How forgiveness can affect marriage and family relationships

‘If you want peace in your life, if you want to feel more joy, if you want to have deeper connection with others, learn to forgive,’ says BYU professor

Editor’s note: This is part two in a three-part series on what research says about forgiveness. Read part one and part three.

The paradox of a close relationship such as marriage is that two individuals can have their deepest affiliative needs fulfilled — but they can be hurt, betrayed, wronged or let down by the other person, said psychologist Frank Fincham.

Fincham is a leading expert on forgiveness in relationships who spoke at Brigham Young University’s 2013 Marjorie Pay Hinckley Lecture, where he titled his message “Til Lack of Forgiveness Doth Us Part: Forgiveness in Marriage” and focused on the need for and process of forgiveness in marriage.

“We share our deepest vulnerabilities with our intimate partners, and this allows us to experience increases in our own well-being … but it also increases the chances that we are going to be hurt,” said Fincham, director of the Florida State University Family Institute.

“No matter how wonderful your spouse is, they are not perfect. … You will be hurt by your spouse, and it won’t just occur once,” he said. “Forgiveness needs to be something that is available in that relationship.”

Close up young wife embracing husband; she has closed eyes, man rear view.
The paradox of a close relationship such as marriage is that two individuals can have their deepest affiliative needs fulfilled — but they can be hurt, betrayed, wronged or let down by the other person, said psychologist Frank Fincham. | fizkes -

Chelom Leavitt, an associate professor in the BYU School of Family Life who studies variables that create healthier relationships, cited some of Fincham’s research in a recent interview with the Church News. She referenced part of his message at BYU about giving up a “perceived right to get even” — and added perspective from the gospel of Jesus Christ.

“If we’re going to maintain a long-term relationship, we are going to hurt each other many times, intentionally, unintentionally,” she said. “God knows that forgiveness is the balm that will help maintain those relationships, and to aid us in that is the Atonement of Jesus Christ. That’s the power that helps us calm ourselves, give up that right for retaliation, become who we want to become and be more intentional about the choices we make. …

“If you want peace in your life, if you want to feel more joy, if you want to have deeper connection with others, learn to forgive.”

With President Russell M. Nelson’s recent emphasis on forgiveness for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Church News spoke to three BYU professors who have studied forgiveness in close relationships such as marriage and family.

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What forgiveness looks like in close relationships like marriage

For Leavitt and her research, forgiveness is defined as “reducing the negative feelings that you have in order to potentially reclaim positive feelings toward this person that you’re in a relationship with.”

“What we know is that forgiveness is associated with relational satisfaction, relational stability, and even sexual satisfaction,” she said. “If we are wounded in a relationship, you can imagine it’s going to impact all sorts of things in the relationship — we’re going to feel distance, no connection, no desire to be with that person. And so it’s important for the well-being of the relationship as well.”

Forgiveness happens in layers, Leavitt said, referencing Fincham’s definition of forgiveness as “a process, not an event.”

In romantic relationships like marriage where vulnerability can bring deep wounds, beginning the process of forgiving is not necessarily beginning the process of mending the relationship, Leavitt pointed out. “Research shows us that [forgiveness] doesn’t necessarily mean that you trust. You have to rebuild trust — that’s a very separate thing. 

“I am not suggesting to people that they throw caution to the wind and forgive an abuser without clear indication that they have changed their ways ... but what I am saying is, in our every day, the bumps and bruises of life, that forgiveness is an essential tool if we really want to have peace.”

Some of Leavitt’s research focuses on mindfulness — how being present in the moment has positive effects on romantic relationships. “Part of the mechanism through which that kind of attitude works is that we are more forgiving and less judgmental, and we are filled with more gratitude, so we see the positive,” she said.

“When we forgive, we’re not ignoring the hurt. We’re not saying that a harm didn’t occur. We’re acknowledging it. We’re looking at it straight in the eyes and saying, ‘Yeah, this was awful’ … and if this is a relationship that can be mended, ‘I’m going to try and see my partner in a different light.’”

Chelom Leavitt is an associate professor in the Brigham Young University School of Family Life who studies variables that create healthier relationships. | Lyndsey Orton

Leavitt explained that a willingness to forgive predicts whether or not a relationship will be mended, citing research by Johan Karremans, a forgiveness researcher in the Netherlands. And people can increase, or develop, their disposition to forgive, she said. This is often called “trait forgiveness” in research.

