Despite our best intentions to treat romantic partners with respect and kindness, we sometimes slip up and do things that hurt them. We might make a rude comment, show up late for an important event, fail to follow through on a promise—or even lie and cheat.
These transgressions can make us feel ashamed and disappointed in ourselves, and they should—without experiencing negative emotions as a result of hurting someone, we are unlikely to be motivated to make amends and improve our behavior.
But research suggests that excessively punishing ourselves for our mistakes can do more harm than good, leading us to feel hopeless and paralyzed by self-doubt.
One way to protect oneself against excessive self-punishment following a transgression is to engage in a process of self-forgiveness.
Self-forgiveness involves gradually letting go of negative self-directed feelings and at the same time gradually restoring positive feelings like self-respect and self-compassion. Critically, self-forgiveness is only relevant when a person has already accepted responsibility for a transgression; without this element it is called “pseudo self-forgiveness.” Research suggests that self-forgiveness is associated with a number of psychological benefits, including lower anxiety and depression, and better physical health.
But how does self-forgiveness affect other people? Can forgiving yourself help your partner and improve your relationship as a whole?
Researchers have only recently begun to address these questions, but the initial evidence suggests that genuine self-forgiveness may indeed benefit relationships, with a few caveats. Here’s how:
1. Self-forgiveness may increase relationship satisfaction—for both partners.
In a recent study of long-term relationship partners, both members of the couple were asked to recall a transgression they committed against their partner for which their partner remembered being hurt. They were also asked to report on two dimensions of self-forgiveness: negative feelings toward the self (e.g., self-criticism, holding a grudge) and positive feelings toward the self (e.g., understanding, compassion).
For offending partners, both aspects of self-forgiveness—less negativity and more positivity—contributed to relationship satisfaction. For offended partners, however, only less negativity contributed: that is, they were more satisfied with their relationship to the extent that their partner had let go of negative feelings about his or her offense, but the presence of positive feelings didn’t make a difference.
The researchers interpreted this finding as suggesting that partners who hold on to shame and self-criticism long after a transgression has occurred may also be more difficult partners to live with, demanding more reassurance and support and giving less.
This pattern is supported by research showing that the more offenders ruminate about their transgressions, the less motivated they are to apologize and seek reconciliation. The positive aspects of self-forgiveness may have made less of an impression simply because, psychologically speaking, bad is stronger than good.
Two key factors that were not examined in this study but might be playing a role is whether the offending partner apologized and tried to make amends, and whether the offended partner offered forgiveness. Self-forgiveness may be more likely to contribute to relationship satisfaction if it is accompanied by these behaviors.
2. Self-forgiveness may decrease the likelihood of repeat offenses.
A key question in both forgiveness and self-forgiveness research is whether these practices actually decrease problematic behavior, an outcome that has direct consequences for a romantic partner.
In one study, participants who had been forgiven for a transgression reported greater “repentance motivation” than participants who had not been forgiven. Repentance motivation involved wanting to preserve or mend the relationship, wanting to treat the person better, wanting to do everything possible to avoid repeating the offense, and wanting to do something positive to make up for the offense. Receiving forgiveness may help people feel a greater sense of hope for the relationship and therefore greater motivation to work on it, whereas a lack of forgiveness might make people feel that their efforts will be in vain. In addition, receiving an act of goodwill (i.e., forgiveness) may make people motivated to reciprocate (i.e., treat the other person better).
Does self-forgiveness work the same way? One study found that a brief self-forgiveness induction aimed at helping participants release guilt and self-punishing feelings regarding a recalled transgression did not increase the odds that they would engage in reparative behaviors such as apology and offering restitution over the next two weeks.
The researchers concluded that self-forgiveness should perhaps not be encouraged until after reparative efforts are made. In fact, their results showed that participants who had already apologized or made amends before the study started were most likely to increase in self-forgiveness during the study—perhaps because they felt more deserving of it.
In contrast, an experimental study I conducted with Serena Chen found that participants who were randomly assigned to approach a recent transgression with self-compassion, a practice related to self-forgiveness but broader in scope, experienced greater self-improvement motivation (e.g., desire to apologize, make amends, and avoid repeating the transgression) than participants in self-esteem or distraction conditions.
Similarly, in another set of studies, genuine self-forgiveness—which focuses on the process of working through a transgression and trying to accept the self while still acknowledging wrongdoing (as opposed to simply replacing negative emotions with positive ones)—predicted greater empathy for the offended partner and greater desire to make things right and improve the relationship.
The researchers argued that genuine self-forgiveness can increase a person’s trust in themselves and belief that they can become “effective moral agents,” whereas excessive self-punishment can lead people to lose faith in themselves.
This idea is supported by our own research. In a subsequent study, we found that affirming values violated by an offense restored moral identity, which led participants to experience greater self-forgiveness—as well as, over time, greater self-trust and desire for reconciliation. They also found that shame was not incompatible with these positive changes and may in fact be an essential component of interpersonal restoration.
None of these three sets of studies examined romantic relationships specifically, and the link between self-forgiveness and reparation may take a different form when it comes to those bonds.
For example, self-forgiveness may be more likely lead to better behavior if it is paired with forgiveness from the partner, or at least an openness to potentially forgive. In addition, people may feel a greater sense of interdependence and self-other overlap with long-term romantic partners than they do with other relationship partners, making their partner’s transgressions a mutual source of shame; in that sense, the offending partner’s self-forgiveness could potentially also help to reduce the offended partner’s negative feelings.
Taken as a whole, these recent findings on self-forgiveness seem to suggest that our best bet following a transgression may be to focus our energy on extending compassion and care to the person we hurt. Whether we are condemning or elevating ourselves, we are focused on ourselves, not on our partners. When we focus on our partners instead, we may find that self-forgiveness arises naturally over time.