I Forgive Therefore I'm Committed: A Longitudinal Examination of Commitment after a Romantic Relationship Transgression

By Ysseldyk, Renate; Wohl, Michael J. A. | Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science, October 2012 | Go to article overview

I Forgive Therefore I'm Committed: A Longitudinal Examination of Commitment after a Romantic Relationship Transgression


Ysseldyk, Renate, Wohl, Michael J. A., Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science


Previous research suggests that relationship commitment can promote forgiveness. However, the converse might also be true, especially after severe transgressions wherein forgiveness requires much investment. The present longitudinal research examined commitment-change as a function of both forgiveness and transgression severity. Study 1 (N = 75) assessed commitment at two time-points, and forgiveness for a transgression that had occurred in the interim. Transgression severity was associated with decreased commitment; however, forgiveness mediated this relation such that greater forgiveness diminished commitment loss. Study 2 (N = 80) replicated these results and ruled out several other potential mediators. The role of forgiveness in relationship maintenance is discussed.

Keywords: forgiveness, commitment, interpersonal relationships, investment model, longitudinal

Romantic relationships are like bank accounts. That is, every relationship consists of a series of deposits and withdrawals - of time, effort, and affection. Although such relationships often provide joy and fulfillment, most of us have encountered situations in which we have been wronged or hurt by a significant other. Such experiences are an inevitable part of relationships and often occur in dealings with romantic partners, ranging from minor disagreements to severe acts of betrayal (Rye & Pargament, 2002).

Responses by the victimized party after a transgression may also vary considerably. Although it might seem that a negative reaction is warranted when someone has been hurt by his or her partner, many offences occurring within the context of a romantic relationship do not result in such responses - the transgressing partner is instead forgiven. To date, considerable research suggests that individuals who feel their relationship is characterised by high levels of commitment are more likely to grant forgiveness than those who feel less committed to their relationship (Finkel, Rusbult, Kumashiro, & Hannon, 2002; Karremans, Van Lange, Ouwerkerk, & Kluwer, 2003; Molden & Finkel, 2010). In the present longitudinal research, we argue, similar to others (Bono, McCullough, & Root, 2008; Tsang, McCullough, & Fincham, 2006), that although commitment can promote forgiveness, the converse might also be true: forgiveness may facilitate the maintenance or enhancement of commitment.

However, not all transgressions are created equal. Whereas some transgressions might be perceived as minor infractions (e.g., being late for dinner), others can cause great pain and hardship (e.g., infidelity). We argue that the extent of the harm inflicted may, paradoxically, be positively associated with commitment after a relationship transgression if forgiveness is granted. That is, the adversity that leads to the act of forgiveness may not only test commitment, it might also strengthen commitment. Indeed, it has been suggested that adversity elicits relationship maintenance responses (Lydon, Meana, Sepinwall, Richards, & Mayman, 1999). One such maintenance response may be a willingness to forgive after an interpersonal transgression. Forgiveness of minor conflicts or disagreements takes little effort and thus yields few gains toward commitment levels (see Finkel et al., 2002). Conversely, forgiveness of more severe transgressions requires much effort and so, when accomplished, may increase commitment levels to a greater extent. In effect, we suggest that experiencing a severe transgression within the context of a romantic relationship may be a catalyst for increased relationship commitment to the extent that forgiveness is granted. In this way, forgiveness might be viewed as a relationship "deposit" or investment (Rusbult, Martz, & Agnew, 1998) that leads to greater relationship commitment.

Forgiveness and Commitment

Forgiveness is generally understood as an outcome resulting from increases in benevolence and decreases in vengeful or avoidant motivations (McCullough, Worthington, & Rachal, 1997; Molden & Finkel, 2010). …

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