The Downside of Forgiveness

Photo: Alamy

Here’s something else to toss into the pot stirred by Amy Chua, Yale law professor and mean Chinese mom: New research says we take it too easy on our spouses, too. James K. McNulty is an associate psychology professor at the University of Tennessee and the author of the recent study, published in the Journal of Family Psychology, that argues that men and women who absolve their partners end up with partners who only behave worse. “The take-home message is that forgiveness may lead to repeated transgressions,” is how McNulty puts it.

McNulty had this revelation back in 2008, when he was doing a two-year longitudinal study of newlyweds. He noticed how some of them kept behaving poorly—perhaps because their partners had forgiven them? So he launched a new study, one that included a closer look at this phenomenon.

To test his theory, McNulty recruited 135 recently married couples and asked them to fill out a single-page questionnaire every night for seven nights. The questionnaire asked, “Did your spouse do something negative today?” These couples, McNulty learned, were disagreeable in all of the ways couples can be. As reported by the husbands, 22 percent of the wives were argumentative; 22 percent moody; 13 percent nagged their partners; 5 percent snapped, yelled, or were sarcastic toward them. According to the wives, 26 percent of the husbands neglected their partners or were otherwise inconsiderate, and 13 percent criticized them. (No one reported physical abuse, though one respondent did admit to being sexually coerced.) And then, the key question: McNulty asked the spouses whether they’d forgiven the bad behavior.

For those who had granted pardons, their partners were almost twice as likely to transgress again the next day, compared with spouses who had taken a harder line. Worse, among spouses who had varied their reactions—swinging between showing mercy and staying ticked off—instances of forgiveness left their mates six times more likely to act terribly in turn. Six times! It’s as if “apology accepted” can be the marital equivalent of feeding the kids Pop Rocks for supper.

McNulty likes to couch so many of his responses in the academic’s favorite phrase: This warrants further study. (And no doubt it will.) But what can be sussed from the existing work, McNulty suggests, is that maybe it’s time to fully own the unwavering righteousness that is within each of us but that our culture forces us to tamp down. It’s time, people, to stand in judgment of the ones we love most. Because once we do, the world begins to turn in our favor. Our wayward—or insufferable—spouses heel. That’s at least what McNulty discovered. “It may simply be that negatively behaving partners realize that their negative behaviors have negative implications for them—anger, loneliness—and thus engage in them less frequently,” he says. Bringing your spouse in line could have side benefits, too. You’ll have more free time, which you can use to enforce your 3-year-old’s third hour of violin practice.

The Downside of Forgiveness