The Importance of Forgiveness in Relationships

For millennia, the practice of forgiveness has been central to the religious and spiritual life of the Christian community. The words of Jesus in the Pater Noster or Lord’s Prayer remind us that we are forgiven our trespasses even as we forgive those who trespass against us. While all people of faith would certainly embrace this teaching in theory, we must also acknowledge that in practice it is sometimes easier said than done. Why? What we are learning from neuroscience and from actual brain scans is that the brain, yours and mine, has a built-in negativity bias that reminds us of previous painful and hurtful situations and alerts us to potential ones in the future. A rule of thumb is that our brain is like Velcro with negative and painful experiences and like Teflon with those that are more positive and even joyful. We remember the hurtful words and actions more powerfully than we do any uplifting words of affirmation and appreciation. In the context of human relationships, and more specifically in the area of marital and family life, the findings have a particular relevance.

John Gottman, the psychologist and noted researcher of marriage notes that the negativity bias of the brain, when it involves couples, is so often manifested in what he refers to as the “four horseman of the apocalypse:” criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. Every couple, of course, even those with the best of marriages, will see traces of the “horsemen” from time to time throughout their married life. Not a problem unless the negativity becomes chronic and calcified, when the situation crosses a certain point of no return.

How do we as pastoral counselors help a couple in our care to avoid this unfortunate trajectory, where the built-in negativity bias is manifested rather powerfully in the so-called four horsemen? For Gottman, even if the horsemen make occasional appearances, there is no cause for alarm if certain instances of negativity are offset by ongoing expressions of love and intentional acts of forgiveness. Indeed, this is not a one-to-one ratio, with one positive expression of love and care balancing one negative expression from any of the particular horsemen.

Gottman, in his forty years of research, has come up with a positive-to-negative ratio but because of the powerful effect of even a single negative word or hurtful action, a couple must work toward a ratio surpassing one to one. If from time to time there is a certain amount of negativity in a martial relationship, it will not signal the end of the marriage if positive interactions and overt expressions of forgiveness are outweighing the negative ones. This is how Gottman puts it in his book, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: “As long as there is five times as much positive feeling and interaction between husband and wife as there is negative, we found the marriage was likely to be stable”.

Keeping in mind the 5 Positive-to-1 Negative ratio, Jesus’ response to the disciple Peter takes on greater significance for our lives and our marital and family relationships. Recall that when asked by Peter if he should forgive his brother or sister up to seven times, Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy times seven.” (Matthew 18:21-22).


Rev. Kirk Bingaman, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Pastoral Care & Counseling in the Graduate School of Religion & Religious Education at Fordham University. An ordained Presbyterian minister, he is a licensed mental health counselor in New York and a Fellow with the American Association of Pastoral Counselors. He holds a Ph.D. in Psychology & Theology from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, CA and a Master of Divinity degree from Princeton Theological Seminary. He is the author of three pastoral counseling books.  Dr. Bingaman counsels teens, couples and adults at LCC’s Mineola, Nassau County counseling site. For more information, call LCC at 1-800-317-1173.

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