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In every relationship, there will be situations where one individual will do something that another regards as offensive or insensitive to their feelings. When this occurs, the response is predictable. For many individuals, revenge may be the most satisfying option when they have been hurt, as it provides immediate justice. Revenge, or the ‘eye for an eye’ approach, is quickly becoming the predominant attitude in society. Forgiveness, on the other hand, is the refusal to hurt the one who hurt you. This can take on many meanings in different circumstances, and encompasses situations ranging from the refusal to ‘get back at’ others, to the refusal to prove to others how incorrect they are.
Previous studies have investigated the explanations for why some individuals resist the desire to retaliate whilst others decide to cause distress and inflict pain on the person who ‘deserves’ it. The results have shown that people tend to exact revenge when they do not consider the consequences of their actions or the morality behind it. This essay will therefore discuss the reasons that have been identified for resisting the urge to enact revenge on a partner, with an emphasis on personality and life circumstances. In this essay, I will firstly describe the features and functions of both forgiveness and revenge, emphasising the consequences that may lead from these actions. I will then discuss the reasons why individuals decide to take revenge, relying on evidence shown in previous studies. The effects of personality and life circumstances will also be taken into consideration. Finally, the implications of these findings will be discussed, revealing how the present research offers an insight into the decision-making abilities of individuals.
The term forgiveness is perplexing however is also a universally accessible concept. There are many definitions of forgiveness, such as Hope’s (1987) statement that choosing to forgive is an act that liberates a person from the need to seek revenge for past offences. Lulofs (1992), on the other hand, believed that forgiveness is accepting and integrating past behaviours into an experience that helps to create the unique identity of the individual in question. However different these definitions may be, there is a predominant theme that follows from these. Forgiveness originates from an act of the will; a decision must be made by one party in order for the transgression to be forgiven. These decisions, and their consequences, involve cognitive, emotional and behavioural aspects. Forgiving can therefore lead to healthier relationships and improved wellbeing and self-esteem. Conversely, the desire for revenge is a cause of many forms of aggression.
Clinical psychologists and therapists have begun to label revenge as a disease, with forgiveness as the cure. For example, previous literature on forgiveness implies that forgiveness is an alternative to revenge, with forgiveness being linked to reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression whereas revenge is linked negatively to health and wellbeing. It is therefore evident that both revenge and forgiveness have complimentary functions and result from changes, that became representative of humans due to their effectiveness in solving problems that were encountered throughout evolution. Many studies have investigated the reasons people offer as to why they resisted the urge to retaliate when provoked by a partner. A study conducted by Boon, Rasmussen, Deveau and Alibhai (2017) asked undergraduate students to recall a situation when they wanted to get even with a partner and chose not to, either explaining their reasons, or choosing from a checklist. The results showed that there were three prevailing reasons that dictated the responses.
First, participants believed that revenge was morally wrong, and that getting even was childish and immature. Secondly, due to the consequences of a revengeful response being difficult to predict, respondents were concerned with the probability that the effort might fail to achieve its intended goals and even escalate the situation. Similarly, participants also believed that their partners may think they were crazy if they retaliated, and that they would perceive them as overreacting and not appreciate them anymore. This would lead to damage in their relationship. This study therefore examined the three major factors in why people take revenge. However, due to the self-report nature of the data, the results are prone to the usual biases and errors that occur when participants lack insight into the true causes of their behaviour.
Similarly, it is possible that the participants’ reported reasons for not retaliating do not correspond to the actual reasons. In contrast, it has been theorised that the disposition to forgive is significantly correlated with personality traits, rather than morality reasons. Individuals rating highly on agreeableness and emotional stability were found to also rate highly on descriptors such as forgiveness and compassion. This may perhaps be due to the level of empathy these individuals have towards others as well as their tendency to be less afflicted when faced with negative emotion. The participants of these studies however, in particular the study conducted by Ashton et al. (1998), all volunteered, which may influence the results in some way. It can be presumed that more conscientious students completed the study, which may have led to biased results and a misrepresentation of data. Similarly, it has been reported that individuals who forgave their partners once or twice before, considered forgiving them a third time a major betrayal and an act of idiocy. It can therefore be presumed that life circumstances will also influence people’s decisions to forgive and forget, rather than to take revenge. This has been supported by research conducted by Shackelford and Buss (1996), who found that people are more susceptible to revenge after being exploited by cheaters who promise commitment and investment into the relationship and never deliver.
Therefore, the present research has shown that individuals who believe the action is morally wrong, it will change their partner’s opinion on them or lead to negative consequences are associated with the extent to which an individual forgives another. Similarly, those who are more agreeable and emotionally stable are more likely to forgive than their counterparts and those that have been betrayed previously are more inclined to take revenge. This shows that the ability to understand emotions and their outcomes may help individuals in resolving hurtful transgressions in relationships and increase satisfaction in all relationships.
Future research should therefore explore the specific reasons why individuals high in agreeableness or emotional stability choose to forgive, comparing it to the three reasons mentioned previously. Are agreeable and emotionally stable people forgiving due to the empathy they feel for the transgressors or are they forgiving in order to maintain their social status and dictate how others view them.
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