Forgiveness is a good thing, right? Studies show people who forgive are generally happier and healthier. They ruminate less and are less stressed. Their cholesterol levels go down.
But research shows forgiveness has a dark side. At first it may help the person who has been hurt to let go of anger, resentment and desire for revenge. But forgiving also may encourage the transgressor to do it again. Experts say reaching true forgiveness is a journey that may take years. And it is best not to forgive too soon.
Jim McNulty, a psychology professor at Florida State University, in Tallahassee, has been studying the costs versus the benefits of forgiveness. In a 2010 study, he gave diaries to 135 newlywed couples and asked each partner to answer this question every day for a week: "Did your spouse do something today that you didn't like and did you forgive him or her?" He found that the day after forgiving a partner, people were 6.5 times more likely to report that the partner had again done something negative, compared with when there was no forgiveness.
In another study, published last year, Dr. McNulty followed 72 couples over the first five years of marriage. Each partner answered questions about how forgiving they thought they were ("Would you forgive your partner if he or she snapped at you if you were trying to help?"). Then, every six months, they answered questions about whether they engaged in physically and psychologically aggressive behavior toward their partners, such as insulting, shoving or swearing. The results indicated the forgiving partners experienced continued aggression. "The potential cost of forgiveness is that it doesn't hold the partner accountable for the behavior," Dr. McNulty says.
In other studies, he looked at the "doormat effect," asking each partner to rate how forgiving they were—and how nice—based on statements like "I care about other people" and "I have a soft heart." One study found people who had nice partners and who were forgiving of them felt better about themselves over time. People who were forgiving of not-so-nice partners, though, felt worse.
In another study, people who forgave nice partners remained happy with their marriages, while people who forgave not-so-nice partners became less happy. Most striking: People who refused to forgive not-so-nice partners remained happy.
"Forgiveness always makes people feel good immediately, but the question is what does it do to the person I am forgiving?" Dr. McNulty says.
Experts believe emotional hurt serves as an evolutionary defense. "You feel sadness and fear so you don't want to go back to the person and get hurt again," says Sean Horan, professor of relational communication at DePaul University, Chicago.
Just because you forgive someone doesn't mean you have to remain in the relationship. It is possible to forgive and leave. But in practice, if we left every person who ever hurt us, we'd be pretty much alone.
If you decide you want to forgive, what is the best way to do it? First, experts say, you should figure out why you're really hurt. Is it the actual transgression—or is this the last straw? "We all have baggage," says Dr. Horan. "Some things upset us more than they should, simply because of what we've been through in the past."
Remember that you've likely hurt people, too, and reflect on what it felt like to be forgiven. It is best to give the other person the benefit of the doubt. "We sometimes judge intent when it wasn't there," says Lisa Gibson, author of the upcoming book "Releasing the Chains: Timeless Wisdom On How To Forgive Anyone For Anything." "Often, people did not intend to hurt you."
It may help to imagine the process. What will you say? How will the person respond? It's important to be empathetic, to put yourself in the other person's shoes and try to see why they did whatever they did. Is your spouse under a lot of pressure at work and that is why he or she blew up at you? Try to see your part in the situation.
Finally, tell the person why you are hurt. Pay attention to whether or not they understand and regret their action. If all else fails, you could write a letter. You may decide not to send it, but it will help give you clarity.
At 17, Ann Bernard joined the Marine Corps to get away from home and her father, stepmother and siblings, including two brothers, a stepsister and two half sisters. Her father had remarried after a divorce when she was 6. At first, Ms. Bernard says, she was close with her stepmother and felt loved and cherished. Things changed when she was in sixth grade and the family moved from Quebec to Massachusetts. Her stepmother was always distracted and busy. Her dad, who owned a construction company, typically left for work before the children woke up and came home late.
Ms. Bernard, now 35, remembers her parents had to skip many of the school events that other kids' parents attended, such as track meets and her induction into the honor society. "I didn't feel like they knew who I was or cared about what was happening in my life," says Ms. Bernard. "I felt that all they needed me there for was to help out and do chores." After joining the Marines, she went home for the holidays for a year or two but then stopped. Two years ago, when she was planning to get married, her stepmother told her she wouldn't attend the wedding. "There was a lot of pain," Ms. Bernard says.
Ms. Bernard left the Marines in 2005 and tried a few business ventures. The man she had planned to marry, also an Iraq war veteran, suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and left her. She says when she saw how emotionally closed off he had become, she realized how closed off she was to her own family. "I had to change," she says.
With the encouragement of one of her sisters, she went home for Christmas last year for the first time in nine years. For several hours, she sat with her stepmother, each explaining her feelings. Ms. Bernard was able to see those years during which she'd felt so hurt through the eyes of her stepmother, who didn't speak English and had six children to raise and a new country to adjust to. Her stepmother declined to be interviewed.
"You have to be ready to forgive, to be in the right place and admit where you went wrong," says Ms. Bernard, who now lives in New Orleans and owns a company that runs confidence-building workshops. "My family, they are the most important people in my life now," she says.