More than half of the sample (53%) were Christian, 2.1% were Buddhist, 2.1% were Muslim, 1.9% were spiritual but not religious, 1.7% were Jewish, 0.7% were Sikh, 0.7% were Baha’i, 0.5% were Hindu, 0.5% were Wiccan, 0.9% were other (e.g., Pagan), and 35.9% were nonreligious.
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Perceptions in Close Relationships Study
There is a growing body of literature that explores the process of forgiving others (e.g., Fincham, 2000; Maio et al., 2008), but less is known about the process of self-forgiveness in relationships. Forgiveness of others is related to a host of positive outcomes, such as better physical health (e.g., Lawler et al., 2003), better psychological health (e.g., Maltby et al., 2001), and better relationship quality (e.g., Fincham & Beach, 2007). Although it is unknown whether selfforgiveness will have similar benefits for individuals and relationships, it seems likely that being able to let go of negative feelings towards the self with regards to interpersonal transgressions would translate into improved well-being and relationship satisfaction. Further, it is possible that forgiving the self will produce benefits that are independent from the influence of forgiving others.
We investigated these questions in a community sample recruited through an email snowball technique and postings on electronic bulletin boards. All procedures were approved by the SFU Department of Research. Participants completed online questionnaires of self-forgiveness and forgiveness of others (Heartland Forgiveness Scale; Thompson et al., 2005), physical health (Multidimensional Health Questionnaire; Snell & Johnson, 1997), depression (Beck Depression Inventory; Beck & Beamesderfer, 1974), and relationship quality (Relationship Assessment Scale; Henrick, 1988). We also asked people to consider a specific time when they hurt the feelings of a friend and their romantic partner, and to describe how much they had forgiven themselves and how much their partner or friend had forgiven them (other-forgiveness).
Although this study was limited because the data was self-report and cross sectional, it is one of the first large scale studies comparing self- and other-forgiveness in close relationships, and whether they uniquely predict personal and relationship well-being. Clarifying the boundaries between self- and other-forgiveness is a first step towards effectively incorporating these constructs into interventions designed to improve intrapersonal and relationship functioning.
Who Participated in this Study?
Over 500 individuals started the study, and of those 427 were eligible to participate and completed the questionnaires. As is typical in our experience with online relationship studies, the majority of our participants were women (n = 323), but we had a significant minority of men (n = 100). The average age was 27.24 years and ranged from 19 – 69 years of age. In our sample, 67.9% were Caucasian, 8.2% were Asian, 7.3% were Latino/Latina, 6.8% were Black/African-America or Afro-Caribbean, 2.3% were South Asian/East Indian, 1.6% were Middle Eastern, 1.4% were Pacific Islander, 0.5% were First Nations/Native American, 2.6% were Bi-racial, and 1.2% indicated ‘other.’
The respondents were a relatively well educated group; 39.7% had completed high school or GED, 18.1% had completed a Bachelor’s degree, 17.6% had completed a college diploma, 4.5% had completed a Master’s degree, 2.3% had completed a Doctorate, and 1.6% had not completed any educational level. Income was distributed bi-modally in the study. A significant proportion of people earned less than CAD$40,000 (56.5%) or over CAD$100,000 (17.8%).
Most of the participants were living in Canada (47%) or the US (44.9%), and had been born in Canada (38.3%), or the US (42%). Of those not born in Canada or the US, the majority were born in Europe, Mexico, or Asia. English was the first language for a majority of our participants (84.3%).
Of the 427 participants, 60.4% were in a romantic relationship, 34.9% were not, and 4.7% did not indicate whether they were in a relationship.
Friendship and Forgiveness
Of the participants, 341 described a situation where they had hurt their friend’s feelings. Friendships were generally moderately satisfying relationships.
People wrote about all kinds of situations ranging from relatively minor incidents that were quickly forgotten to more significant situations that resulted in the end of the friendship. On a rating scale of 1 – 5 of how serious the offence was, the average score was 2.62, which is just below the midpoint, indicating that generally speaking, the situations were moderately to mildly serious. People reported that their friend’s feelings were hurt more than moderately (mean = 3.47 on a scale of 1-5), and their own feelings were hurt moderately (mean = 2.91 on a scale of 1-5). Some examples of what participants wrote appear below:
“I was overtired and a friend was asking me something during class and I snapped at her. She was taken a back a bit but then just forgot about it and we just moved on.”
“My best friend announced that she was moving out of town for a job she had been offered. I wasn't very supportive and was really selfish and sarcastic, saying things like "how great for you" and not meaning it.”
“I forgot about my best friend birthday. At first he ignored me, but then I solve it by making a new surprise birthday party.”
