is always good."
If you don't mind, I'll do that again …
To track forgiveness, McNulty asked 135 heterosexual newlywed couples to fill out individual relationship diaries every day for a week. The diaries included a questionnaire about whether the person's spouse had done something to upset them, and whether they'd forgiven their spouse for the transgression.
McNulty analyzed data from all of the respondents who reported being upset with their spouses one day and described that person's behavior the next day. That left 165 individuals (76 men and 89 women). The husbands in the narrowed sample reported bad behavior from wives on about 29 percent of days, while wives reported bad behavior from husbands on about 34 percent of days.
Overall, spouses who forgave their partners were almost twice as likely to report that their partner misbehaved the next day as those who held a grudge, McNulty found.
The most common transgressions reported were mild ones, such as disagreements, nagging, or one spouse being inconsiderate to the other. Some, however, were more serious: About 9 percent of men and 5 percent of women reported psychological abuse. One man reported a betrayal, and one woman reported sexual coercion by her husband. [10 Surprising Sex Statistics]
To hold a grudge or not …
The findings don't suggest that forgiveness is always bad, McNulty said, nor is it a given that forgiving someone will turn you into a doormat. There is a lot of variance among couples, he said, and forgiveness is likely only a problem when the offending partner has a tendency to abuse his or her spouse's trust.
"If I forgive you, I've given you no reason to stop," McNulty said. "But if you rarely do it anyway, then that's not much of a problem."
The next step is to tease out these personal differences further, McNulty said. In the meantime, couples should focus on solving problems rather than simple forgiveness, according to psychotherapist Tina B. Tessina, the author of "Money, Sex and Kids: Stop Fighting about the Three Things That Can Ruin Your Marriage" (Adams Media, 2008) who wasn’t involved in the study.
"You don't have to condemn your partner to be wary of his or her out-of-control or thoughtless behavior," Tessina wrote in an e-mail to LiveScience. "Instead, you can recognize that both of you are fallible human beings, do what is necessary to fix the problems, and then forgive each other."
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You can follow LiveScience Senior Writer Stephanie Pappas on Twitter @sipappas.
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Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.