You’ve gotten together with a friend you haven’t seen for years, and you’re excited to catch up on all the events in both of your lives. However, early in the conversation, your friend drops a bombshell. “You know,” she says, “I never understood why you ignored me at Jan’s wedding. You refused to sit next to me, and we didn’t even get any pictures together.” “Wow" is the only response you can muster. It's shocking to hear that (a) you unintentionally snubbed her, and (b) this really bothered her, even after all these years. You get home and look through your old photos from the event, and it’s true that there are none of the two of you. Maybe you did hurt her feelings. But how does she still remember this, and why has she carried this grudge for so long?
In the research on forgiveness, the question of non-forgiveness, or grudges, rarely appears as its own topic. We do know that expressing forgiveness is one of the most therapeutic ways to repair a broken relationship, as well as to promote your own mental health. People who show forgiveness are able to overcome the ruminative feelings that come along with anger toward those who have wronged them. They may not even feel wronged at all when others disappoint them or even cause them to feel hurt.
One of the problems with a grudge is that often the person holding it doesn’t tell the person who committed the so-called hurt. It’s impossible to ask for forgiveness from a person who hasn’t indicated that an apology would be in order. Apologies may stimulate forgiveness as long as they’re offered, and they can provide the road to repair. In a recent study on forgiveness and apologies, Tel Aviv University’s Gabriel Nudelman and Arie Nadler (2017) define forgiveness as “a process that allows for close relationships to endure despite hurtful events” (p. 191). In forgiveness, they go on to note, one “becomes decreasingly motivated to retaliate against the offending relationship partner, decreasingly motivated to maintain estrangement from the offender, and increasingly motivated by conciliation and goodwill for the offender” (p. 191). How nice, then, to be given the opportunity to seek forgiveness, but to do so you need to know that you committed that hurtful act.
Nudelman and Nadler’s investigation is based on the premise that it takes a special person to be able to forgive, and that this tendency is not just related to situational factors. People who are likely to forgive are also less likely to perceive a transgression as such if they’re high in the quality of believing in a just world (BJW). When you’re high in BJW, you realize that people might commit actions that would require an apology, but you also realize that everyone does something wrong from time to time. In the end, the hurts you cause should even out with the hurts directed toward you. It’s helpful to get an apology, but the high-BJW person doesn’t sit there and wait for one to come. The people who should really need an apology (and might not even accept it) are those who are low in this trait.
The Tel Aviv researchers carried out two studies in which they presented participants with scenarios describing interpersonal offenses, measuring such traits as BJW as well as related qualities of avoidance, benevolence toward others, and revenge. The team also investigated levels of affect (i.e. emotional arousal) and other personality traits that might enter into the equation.
As measured in the Nudelman and Nadler study, BJW included statements tapping into such sentiments as “good deeds often go unnoticed and unrewarded” and “I am confident that justice always prevails over injustice” (p. 193). After being told to think about the person closest to them, participants read scenarios in which they needed that person’s support, but it inexplicably wasn’t provided. The apology scenario ended with the transgressor asking for forgiveness, and the non-apology scenario did not. The forgiveness measure simply asked whether the participant would forgive their partner and, additionally, wouldn’t seek out revenge or retaliation.
The findings, based on undergraduate participants, showed that indeed people high in BJW didn’t require an apology to exhibit forgiveness. Those low in BJW, by contrast, needed that apology to come, and if it didn’t, there would be no forgiveness unless there appeared to be no ill intent of the offender.
Grudge-holders, then, seem to be low in this all-important BJW quality. This prohibits them from seeing the acts of transgression, or imagined transgression, in a light that would allow them to bypass the need for you to apologize. Going beyond this study, we might also see grudge-holders as having memories that are either too good or too bad to help facilitate forgiveness. When their memory is too good, they can recall with almost photographic precision each interaction they’ve had with other people, favorable or unfavorable. This will make it difficult for them to, as the expression goes, “forgive and forget.” If their memory is bad, conversely, their recall of the past will be biased in the direction that reinforces their belief in a hurtful and unjust world.
Returning to the example of your grudge-holding friend, there’s a good chance she’s right, but an equal, if not better, chance that she is overly focused on the negative in her interactions with others. She remembers being slighted, because she is the type of person people actually do try to avoid. It’s not that pleasant to be with people who are always keeping score due to their consistently low BJW. Thus, you may have stayed away from her at that long-ago wedding, because she wasn’t much fun to be around. Further, her behavior may have engendered slighting (or, more neutrally, ignoring), because she didn’t really try to be part of the action, and when people talked to her, she seemed petty and spiteful.
When you’re the recipient of a grudge, the next question becomes how you respond. You may dig through the recesses of your mind and ponder all the times you could have been unintentionally hurtful or rude. This is probably not the most productive use of your mental energy, however. Instead of trying to put together fragments of all the interactions you’ve had with grudge-holders, try to get to the root of what’s bothering them. Figure out if they have had experiences that reinforced their views that people who wrong them deserve to be punished.
You may not be able to change those who are low in their just-world beliefs. However, knowing that the grudge comes from a dark place in their view of the world can allow you to move on without engaging in too much self-blame. You can certainly try to see if an apology works, as even if the grudge has evolved and deepened over time, it may still be amenable to fixing.
As noted in the Nudelman and Nadler study, the conflicts and misunderstandings caused by real or perceived transgressions can erode your sense of support from others and the feeling of belonging. Trying to repair those relationships can only benefit your own fulfillment — and the fulfillment of those you care about the most.
Nudelman, G., & Nadler, A. (2017). The effect of apology on forgiveness: Belief in a just world as a moderator. Personality and Individual Differences, 116191-200. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2017.04.048