Along with all the great things that result from close relationships, the bond between two people also makes partners vulnerable to each other. Even in the closest of relationships, people may accidentally or intentionally do things that hurt each other’s feelings, whether it’s forgetting a birthday, making a snide remark, or committing a more serious transgression like infidelity.
If a relationship is going to persist following a hurtful act, it’s important that the victim forgive the transgressor. One way of repairing relationships is for transgressors to seek forgiveness by saying they are sorry, admitting their wrongdoings, or giving an explanation for their transgressions. But what prompts someone to seek out forgiveness in the first place? It turns out that guilt is an effective motivator.
Emotions, like guilt, prompt behaviors—when you’re afraid you run and hide, when you’re angry you approach the target of your anger with intent to fight, and when you feel guilty you’re motivated to repair the social bond that your actions damaged. In short, guilt is thought to prompt forgiveness-seeking behaviors.
A study1 recently published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships examined the link between guilt and forgiveness seeking across different types of relationships (e.g., friends, romantic partners, family). Participants first wrote about a time they had hurt or made someone upset in the past month, with the key being the issue had not yet been resolved. They then completed a questionnaire that assessed their feelings of guilt, their relationship with that person, how often they thought about that transgression, how responsible they felt for the transgression, and how severe they perceived the transgression. One month later they answered questions about how much they had attempted to seek forgiveness from the victim of their transgression.
People who felt more committed to the victim of their transgression (i.e., felt attached to them and wanted a relationship with them in the future) experienced more guilt. In addition, feeling personally responsible for the transgression (i.e., “it was my fault”), spending more time thinking about their transgression, and perceiving the transgression to be severe, elevated the transgressor’s guilt. Furthermore, people who felt higher levels of guilt reported making more attempts to seek forgiveness from the victims of their transgression across the previous month.
In short, people tend to feel guiltier if they spend time thinking about a particularly heinous transgression that they caused against someone whom they want to have a relationship with in the future. This experience of guilt, in turn, motivates individuals to seek forgiveness from the victim of their transgressions. So while guilt is not a pleasant experience, it is an important signal that there’s a valued relationship that needs repair. That guilt prompts forgiveness-seeking, which is the first step in rebuilding a damaged relationship. Turning that negative experience of guilt into a positive behavior like seeking forgiveness will ultimately have a positive impact on your relationship.
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1Riek, B. M., Root Luna, L. M., & Schnabelrauch, C. A. (2014). Transgressors’ guilt and shame: A longitudinal examination of forgiveness seeking. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 31, 751-772.
Dr. Le’s research focuses on commitment, including the factors associated with commitment and its role in promoting maintenance. He has published on the topics of breakup, geographic separation, infidelity, social networks, cognition, and need fulfillment and emotions in relationships