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Forgive Your Philandering Partner—and Pay the Price

New research finds people who forgive an unfaithful romantic partner are considered weaker and less competent than those who ended the relationship.
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(Photo: asife/Shutterstock)

(Photo: asife/Shutterstock)

Forgiveness has been linked to health and happiness. But it may be dangerous to your social status.

That’s the conclusion of a newly published study, which finds people—particularly those in leadership positions—pay a price when they forgive a mate for infidelity.

“Even with a clear indication that the romantic partner apologized, and the recognition that to forgive is a mature reaction, observers viewed a victim who forgave to be weak and incompetent,” reports a research team led by psychologist Heather J. Smith of Sonoma State University. “This research suggests there are negative consequences for victims who forgive.”

"A victim who forgives a romantic partner can fail to affirm shared values about how people should respond to sexual infidelity."

Smith and her colleagues report they were inspired to explore this topic “after several women told us that they would not vote for Hillary Clinton because she forgave then-President Bill Clinton’s infidelity.” Curious as to whether this view was widespread, they conducted three studies.

One of them featured 112 female voters, ranging in age from 20 to 79. They read a short news item about “Marian Parker,” who was described either as an incumbent governor or a first-time candidate. It reported that her husband of 25 years had an affair with his secretary.

Participants were randomly given one of three endings to the story: Marian either forgave her husband, filed for divorce, or “slashed his car seats” in retaliation. After reading it, they rated Marian on several scales; reported whether they felt her response was appropriate; and indicated whether they would be willing to vote for her.

The results: Those who were told that Marian forgave her mate rated her as “less competent, slightly weaker, and less worthy of support” than those who learned she walked away from the marriage. This held true whether she was portrayed as an incumbent or a new candidate.

"Participants were more willing to vote for a victim who left, in comparison with either a victim who forgave or a victim who retaliated," the researchers report. "Participants were equally willing to vote for the victim who forgave as the victim who retaliated."

Another study featured 94 male and 131 female undergraduates. They read a similar story, only this time the main character was either “Natalie Lewis” or “Brandon Thomas.” He or she was described as the student president of a “sister” university in the Cal State system.

Echoing the previous study, both Natalie and Brandon were rated as more mature if they forgave their straying mate. But they were also seen as “weaker, less competent, and less worth endorsement” than those who left the relationship. (This group, at least, "preferred forgiveness to retaliation.")

Why the harsh judgments of the wronged person?

“A victim who forgives a romantic partner can fail to affirm shared values about how people should respond to sexual infidelity,” the researchers write. They add that the importance of upholding such values increases “if other audiences might view the victim as a group representative.”

Furthermore, they note that third parties could feel that “victims who forgave their romantic partner failed to address the power and status inequity that the original offense created.” Doing so, in some people's eyes, is a sign of weakness.

So if you’re in a position of prominence, your actions have symbolic value whether you want them to or not. And the symbolism of forgiving a straying mate is decidedly double-edged.