Written by Mandi Ryan
When an individual violates what would be considered a norm or expectation within their relationship with another individual, this violation is referred to as a betrayal (Finkel, Rusbult, Kumashiro, & Hannon, 2002). Forgiveness includes the set of changes someone experiences when they become less motivated to retaliate and more motivated to reconcile with the wrongdoer (McCullough, Worthington, & Rachal, 1997). Do you ever wonder why certain people seem to continuously forgive their significant other when they’ve been wronged? A victim’s initial response after a betrayal incident is often vengeance and resentment (Finkel, Rusbult, Kumashiro, & Hannon, 2002). The likelihood that one might move past these impulses and learn to forgive relies on a few different factors.
Is the victim or perpetrator more responsible within the forgiveness process?
Does forgiveness lie in the hands of the victim, or do perpetrators ultimately control whether or not they will be forgiven? Researchers found that the presence of positivity in one of these particular roles (i.e., victim or perpetrator) is critical during the forgiveness process (Hannon, Rusbult, Finkel, & Kamashiro, 2010). This process involves a victim's change in emotion and attitude towards an offender (American Psychological Association, 2006). In part one of their study, researchers examined whether the perpetrator’s positive behavior following a betrayal predicted increases in the victim’s positive behavior or whether the opposite was true. They found that when the perpetrator apologizes and offers amends soon after the wrongdoing, victim forgiveness is more likely to occur (Hannon, Rusbult, Finkel, & Kamashiro, 2010). However, the victim’s positive behavior after a betrayal did not seem to increase the chances of the perpetrator offering amends. The perpetrator’s apology may not always need to be verbal, or explicit. If the amends seem insincere to the victim, the actions tend to backfire. For example, if Jesse violates a relationship norm within a marriage to Jamie, Jesse would need to respond in a loving and caring manner in order to be forgiven. Responding with defensiveness or hostility may cause Jamie to be less forgiving. On the other hand, once Jesse offers a clear and sincere apology, this effort will likely reduce Jamie’s uncertainties and promote forgiveness (Hannon, Rusbult, Finkel, & Kamashiro, 2010).
What is the next step after forgiveness?
Will the relationship survive, or will resolving the betrayal be more difficult than Jesse and Jamie originally believed? Researchers found that the process of betrayal resolution is highly interpersonal. Regardless of the role, a partner’s perceptions of whether or not a betrayal has been resolved is shaped by their partner’s behavior (Hannon, Rusbult, Finkel, & Kamashiro, 2010). For example, if Jamie decides to forgive Jesse, the couple will need to decide to move past the issue. After forgiveness has occurred, the behavior that Jesse exhibits may be judged more harshly and be subject to more scrutiny while Jamie is identifying whether or not the betrayal has been successfully resolved.
What happens if the betrayal is left unresolved?
When amends are offered and forgiveness is granted, complete reconciliation is still uncertain. The individuals may not return to their prior functioning as a couple. How one acts in the wake of betrayal may reveal a lot about how much that person values the relationship (Holmes & Rempel, 1989). A couple's actions after a betrayal can reveal meaningful information about each person’s dispositions, values, motives, and act as predictors for future behavior (Hannon, Rusbult, Finkel, & Kamashiro, 2010). For example, Jesse may assert that the betrayal will not occur again, apologize for the pain that it caused, and begin to behave in ways that compensate for the betrayal. As a result, Jamie may believe that Jesse now has a better understanding of Jamie’s expectations and values regarding their relationship. On the other hand, Jesse may instead claim that Jamie’s expectations are unreasonable following the betrayal and attempt to belittle Jamie. Both of these patterns of behavior would reveal important information regarding Jesse’s attitude and feelings toward the relationship, which may have remained hidden if the betrayal had not occurred.
In conclusion, both the victim’s behavior and the perpetrator’s behavior influence the manner in which betrayals are experienced and resolved. The perpetrator’s amends promote the victim’s forgiveness, and both of these play a key role in the resolution of betrayal incidents. Subsequently, the study revealed that betrayal resolution is beneficial to relationships from the viewpoint of both the victim and the perpetrator. Therefore, if you ever betray your significant other, offering an apology sooner will allow your partner to begin the transition from vengeance to forgiveness more quickly. If your apology is accepted, and you are forgiven, your actions thereafter will determine whether or not the betrayal was successfully resolved.
American Psychological Association, (2006). Forgiveness: A Sampling of Research Results. Washington, DC: Office of International Affairs. Reprinted, 2008.
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.
Hannon, P. A., Rusbult, C. E., Finkel, E. J., & Kamashiro, M. (2010). In the wake of betrayal: Amends, forgiveness, and the resolution of betrayal. Personal Relationships, 17(2), 253-278. doi:10.1111/j.1475-6811.2010.01275.x
Holmes, J. G., & Rempel, J. K. (1989). Trust in close relationships. In C. Hendrick (Ed.), Review of personality and social psychology (Vol. 10, pp. 187–220). London, England: Sage.
McCullough, M. E., Worthington, E. L., & Rachal, K. C. (1997). Interpersonal forgiving in close relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73, 321–336.
Dr. H. Colleen Sinclair
Social Psychologist, Relationships Researcher,
Ms. Chelsea Ellithorpe
Lab Manager of the Social Relations Collaborative and Blog Editor