The Doormat Problem

New findings (via Eric Barker) on the dark side of forgiveness:

The tendency to express forgiveness may lead offenders to feel free to offend again by removing unwanted consequences for their behavior (e.g., anger, criticism, rejection, loneliness) that would otherwise discourage reoffending.

Consistent with this possibility, the current longitudinal study of newlywed couples revealed a positive association between spouses’ reports of their tendencies to express forgiveness to their partners and those partners’ reports of psychological and physical aggression.

Specifically, although spouses who reported being relatively more forgiving experienced psychological and physical aggression that remained stable over the first 4 years of marriage, spouses who reported being relatively less forgiving experienced declines in both forms of aggression over time.

I’m going to guess that the study of forgiveness and the study of justice are going to merge even further in the near future.  Forgiveness does great things at the individual and social levels.  Forgiveness helps people stay happier, sleep better and live longer.  And it can set the stage for reconciliation and the resolution of conflict between individuals or social groups.

But revenge can be adaptive, too:  It’s a way of enforcing social norms and deterring future transgressions.

Some research is starting to find that forgiveness is easiest to achieve when it’s paired with justice.  It’s easier to forgive (surprise, surprise) when the score has been settled.  And safer, too — we don’t worry about being doormats or showing transgressors that they can offend with impunity.

So what’s wrong with the punish-then-forgive approach?  Well, for starters, both parties in a transgression tend to see it differently.  The response that is perfectly proportionate for one party may be seen as a vengeful escalation by the other.  Conflict spirals of retaliation and counter-retaliation can ensue.  And any feelings of obligation or indebtedness that might stem from the forgiveness can be wiped out by the punishment.

The coolest new research on forgiveness, in my opinion, is work that blends forgiveness with restorative justice.  While justice can increase forgiveness, the form of justice doesn’t need to be punitive and retributive.  Restorative approaches to justice are the best of both worlds:  They respond to the victim’s need for acknowledgement of harm, they promote conciliatory behaviours by the transgressor, and they focus on restoring the shared norms and values needed to keep similar transgressions from occurring again.  All the forgiveness, none of the doormat-ness.

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One comment on “The Doormat Problem

  1. Sara says:

    Hi Professor Lukas,
    I
    have a doubt..

    Quote from the article above:
    >> Well, for starters, both parties in a transgression tend to see it differently. The response that is perfectly proportionate for one party may be seen as a vengeful escalation by the other….Restorative approaches to justice are the best of both worlds: They respond to the victim’s need for acknowledgement of harm, they promote conciliatory behaviours by the transgressor, and they focus on restoring the shared norms and values needed to keep similar transgressions from occurring again

    If this (“seen as vengenful escalation”) happens, it clearly means that the prepetrator is feeling entitled to carry out the crime on the victim, and feels that the victim deserves the pain inflicted and has no right or reason to complain. Would such folks even heed to the “restoratory justice” when it tries to “promote conciliatory behaviours by the transgressor”. I know folks who think it is their right & duty to batter their wife if she doesn’t cook exactly as they like, or if she doesn’t surrender all her finances & her salary to them, or if her makeup (or lack of it) doesn’t look good to them. Pleading or explanation by the victim never works. These cheapstake folks claim that it was the victim’s fault and she invited the beating and that she deserves it. When a “restorative justice” person enters & tries to reconcile, the way the perpetrator reacts on the spot depends on who the reconciler is (whether he is a policeman with authority to throw him behind bars if he tries to show his attitude at that time, or if she/he is just his victim’s relative/friend without any power). But later on, the victim would get much worse treatment for daring to “tell-tale” to someone about him when he did just a rightful thing which she deserved after she did the unforgivable mistake (of “insulting” him by not wearing makeup & looking plain or not handing over all her money to him etc).

    What I am trying to say is that someone who thinks that getting caught by authority as a wrong or vengeful escalation would also view even a complain made to a “non-retributive, restoratory” arbitrator as a vengeful escalation. Wouldn’t this only make things worse now since he completely escapes any kind of punishment?

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