We’ve all heard the old saying that it’s best to forgive and forget. Virtually every religion and culture around the world encourages and sometimes even requires forgiveness of those who trespass against us, both in Eastern and Western cultures. What does science have to say about this, especially in the context of divorce and co-parenting?
In August of this year Psychology Today published a study conducted by Professor Arash Emamzadeh of the University of British Columbia where he conducted research on forgiveness predictors among divorced parents. The research examined when divorced parents are more likely to forgive each other. The article presents the challenges of co-parenting after divorce, especially when parents struggle with hostile feelings toward their ex-partner. After reviewing a number of studies the author found that a key predictor of forgiving an ex-partner is the acceptance of divorce and related negative feelings such as anger and grief. He also found that a predictor of not forgiving an ex-partner is narcissistic entitlement, that is: believing one is better than one’s ex-partner and deserves special treatment.
The article summarizes two investigations.
The terms used as measures included:
- Forgiveness: Benevolent feelings; lack of desire to get revenge or to avoid the ex.
- Self-control: “I am good at resisting temptations.”
- Anger personality trait: “It’s easy to make me angry.”
- Conflict severity: “Currently, how severe are conflicts with your ex-partner?”
- Trust: Having faith in one’s partner and seeing him/her as reliable and dependable.
- Hostile attributions: “My ex-partner is the cause of the current conflicts.”
- Narcissistic entitlement: “I deserve to be right.”
- Traumatic impact: The traumatic impact of the divorce.
- Ex-partner attachment: “I miss my former partner a lot.”
- Divorce acceptance: Feeling at peace with the divorce and the ex-romantic partner.
The same measures were used in both studies except for “traumatic impact,” which was not used in the second investigation (due to missing values). The studies found a positive correlation of forgiveness and divorce acceptance. A negative correlation was found with forgiveness and trauma, narcissistic entitlement, conflict severity and hostile attributions. Where divorce acceptance was absent, revenge feelings, feelings of avoidance, and lower contact frequency were found. Where there was divorce acceptance more benevolence was present between the parties. The studies also showed that for men only, “the ex-partner’s hostile attributions uniquely predicted men’s forgiveness above and beyond their own conflict severity, trust, hostile attributions, narcissistic entitlement, and acceptance.”
The author summarized that in all divorces, regardless of complexity, that forgiveness in divorce:
- Was less likely when conflict severity, hostile attributions, traumatic impact, and narcissistic entitlement were high.
- Was more likely when trust and acceptance of the divorce were high instead.
- Acceptance of the divorce was a major predictor of forgiveness.
The authors also found that a major predictor of the unwillingness to forgive was narcissistic entitlement. While it might seem obvious, the finding that divorce acceptance is a predictor of forgiveness was considered to be a “new insight.” Acceptance was defined as neither denying one’s unpleasant feelings about the divorce nor trying to change them, but “simply staying with them in an open, curious, and nonjudgmental way”. The author highlighted that narcissists “who feel more entitled and believe they deserve special treatment are less likely to forgive”, citing lack of empathy. He found that in complex divorces parents tended to have low empathy for their ex-partners.
Narcissistic entitlement may not be the only barrier to forgiveness. The author gave the example of limited concern for the ex-partner and suggested that different barriers may require alternative strategies.
The typical strategy to facilitate forgiveness is an individual’s decision that is removed from the behavior of the other. It is not that the ex-partner deserves forgiveness as it is an individual’s understanding that forgiveness frees them up to move on. It allows a burden to be removed from the consciousness of the forgiver.
Another factor favoring forgiveness is the documented benefits to physical and mental health for the forgiver. However, the most compelling reason for a parent to forgive an ex-partner in a divorce with children is the potential for improved co-parenting.
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