“Truthfully, the intrapersonal process is so key for the interpersonal process,” Leavitt said. “I have to regulate myself first, and that’s what forgiveness begins with. It helps me change my inner environment, so that I can then change my interactions with others. …

“Forgiveness is a mindful practice,” she continued. “It takes this ability to slow down my thoughts, be clear about what it is that’s wounded me, and then intentionally go through the process of, ‘How do I want to respond?’ not, ‘How do I feel compelled to respond?’ That’s just a reaction …

“From a gospel perspective, the Savior fills that gap. This is how I feel compelled to respond, but the Savior helps me respond how I want to respond and be much more intentional and purposeful.”

How religion can facilitate forgiveness in family relationships

Loren Marks and David Dollahite are professors in the BYU School of Family Life who conduct research on the links between religion and family life. They also serve as co-directors of the American Families of Faith project, for which they have interviewed nearly 300 families over the last three decades.

A man sits with a his arm around a young girl as they read scriptures together. Four other children also sit with scriptures open on the couch.
A father sits with his children to read from the scriptures together. BYU professors Loren Marks and David Dollahite have found that religion can be a catalyst to help people forgive. | The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

In a book titled “Religion and Families” that addresses the scholarly connection between religion and family life, Marks and Dollahite noted these findings in a chapter on forgiveness:

  • Some family researchers suggest that forgiveness is the most important factor in whether families are successful.
  • Children tend to follow the pattern of forgiveness, or lack of forgiveness, demonstrated and modeled by their parents.
  • Religious involvement facilitates forgiveness.

While there is a lot of research that shows the value of religion for relationships, Dollahite said, “Our work has been doing a deeper dive and looking at the processes — the whys and the hows. How is it that religion works? Why does religion seem to promote forgiveness? How does it go about doing that?”

David Dollahite is a professor in the Brigham Young University School of Family Life where he teaches classes and conducts research on the links between religion and family life. | BYU Photo

Marks and Dollahite co-authored a research paper published earlier this year that explored forgiveness motivations and processes in an ethnically, economically and geographically diverse sample of 198 highly religious Christian, Muslim and Jewish families in the United States. 

“Participants reported that their efforts to forgive were motivated by their desire to have relational harmony with each other [in couple and parent–child relationships], by their religious and spiritual beliefs, and by their spiritual experiences with divine forgiveness,” the research states.

They also found that religious practices acted as a resource to enable the process of forgiveness and encouraged participants to consistently forgive. For example, someone might feel a desire to forgive while listening to a sermon, singing a hymn or offering a prayer, Dollahite said.

Marks offered his perspective on the findings: “I think because forgiveness is so hard, most of us need a catalyst. We know we need to do it. We know we need to ask for it. But we need a catalyst, and religion provides a number of catalysts that get that process moving.”

Loren Marks is a professor in the Brigham Young University School of Family Life whose research interests include religion and families. | Matthew Norton, BYU

The two BYU professors also conducted a study on relational reconciliation involving the same sample of Christian, Muslim and Jewish families. Religious and spiritual beliefs reportedly influenced motivations for and the processes of reconciliation.

What does the process of reconciliation look like in family life? According to this study, “The process of reconciling involved praying to God for help (spiritual), admitting mistakes and taking responsibility (personal), forgiving and being forgiven (relational), and working to fix problems and make amends (practical).”

An Orthodox Christian woman who was interviewed explained how prayer, admitting mistakes, forgiveness and thinking before speaking all worked together to help reduce family and marital conflict:

“To help avoid or reduce conflict, whether in the family or the marriage, is the unceasing prayer, a spiritual father, frequent forgiveness and confession. And having those things is what keeps us, the kids and the parents, together,” she said. “I’m constantly talking to someone about what I did wrong this week and what the kids did wrong. [But] then [God] helps me look at different ways of going back to approach things. That’s my spiritual father. … And the forgiveness every week and confession, all those things; you put it all together and I think that’s what makes the package in keeping God central.”

“For this parent,” Dollahite said, “forgiveness was not just occasional forgiveness if something was really bad, but frequent forgiveness and a process of talking together — ‘How can we do better together? How can we forgive each other?’”

Dollahite noted that Latter-day Saints have “regular, ritualized ways of gathering and interacting around religious things” at home such as family home evening, family councils, family scripture study and family prayer.

“That simple practice of ‘We’re going to get together on a regular basis, we’re going to approach God together, we’re going to talk together about how we’re doing’ … that is such an incredibly powerful principle and process that has the potential for tremendous relational and religious value for Latter-day Saint families,” he said.

A father holds the hands of a toddler girl as she stands up, while a mother with an older daughter smiles.
A mother and father play with their two daughters outside. BYU professors Loren Marks and David Dollahite have studied ways religion can help facilitate forgiveness in families. | The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

More about the forgiveness research series

This Church News series explores what research says about forgiveness, in light of President Russell M. Nelson’s recent emphasis on forgiveness. The series includes:

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