Should You Really Forgive and Forget?

Is forgive and forget always the right approach after hurtful behavior from your spouse or significant other?

We’ve all heard the admonition “you need to forgive and forget.” Most of us probably heard this as a child from our parents anytime we had been wronged by a sibling or friend. To me, this phrase represents a romanticized sentiment more than actual helpful life advice. I believe it serves to smooth things over more so than it heals or amends wrongdoing. After all, as children we were always told to turn the other cheek and give our pals another chance. Research performed at the University of North Carolina suggests it could actually set up a pattern of continued bad behavior, one in which you forgive and your spouse forgets the mistake and does it again.

man forgiving woman

During the study, researchers evaluated a quality they call agreeableness and looked at the variations that could exist in a relationship: Both partners rank high in agreeableness; both rank low; or one partner is high and the other low.

People with high levels of agreeableness tend to put their relationship before themselves. If they do something hurtful and are forgiven, they tend not to repeat that behavior. This is because they feel it’s only right to reciprocate with kindness.

People who displayed low levels of agreeableness are more focused on themselves and more likely to repeat the hurtful behavior after being forgiven. They interpret a lack of sustained anger from their partner as a sign that their behavior wasn’t bad enough to stop – that they have his or her unspoken permission to keep acting the same way.

sad woman

If your partner keeps repeating something that bothers you, consider where each of you may rank on the agreeableness scale. Do each of you believe in quick forgiveness? Do you both get angry after a breach? Or do you each react differently?

If you have differences in forgiveness style, have an honest talk with one another about what terms like anger and forgiveness mean to each of you. Remember, good communication is an important part of any relationship! You might both acknowledge that forgiveness doesn’t mean acceptance, and that anger doesn’t mean you won’t forgive. For those who tend to hold on to anger, keep in mind that forgiveness usually leads to a more satisfying relationship and has emotional and health benefits.