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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