Written by Bennett Fontenot
Eli J. Finkel, a social psychologist, set out to examine the influence of commitment on forgiveness in romantic relationships. Finkel, Rusbult, Kumashiro, and Hannon analyzed three studies on the topic of betrayal and forgiveness. In any relationship, conflicts arise and are the result of a multitude of causes. Finkel suggests that the violation of relationship norms is one of the more serious threats to a relationship, with betrayal being one of the most difficult obstacles in a relationship (Finkel, Rusbult, Kumashiro, & Hannon, 2002).
The behaviors in which Oliver and Barbara engage decrease their love for one another and cause their marriage to end tragically. Forgiveness is one the most difficult tasks in relationships, and “psychologists’ understanding of forgiveness and betrayal is somewhat limited” (Finkel, Rusbult, Kumashiro, & Hannon, 2002, p. 965).
Commitment and Forgiveness
Finkel et al. outline three reasons for why commitment would influence forgiveness. First, an individual in a relationship may be concerned with long term self-interests. Second, an individual may be concerned with the long-term interests of his or her partner. In committed relationships, individuals become dependent on their partners, and the researchers suggest that higher levels of dependence lead to higher odds of forgiveness. The researchers suggest that if a person has more to lose in a relationship, that person should be more willing to forgive and not hold grudges within the relationship in order to maintain what the person obtains from the relationship (Finkel, Rusbult, Kumashiro, & Hannon, 2002). The third and final aspect that is involved in the influence of commitment on forgiveness is the role of psychological attachment. In a close relationship, “the self and partner may become merged to the extent that departures from self-interest benefit the partner” (Finkel, Rusbult, Kumashiro, & Hannon, 2002, p. 959).
In Study 1, participants were instructed to indicate their reaction to theoretical acts of betrayal. Each participant was primed to react in a certain way. Participants with a high commitment prime were asked questions that promoted dependence and commitment (e.g., “If your relationship were to end in the near future, what would upset you the most about not being with your partner anymore?”; Finkel, Rusbult, Kumashiro, & Hannon, 2002). Participants with a low commitment prime were asked questions that promoted independence and a lack of commitment (e.g., “Describe an activity that you enjoy engaging in when your partner is not around”; Finkel, Rusbult, Kumashiro, & Hannon, 2002).
In Study 2, a cross-sectional survey method was used to analyze forgiveness and commitment in relation to real instances of betrayal. Participants were instructed to think about a time when their partner betrayed them and describe their immediate and long term reactions to the event. Researchers predicted that individuals would be less likely to engage in immediate forgiveness of a betrayal and more likely to engage in behaviors of forgiveness over time (Finkel, Rusbult, Kumashiro, & Hannon, 2002).
Each study revealed evidence that commitment influences forgiveness. It is evident that acts of betrayal have negative influences on close relationships, and the immediate responses to these acts are not positive. However, over time, forgiveness is evident and has been proven to be influenced by commitment. These studies highlight how and why people forgive their partner by revealing that people's level of commitment within a relationship plays a role in their forgiveness within these relationships. The association between commitment and forgiveness was related more to one's intent to persist in the relationship, rather than to a long-term relationship orientation or psychological attachment. In addition, this association was mediated by one's cognitive interpretations of betrayal incidents. Although people tend to resort to self-oriented impulses shortly after a betrayal, those who find motivation to forgive in the longer term do so partially due to pro-relationship motives, which can be promoted by commitment.
Finkel, E. J., Rusbult, C. E., Kumashiro, M., & Hannon, P. A. (2002). Dealing with betrayal in close relationships: Does commitment promote forgiveness? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82, 956-974.
Dr. H. Colleen Sinclair
Social Psychologist, Relationships Researcher,
Ms. Chelsea Ellithorpe
Lab Manager of the Social Relations Collaborative and Blog Editor