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Bachman Looks At Forgiveness

Published: September 4, 2012

“Always forgive your enemies,” said Oscar Wilde. “Nothing annoys them so much.”

The Irish playwright may have been on to something according to Communication Studies’ Guy Bachman, a member of the university since 2002.

Bachman is an expert on the dark side of relationships with an interest in forgiveness who has been publishing since 2000 in such forums as the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships with co-author Laura Guerrero of Arizona State University. He received his B.A. from the University of Hawaii, his M.A. from New Mexico State University and his Ph.D. in 2002 from Arizona State University.

Forgiveness can appear in different guises. Bachman’s research shows five forms of communicative forgiveness: non-verbal displays, implicit forgiveness, conditional forgiveness, discussion, and minimization where the forgiver might say “Oh, forget about it. It’s not a big deal.” People are typically motivated to avoid and/or seek revenge after a relational transgression.

Avoidance can begin when a romantic partner or friend says or does something that is hurtful. Bachman believes there are two possibilities when that happens. The first is that the person who is upset will not be in a forgiving mood. “That person will do things to make sure she or he has no contact with the offender,” he said. “You may live under the same roof but there are still ways to avoid communicating or showing affection and warmth to that other person, including the cold shoulder.”

The second possibility is revenge. “When provoked, one person may wish the other to suffer in some way too. Movies about revenge are big. But until the offended party loses the wish for revenge there is no forgiveness,” said Bachman. “Say a girlfriend flirts with someone else. ‘I want her to feel like I do’ says the boyfriend. Our research shows that revenge and forgiveness and forgiving communication associate negatively.”

Somehow, there must be an apology. “The other person cannot merely say ‘I am sorry.’ They must be sincere,” he said. “There was that film ‘A Fish Called Wanda’ where an offending party was hung out a window until a sincere apology was forthcoming. We can forgive with words and still wish the other person to suffer in some way.”

Forgiveness is handy when longtime partners begin to take each other for granted. “When couples first meet, they are on guard for the first several months,” Bachman said. “They want to make sure their feelings don’t get hurt. I’m constantly amazed by the horrible things that long term dating couples say and do to each other. But I’m equally amazed at the things they forgive each other for.”

Bachman is working on a study with Communication Studies colleague San Bolkan looking at factors linked to forgiveness including “perceived partner mattering” and “relational tone.” Perceived mattering involves the degree which one feels important to their partner and relational tone involves how much hurt and drama is experienced in a relationship. “We don’t know exactly why people come to feel unimportant to their partners,” Bachman explained. “There seems to be a lot of relational drama in some dating relationships and many people don’t feel important to their partner.

“In our recent study, students read a scenario where their partner was caught flirting with someone at a bar. They were asked what they would do if this situation happened to them. Prior to reading the scenario, the respondents rated their level of emotional tone, perceived mattering, and relational satisfaction. Individuals who experience a lot of up-and-downs in the relationship and often say hurtful things to each other’s (emotional tone) reported low levels of perceived mattering, and relational satisfaction.”

Guy Bachman
Guy Bachman

In a nutshell, those with the lower scores on perceived mattering, relational tone, and relational satisfaction indicated they would be least likely to forgive their partner and most likely to engage in destructive communication of avoidance and seeking revenge. Respondents who reported feeling important to their partner, were satisfied, and didn’t hurt each other’s feelings indicated they would be upset if they found their partner flirting, but they would probably be much more forgiving and engage in behaviors that would help repair the damage.

“It’s true some relationships can be negative in tone but forgiving in practice,” said Bachman. “Despite hitting each other over the head with negativity, some manage to be happy. Just because there is drama in the relationship doesn’t mean the couple will break up.”

Perceived mattering is important to partners. Those who do not perceive their worth do not feel needed by their partner.

“It is the little things like paying attention when they talk or answering their texts quickly that can make a partner feel important,” he said. “They can be included in an activity. They can be told about aspects of your day. Make future plans together and express your feelings to him or her. Have them help you do things. Let them know they’re needed. If you fail to answer your partner’s calls, e-mail or text, but you answer friend’s calls this could lead one to think he or she is not very important in your life.

“In many cases one member of the relationship seems to care or be clingier than the other. Sometimes caring more hints at desperation. The key there is to back off. Stop calling so much. Stop being so needy. See what happens. Independence is hard to practice but important to do. Typically, the other person will come around.”

The key to forgiveness can be as simple as being nice.

“You want to put insurance into any relationship, long-term or short. Being nice and fighting fair is one way to do it,” Bachman said. “Be nice all the way through. Let the other person know they are special just like on that first or second date. If your partner does things that annoy you, talk about it in a way that doesn’t make them feel bad.”