We previously shared an article about why we stay in bad relationships. A research study showed that we're quick to have a positive view of people who do good things but are much more hesitant to have a negative view of people who do bad things because we're forgiving and prefer to focus on the good in people. When people don’t show this goodness, we still give the benefit of the doubt that they have the potential to be good somewhere deep down.
But let’s go deeper. Why do we forgive? Why do we hold on to the hope of a potential good in people, despite bad actions? Is it for ourselves, so that we don’t harbor unnecessary grudges which harm our mental health? Or is it actually out of good will for others, believing it’s not fair to them for us to hold anything against them?
Let’s start by saying forgiveness is an act that happens within yourself. It’s not a conversation. The other person doesn’t need to know you forgive them in order for that to be true. That being said, it’s hard to decipher whether we forgive for our own self care, or because we genuinely believe it's unjust to hold a transgression against someone else.
If your partner cheats on you and then tries to make up for it, you can not forgive and either stay with or leave them, or forgive and still either stay with or leave them. If you truly believe that they know they made a mistake and are sorry for what they’ve done, you’re more likely to forgive because it wouldn’t be fair to hold that grudge. In this case, you'll probably stay with or want to go back to them, especially because they tried to make up for it, so you cling to the good rather than the bad. The simple act of forgiving does increase your level of commitment, so this is why we stay in unhealthy relationships and may even want to return to an unhealthy relationship once we’re out of one.
When you can't overlook the bad in favor of the good, which is our natural tendency, there is a serious rift. If you know they wronged you and do believe it's fair to hold it against them despite their effort to make up for it, you're more likely to forgive for the sake of your own self care, as letting go will give you the ability to move forward. In this case, you will probably not stay with them. This requires an unwavering adherence to boundaries, because it takes a lot to not be swayed by a partner's apologies. This is an act of self love rather than love and good will for the other person.
A great adaptation of this is the show "Love", where the two characters turn a blind eye to every red flag in favor of the few good things about the relationship, and how continuing to forgive each other keeps them more committed, though the relationship is clearly on thin ice. It really shows that relatable tendency to stay in relationships we know aren't right.
Clearly, forgiveness is very nuanced, highly affected by circumstance, personality, temperament, and religion. I can’t tell you whether you, specifically, forgive out of good will or self care, but I can tell you that we have a social predisposition to forgive. Despite our motives for forgiveness, there’s an even deeper reason why we do. Social connection is in our bones. We're created by social relationships and from the moment we're born, we begin forming them. We know the importance of social connection deep down, and therefore, we don’t want to miss out on the wide array of benefits that come with social support by judging a person as “bad,” which is also likely why we're quick to judge people as “good.” We hold on to hope that anyone who transgressed us will eventually redeem themselves. And that's why we're so quick to forgive our exes. We want them to redeem themselves.
Forgiveness, like empathy, is a skill. It can be learned, built upon, and improved throughout your life. Even further, this research study explains how forgiveness is a coping mechanism for stress. It can help our physical and emotional wellbeing by reducing stress, depression, and anxiety. This study found that young adults who have experienced more severe stress but are less forgiving have worse mental and physical health. If you are having a hard time finding forgiveness, read our expert advice on 9 Steps to Forgive for Good from Forgiveness Expert Fred Luskin or 4 Tips For Healing, Forgiving, And Loving After A Painful Breakup. You may also benefit from this University of Texas professor’s self compassion exercises.