An new study of German couples has found that individuals with secure emotional attachment are more likely to forgive offences to their partners, but also to be forgiven. Persons with a preoccupied attachment style were more likely to forgive their partners, but were neither more nor less likely to be forgiven. The study was published in the Journal of Research in Personality.
Romantic couples experience many positive moments in the course of their romantic relationship. But these relationships also involve conflicts. Although typically unpleasant and stressful, conflicts are not necessarily negative. Conflicts can be resolved and forgiven, thus strengthening the relationship. Due to this, forgiveness after conflicts is a central aspect of healthy and happy relationship functioning.
“Forgiveness is defined as a prosocial change characterized by decreased retaliation motivation or estrangement from the offender and by increased conciliation. Forgiveness can be understood as a coping strategy, that is, a ‘process of neutralizing a stressor that has resulted from a perception of an interpersonal hurt.’ Thus, the end-point of the forgiveness process occurs when an individual experiences little or no stress resulting from the transgression,” the authors of the new study explained.
Forgiveness can improve the quality of the relationship and it can also be good for mental health and the overall well-being. However, in abusive relationships, forgiveness can be harmful as it can place the forgiving individual at risk of further harm.
Forgiveness might also be shaped by emotional attachment patterns. These patterns start to be shaped by experiences with the caregiver in infancy and continue to affect social relationships throughout life. Researchers typically distinguish secure attachment, characterized by reciprocity, closeness, intimacy and constructive behaviors in a conflict, and insecure attachment patterns, characterized by low trust and negative views of oneself.
Study author Robert Korner and his colleagues wanted to explore how forgiveness in a romantic relationship might be associated with one’s emotional attachment pattern. They hypothesized that securely attached individuals will be more ready to forgive, but that they will also inspire their partner to forgive them more. On the other hand, persons with a preoccupied attachment pattern, one of the insecure attachment patterns characterized by very low self-esteem, see oneself unworthy of being loved and a strive for extreme closeness, might be more willing to forgive, but not inspire their partner to forgive them.
These researchers analyzed data of 149 heterosexual couples recruited in 2020 in Southern Germany in the scope of a larger study. On average, participants had been in their current relationship for somewhat over 8 years.
Participants completed assessments of attachment (dimensions secure-fearful, the Relationship-Specific Attachment Scales for Adults), and forgiveness (the Marital Offence-Specific Forgiveness Scale). The forgiveness assessment assessed two aspects of forgiveness – benevolence (i.e., a conciliatory motivation after conflicts; four items, e.g., “I soon forgave her/him”), and resentment-avoidance (i.e., revenge and avoidance motivation; e.g., “Because of what happened, I find it difficult to be loving toward her/him”).
Results showed that men and women did not differ in attachment patterns. Men reported somewhat higher forgiveness. Romantic partners were similar to each other in levels of the studied psychological characteristics. People with more pronounced secure attachment characteristics were found to be more likely to forgive their partners. They were also more likely to be forgiven by their partners. In other words, secure attachment was associated with greater benevolence and lower resentment, both participant’s and their partner’s.
The preoccupied attachment pattern of an individual was associated with that individual’s benevolence and resentment. Preoccupied individuals were also more likely to forgive their partners. However, this attachment pattern was not associated with benevolence and resentment by their partner. This indicates that partners of individuals with more pronounced preoccupied attachment characteristics were neither more nor less likely to forgive them compared to partners of individuals in whom this attachment pattern is less pronounced.
The study sheds light on the link between emotional attachment and forgiveness. However, it also has limitations that need to be taken into account. Notably, the study analyzed forgiveness in general, without going into details of the nature of conflicts between partners. It also did not take into account the motivation for forgiving.
The study, “How secure and preoccupied attachment relate to offence-specific forgiveness in couples”, was authored by Robert Korner, Astrid Schütz, and Frank D. Fincham.