Relationship Advice Tips from Dr. Jeanette Raymond, Ph.D.

pink - To forgive or not to forgive, that is the question!

“You always forgive your brother when he messes up in the family business, but you never forgive me, your wife, when I make one mistake with the household accounts, or forget to buy the special wine for your mother when we visit!” Celia remarked with frustration.

Why is it that you find it easy to forgive some people but not others?

What makes you hard-hearted with a certain loved one, but soft-hearted with another?

It all depends on a subtle but vital combination of factors that leads to the decision to forgive, or not to forgive!

Vaughn’s brother and business partner made bad deals without consultation that cost the company money. Vaughan got upset, and angry. He yelled at his brother and spent much time telling him to grow up and act more responsibly. No matter how many times Jude disappointed Vaughan, he was eventually forgiven and the brothers were once again on the best of terms, bonded in their relationship.

Celia had only to spend more than the monthly household allowance on herself to evoke Vaughn’s fury and cold shoulder. When she went out with friends and colleagues even when family visits were on the calendar Vaughn felt mortally wounded. He turned sour towards Celia when she bought clothes or had expensive beauty parlor treatments rather than spend it on family and household. Vaughan experienced that as selfishness, vanity and a threat to family unity. He never forgave Celia her spending habits. While Celia felt guilty and the need to atone, her brother in-law Jude was pardoned and his misdeeds wiped off the slate.

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The two-factor combination that influences the act of forgiveness

Research in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin reported in  March 2012 that there are two intertwining factors contributing to Vaughn’s ability to forgive his brother but not his wife.

The first factor is the risk of exploitation. Vaughn had a long and intimate knowledge of his brother, and had no evidence that Jude was out to exploit him for his own aggrandizement.  Whatever fights and disagreements the brothers had, in the end they put filial loyalty above material gain, and could be trusted to look out for one another when the chips were down. The risk of exploitation was low.

Not so with Vaughn and Celia. Their relationship did not fill Vaughn with confidence and assurance that Celia would put him or the family first is she had to choose between them and herself.  Celia was an independent woman who had shown herself willing and able to do what was right for her in most circumstances. While Vaughn admired that quality in his wife, it also made him feel less secure. He was never sure that she would sacrifice her personal needs for the sake of the marriage or their family. So the threat of exploitation was very high.

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The second factor is the value of the relationship to the wronged person

Vaughn valued both his relationship with his brother and that with his wife. However the value he put on the connection with Jude was greater than that he placed on his marriage with Celia. Brothers would always be brothers and he could rely on it to be consistent, no matter how irritating or disappointing. Vaughn’s relationship with Celia was valued differently. He treasured the sanctity of marriage and the foundation it gave his kids, as well as the status it brought in the eyes of him family and community. He liked the sex and social life he had with Celia. But it was possible that she could cheat on him, leave him, work outside the home and have a separate life. The relationship while valuable in many ways wasn’t as essential as that with brother. His family provided plenty of affection and attention, and he could always find another sexual partner if need be.

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A low risk of exploitation and a high relationship value influenced Vaughn to forgive his brother

Vaughn felt safer and more secure with his brother Jude than he did with his wife Celia. His faith in the brotherly relationship was stronger and more valuable to Vaughn than that with Celia. Vaughn’s hurt and sense of betrayal when Celia acted independently or apparently with selfish motives cut him to the quick. It reinforced his fear that he would be used or abused and ultimately traded in if things got really bad. Forgiving Celia raised the threat level when the strength of their connection wasn’t sufficient to survive the risk. With Jude on the other hand, the risk of being used and dumped was negligible. Their bond was like steel and had survived many a blow. Forgiving Jude was not only easier but also necessary to maintain that bond for continued safety and security.

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How can Vaughn and Celia reach a place where forgiveness is possible?

1.    Discuss feelings of insecurity that are evoked by Celia’s independence

2.    Balance out activities shared as a couple with independent actions after careful planning and exploring of the feelings that get stirred up around this interface.

3.    Take the time to learn about what is most important to one another in the relationship and how to honor those feelings.

If Vaughn can be more forgiving of Celia once the risk of exploitation is reduced and the value of the relationship increased, the marriage will become as rock solid as the brotherly connection.

Copyright, Jeanette Raymond, Ph.D.

Disclaimer: this article is for informational and educative purposes only. Dr. Raymond is not responsible for any reactions you may have when reading the content or using the suggestions therein. Interacting with this material does not constitute a therapeutic relationship with Dr. Jeanette Raymond, Ph.D.