Image by Mabel Amber from Pixabay

We are all taught the power and necessity of forgiveness from an early age:

“Forgive and forget. It may not change the past, but it gives the future a chance.”

“The first to apologize is the bravest. The first to forgive is the strongest. The first to forget is the happiest.”

It’s a poetic, romantic sentiment, but hello people, forgiveness is hard!

Most people know that forgiveness is important for maintaining relationships and their own happiness, but we also know it can be very challenging. My colleague, Lisa Neff, and I set out to better understand what promotes forgiveness in close relationships. Specifically, we wondered whether couples can do anything to increase the likelihood that they will forgive each other. It turns out (spoiler alert!) that simply sharing everyday, ordinary positive moments together is the answer.

Let’s set the stage. You get home from work early and put in a little extra effort into making dinner so that you and your partner can share an enjoyable, stress-free meal together. But your partner comes home in a slight fury and doesn’t notice that not only is dinner ready but that the kitchen is already clean too. Your partner says they aren’t hungry, and that they just want to watch TV and tune-out. Buuurn! Your partner didn’t notice your effort, didn’t want to spend time with you after you put in that effort, and withdrew from you entirely.

Research shows that when partners experience this sort of negativity—be it withdrawal, criticism, blame, or an argument – they understandably tend to be less satisfied with their relationship and their partner. That doesn’t necessarily mean they are completely dissatisfied or they are considering leaving, but when we give them a survey to complete at the end of the day, partners who report more negativity in their relationship on a given day tend to be less satisfied that day.

But how we react in that moment of anger, disappointment, and hurt depends on our interpretations of our partner’s behaviors and whether we “let bygones be bygones.” On one hand, we might blame our partner and his or her enduring personal characteristics—inattentive, not invested in the relationship, short tempered—which, not surprisingly, would make us less happy with our partner and relationship.

On the other hand, we might make a more benevolent interpretation of our partners’ behavior. We might blame the situation or context, concluding, for example, that our partner is stressed from work or had a bad day. Making benevolent interpretations and forgiving our partners allows us to disentangle their momentary, negative behavior from our overall satisfaction with them. We can maintain our relationship satisfaction even in the face of negativity if we can view our partners in a more positive light.

But what helps us perceive our partner’s behaviors in benign and forgiving ways?  When people are angry and hurt, they have a hard time changing their thought patterns in that heated, emotionally intense moment. So, what can we do to increase the likelihood that we will be forgiving in that moment?

In our study, we found that couples who reported that they generally shared simple everyday positive moments together—such as making each other feel loved, showing an interest in each other’s days, enjoying leisure activities together, and sharing physical intimacy—reported that they typically made more benevolent interpretations for their partners’ negative behaviors. That is, they were more likely to blame the situation rather than the partner and to forgive them for their transgressions. Those interpretations and forgiving sentiments were then associated with less reactivity when their partners did things that angered, disappointed, or hurt them. Partners who were more forgiving maintained their day-to-day relationships satisfaction even in the face of partners’ undesirable behaviors.

So, couples who share ordinary positive moments together perceive their partners’ negative behaviors in a more positive light and are more forgiving of those behaviors, which helps them disentangle their daily evaluations of their relationship from their partners’ negative behaviors. Interestingly, those everyday positive moments were also directly associated with lower reactions to daily transgressions. In other words, although positive interpretations of partners’ behaviors and forgiveness help couples deal with partners’ negative behaviors, simply having everyday positive moments together also seem to be doing some of the work.  

So, although it is certainly important to avoid blaming our partners and to forgive them for their negative behaviors, I encourage you to focus on sharing everyday positive moments together. I’m betting that it is much easier to incorporate shared quality time together into your day-to-day lives than to try to adjust your thought processes and emotional reactions during an argument, after receiving criticism, or when your partner withdraws. Everyday positive moments not only help us make benign and forgiving attributions for our partners’ behaviors, but they also seem to benefit our relationships directly.

For Further Reading

Walsh, C. M. & Neff, L. A. (2019).  The importance of investing in your relationship: Emotional capital and responses to partner transgressions. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 37(2), 581-601. doi: 10.1177/0265407519875225

Walsh, C. M., Neff, L. A., & Gleason, M. E. (2017). The role of emotional capital during the early years of marriage: Why everyday moments matter. Journal of Family Psychology31(4), 513-520. doi: 10.1037/fam0000277

Girme, Y. U., Overall, N. C., & Faingataa, S. (2014). “Date nights” take two: The maintenance function of shared relationship activities. Personal Relationships21(1), 125-149. doi: 10.1111/pere.12020

Courtney Walsh received her Ph.D. in Human Development and Family Sciences from the University of Texas at Austin in 2019.