Sometimes expressing anger might be necessary to resolve a relationship problem – with the short-term discomfort of an angry but honest conversation benefiting the health of the relationship in the long-term.
The research is part of a larger effort to better understand the contexts in which some relationships succeed and others fail, and also to understand how close relationships affect our health.
A popular research trend in recent years, positive psychology has offered the promise that with forgiveness, optimism, kindness, and positive thinking, people can turn around their relationships even after a serious transgression.
But as James McNulty of Florida State University investigated positive psychology and well-being, he began to see a different trend: “I continued to find evidence that thoughts and behaviours presumed to be associated with better well-being lead to worse well-being among some people – usually the people who need the most help achieving well-being.”
McNulty therefore set out to examine the potential costs of positive psychology. In a set of recent studies, he found that forgiveness in marriage could have some unintended negative effects.
“We all experience a time in a relationship in which a partner transgresses against us in some way. For example, a partner may be financially irresponsible, unfaithful, or unsupportive. When these events occur, we must decide whether we should be angry and hold onto that anger, or forgive,” said McNulty.
His research showed that a variety of factors could complicate the effectiveness of forgiveness, including a partner’s level of agreeableness and the severity and frequency of the transgression.
“Believing a partner is forgiving leads agreeable people to be less likely to offend that partner and disagreeable people to be more likely to offend that partner,” he said.
Additionally, he noted, anger can serve an important role in signaling to a transgressing partner that the offensive behaviour is not acceptable.
“If the partner can do something to resolve a problem that is likely to otherwise continue and negatively affect the relationship, people may experience long-term benefits by temporarily withholding forgiveness and expressing anger,” McNulty explained.
“This work suggests people need to be flexible in how they address the problems that will inevitably arise over the course of their relationships.
“There is no ‘magic bullet,’ no single way to think or behave in a relationship. The consequences of each decision we make in our relationships depends on the circumstances that surround that decision,” he added.
McNulty will present his research at the APA annual convention this week in Orlando.