“told her, through email, she ruined my fiancee's nice scarf by throwing up on it at a bar. she was drunk at the time. she did not remember doing this. she apologized. we didn't talk through email or in person for over a week.”
“I slept with her boyfriend.”
Participants reported that they rarely hurt their friend’s feelings, and although the friend infrequently hurt the participant’s feelings, this was a more common occurrence. Following the transgression described, most people felt moderately guilty about what had happened (mean = 3.03 on a scale of 1-5), responsible about the situation (mean = 3.09 on a scale of 1-5), and thought the event affected the relationship (mean = 2.52 on a scale of 1-5).
Most participants apologized for their role in the situation (66.7%), but reported that the friend was less likely to have apologized for their role in the event (32.1%). By the time of writing about the situation, people felt less guilty (mean = 2.02 on a scale of 1-5), they had forgiven themselves (mean = 4.0 on a scale from 1-5), and believed that their friend had forgiven them (mean 3.9 on a scale from 1-5). Most people discussed the event with someone else (83.1%), and most frequently talked about it with other friends, family, or romantic partner.
Romantic Relationships and Forgiveness
Of the 258 participants in a relationship, 205 described a situation where they had hurt their partner’s feelings (others either did not complete this section or they had not hurt their partner’s feelings in the past 6 months). The majority of relationships were serious dating relationships (41.6%), others were married (24.8%), engaged (14%), or cohabiting (12.4%). Very few of the relationships were described as casual dating (6.4%). Relationships were moderately satisfying (mean = 5.54 on a scale of 1-7).
As with the friendship scenarios, people wrote about a variety of situations when they had hurt their romantic partners. On a rating scale of 1 – 5 of how serious the offence was, the average score was 3.17, which is just above the midpoint, indicating that generally speaking, the situations were moderately serious and more serious than the things they described in their friendships.
People reported that their partner’s feelings were hurt more than moderately (mean = 3.71 on a scale of 1-5), and their own feelings were hurt moderately (mean = 3.40 on a scale of 1-5). Some examples of what participants wrote appear below:
“Expected too much from him and was critical of his lack of motivation to hang pictures!”
“Whining about work stress and blaming my partner for that. Essentially recurring theme: I get mad at my work-stress and blame my partner for getting me into this job.”
“When I kissed another girl when we were on a break. I was intoxicated and had regretted it right away and didnt do anything else besides that. She eventually forgave me though it seems that she still very much cares about this particular situation.”
“I contacted a old crush when me and my boyfriend were arguing and i knew he was cheating on me. He found out that i wanted to be with the other man.”
In contrast to their friendships, participants reported that they frequently hurt their partner’s feelings (mean 4.85 on a scale of 1-7), and although partner frequently hurt the participant’s feelings (mean = 4.63 on a scale of 1-7). Following the transgression described, most people felt moderately guilty about what had happened (mean = 3.16 on a scale of 1-5), responsible about the situation (mean = 3.27 on a scale of 1-5), and thought the event affected their relationship (mean = 2.58 on a scale of 1-5).
Most participants apologized for their role in the situation (79.2%), and in contrast to the friendship situations, the partners were also likely to apologize for their role in the situation (62.6%). By the time of writing about the situation, people felt less guilty (mean = 2.73 on a scale of 1-5), they were moderately forgiving of themselves (mean = 3.73 on a scale from 1-5), and believed that their partner had forgiven them (mean 3.85 on a scale from 1-5). Many people discussed the event with someone other than their partner (53.6%), and most frequently they talked about it with friends or family.
How is forgiveness related to satisfaction in friendships?
In friendships, self-forgiveness and other forgiveness (the degree to which the friend had forgiven the participant) were somewhat correlated (r = .30, p < .05) with each other. When examined separately, self-forgiveness was unrelated to friendship satisfaction, and otherforgiveness was moderately related (r =.51, p < .05). However, when examined as simultaneous predictors of satisfaction, self- and other-forgiveness predicted about 28% of the variability in friendship satisfaction, and both were independent predictors. As expected, the degree to which the participants believed their friend had forgiven them was positively related to friendship satisfaction. However, unexpectedly, the degree to which participants had forgiven themselves was negatively related to relationship satisfaction. In other words, greater other forgiveness and less self-forgiveness was related to greater relationship satisfaction.
