Your partner just made fun of you in front of your friends. Now, you have to decide how to respond. Should you shrug it off and let it go, or really let them have it when you have a moment alone together?
On one hand, forgiving your partner is a nice gesture that might encourage caring and respect between you two. On the other hand, not getting angry might let your partner think they have carte blanche to do as they please. So what is the right course of action?
Recent research suggests that it depends on your partner’s personality—in particular, whether they exhibit a trait known as agreeableness.
People high in agreeableness prioritize their relationships over their own needs, and are more cooperative and concerned with social norms; people low in agreeableness are more focused on pursuing their own self-interests.
Across four different studies, the researchers found that more agreeable people feel a strong need to respond in kind when they are forgiven, which means not repeating the behavior that bothered or upset their partner—such as smoking, flirting, neglecting chores, or overspending. Why? The research provides some evidence that agreeable people feel a sense of obligation when they’re forgiven, a kind of moral contract: You forgave me, so I’ll reciprocate by treating you well.
In contrast, the researchers found that people who are less agreeable are actually more likely to engage in similar transgressions after receiving forgiveness. What is going on in their minds? They tend to believe that anger is the appropriate response to wrongdoing, but a partner providing forgiveness is not a very angry partner. These people seem to be thinking, “You didn’t get mad at me, so you must not care that much about what I just did—so I’m going to go ahead and keep doing it.”
So what are you to do after your partner hurts or offends you?
This research identifies a problem but doesn’t provide a solution. However, simply recognizing how you and your partner might have different responses and expectations following transgressions can be a launching point for a conversation about how best to deal with them.
To do this, you can begin by identifying whether you and your partner have similar or different personalities. Are you both forgiving? Both easy to anger? If so, you are well-matched to deal with transgressions in your relationship. But if not, you may often feel unsatisfied or unheard.
If you are someone who believes that forgiveness is the right way to respond when someone you care about hurts you, but your partner doesn’t, then you might be confused as to why your partner seems to ignore your forgiveness. You might also feel hurt or confused when your partner gets angry at you after you mess up, when you were expecting forgiveness.
If you are someone who sees anger as the appropriate response, and your partner doesn’t get angered by something you do wrong, you’ll likely feel the transgression didn’t really matter to them. You might even wonder how much they really care about your relationship. You might also feel confused when your partner seems to overreact to your anger and get angry yourself when your partner continues to transgress in the future. (Agreeable people may see anger as a violation of social norms, and so anger expressed towards them could actually backfire, making them less motivated to fix their behavior in the future.)
Recognizing these differences and having a frank conversation about what anger and forgiveness mean to each of you and whether they motivate you to behave better might help illuminate the best path forward.
Although this research suggests that forgiveness may sometimes be less likely to motivate behavior change, there are other reasons to practice forgiveness. For example, it has been linked with relationship satisfaction, as well as psychological and physical health. So when choosing whether to forgive or get angry, it’s important to think over all the potential benefits and burdens of each course of action.
If the transgression is small, might it still be better to forgive a less agreeable partner, particularly if forgiveness is in your nature? And if people do choose to get angry, are there long-term costs for their relationships? Is the best approach for both partners to adopt the same style? I hope future research will provide us with answers to these lingering questions.