Given that the study is correlational (we didn’t manipulate variables to conduct an experiment) and cross-sectional (we didn’t collect data at multiple points over time), it is difficult to draw any causal conclusions about this finding. However, we could speculate that when individuals feel as though their friend has forgiven them for a transgression, individuals feel happier about the relationships, but conversely, when individuals are less forgiving of themselves they either value the friendship more, or perhaps behave in ways to make up for the their transgressions thus resulting in more satisfying relationships. Of course, we could also speculate that when people are in more satisfying relationships, they are more likely receive forgiveness from the friend for the transgression, and that when a relationship is highly prized, people may find it harder to forgive themselves for hurting the valued friend. There is also a slightly more troubling possible explanation for the finding that greater self-forgiveness is associated with less relationship satisfaction. It may be that people who find it easier to forgive themselves are more likely to continue to transgress against a relationship partner thus resulting in relationships of lower quality. Only research that follows people over time and collects multiple assessments about the quality of their relationship and forgiveness be able to help us disentangle the question of causality.
How is forgiveness related to romantic relationship satisfaction?
As in the friendship domain, self and other-forgiveness were moderately correlated (r =.47, p < .05), and only other-forgiveness was correlated with relationship satisfaction (r =.47, p < .05). The same pattern of findings also emerged when we examined how self and other-forgiveness simultaneously predicted relationship satisfaction. Together, they predicted 23% of the variability in relationship satisfaction, and self-forgiveness was negatively related to satisfaction and other-forgiveness was positively related to satisfaction. The interpretations of this finding are similar to the ones we gave for the negative link between self-forgiveness and relationship satisfaction in the friendships.
How is forgiveness related to physical and mental health outcomes?
Although our primary area of interest was how self and other forgiveness were related to relationship quality, we also assessed some other outcomes of interest such as general health, depressive symptoms and general life satisfaction. Contrary to what you might expect and contrary to the literature, other-forgiveness in the friendship specific to the situation described, was unrelated to any of these outcomes. Self-forgiveness in the friendship was related to less depressive symptoms and greater life satisfaction. When examined as simultaneous predictors, only self-forgiveness predicted depressive symptoms, and general life satisfaction; neither predicted general health. Thus, we could speculate that people who generally feel happy in life and are free of depressive cognitions are more able and likely to forgive themselves. Or perhaps the converse is true – people who are able to forgive themselves feel better about their lives and are at less risk for depressive symptoms.
In the romantic relationship domain, greater other-forgiveness (from the partner) was associated with less depressive symptoms, better general health, and more life satisfaction. Self-forgiveness for the transgression against the romantic partner was also related to less depressive symptoms and greater life satisfaction, but wasn’t related to general health. When examined as simultaneous predictors, only other-forgiveness was related to life satisfaction and general health; self- and other-forgiveness were negatively related to depressive symptoms. That is, more self and other forgiveness was related to less depressive symptoms. Thus, it appears that in the context of our most important close relationships in adulthood, romantic partnerships, both self and other forgiveness are important.
What about general perceptions of other and self-forgiveness?
We asked participants to tell us not only about forgiveness in relation to specific incidents in their lives, but also the degree to which they generally felt forgiveness towards others and towards themselves. In the specific scenarios, we did not ask about how much participants experienced feelings of forgiveness towards their friend and partner.
There is a growing literature linking forgiveness of others to better relationship and health outcomes. For example, feeling less anger hostility and desire for revenge, and no longer avoiding the partner and feeling understanding about the other person’s transgressions is linked with more satisfying and stable relationships, less conflict in relationships, and fewer depressive symptoms and better physical health.
There is much less information available about tendencies for self-forgiveness and we speculated that self-forgiveness might confer many of the same benefits as forgiving others. In our study, only general self-forgiveness was related to greater romantic and friendship relationship satisfaction, and less depressive symptoms; general self forgiveness and forgiveness of others were both related to better general health and higher life satisfaction.
What are the next steps with this study?
We have only just begun to analyze the data for this project. We will continue to examine other research questions in this data set and we plan to present the findings at conferences and submit written manuscripts for publication. One of the tasks ahead will be to examine the written descriptions of the situations that the participants described and determine if there are specific qualities of the events that play a role in self- and other-forgiveness.
This study is an important first step in understanding the role of self-forgiveness in romantic and friend relationships. However, future study that assesses perceptions from both members of a couple, and follows people over time to collect multiple waves of data will be crucial to understanding the causal links between these variables. We are in the process of completing a study of married couples who have provided data for three years, including assessment of selfforgiveness and forgiveness of others, so we will be able to begin examining these critical questions in the near future. Check back at our webpage for future updates on this and other research in our lab.
A sincere thank you to all the participants in this study! Without your willingness to take time out of your schedules to complete these questionnaires, we would not be able to continue our work.
The SFU Close Relationships Lab Team and Rebecca J. Cobb, PhD Assistant Professor
Department of Psychology
Simon Fraser University