“One of the first things we learn is to say sorry and accept apologies

Forgiveness makes us happier – or does it? New thinking suggests it actually encourages bad behaviour. So, should we challenge or chill, asks Leah Hardy

Mel, 32, is planning her wedding, buying a house and has a demanding job as a solicitor. Nevertheless, if her friends call, she’s there – even for the bridesmaidzilla who’s already rejected three dresses. But while she faithfully traipses to distant pubs to watch the footie (she reasons she might as well try to like it, as her fiancé’s a die-hard fan), he ducks social events with her friends, and is invariably late when it comes to ‘date night’. He blames his ‘stressful job’. She forgives him. Every time.

Sound familiar? Most women would recognise the odd Mel moment, and class it as part and parcel of keeping the peace. After all, we’re endlessly told forgiving others isn’t just good manners, it’s good for our health and happiness, too. One of thee first things we learn as toddlers is to say sorry, and accept apologies graciously, and it’s a habit that’s reinforced through adult life. Women can be particularly eager to channel frustrations through any means but and argument. But now a new school of thought is suggesting all this equilibrium could be bad for our health. Not only that but, it’s claimed, repeatedly forgiving people encourages them to take advantage of us, opening the door for them to cause us repeated pain, and – in the long run – damaging our self-esteem.

Dr Jeanne Safer, a US psychologist and author of Forgiving & Not Forgiving, is an advocate of this new thinking. ‘Some of the most admirable, sane and emotionally healthy people I know don’t always forgive,’ she says. ‘There are many circumstances in which [withholding forgiveness] is the proper and most emotionally authentic course of action.’ Why? Because, as Mel admits, although she jokes about her bridesmaid’s diva-like behavior, ‘Secretly I’m hurt she’s knowingly adding to my stress when I was hoping for her support.’ Not being honest about your feelings only undermines your relationships. In fact, Dr Safer believes it’s ‘emotionally false – and ultimately damaging to yourself,’ to let bad behaviour go unchecked.

The results from a recent study at the University of Tennessee add further weight to the ‘non-forgiveness’ case. Newlywed couples were asked what they did when their partners nagged, criticised or shouted. If they chose to forgive rather than challenge the behaviour by arguing back or giving them the cold shoulder, it was up to six times more likely to happen again the next day. Lead researcher James McNulty explains: ‘It may be that by having bad behaviour challenged, partners realise their negative actions have negative implications for the – like anger or loneliness – so they’re less likely to repeat it.’ Christine Northam, a counsellor for the charity Relate, agree. ‘If your’re upset by your partner’s behaviour but constantly fail to challenge it, it can start to erode your self-confidence because you’re essentially saying you don’t deserve better,’ she says.

So how do you not forgive someone without ending up bitter and twisted? Most people see not forgiving as negative, but Dr Safer believes it can be positive and healthy. One suggestion is to keep the conversation thoughtful and specific. For example, explaining to your bridesmaid that her fussiness is creating problems relieves you of your frustrations and gives her a chance to make it right – maybe she never realised her behaviour had such an impact on you.

Before we let rip at every wrong doing we encounter, Christine suggests we check ourselves, too. ‘We often judge people against out own standards, and expect them to behave as we do, then blow up when they don’t. remember, people aren’t necessarily doing things deliberately to hurt you – they just do them differently – or they might just be having a bad day.’ Is it really worth having it out with the Topshop queue jumper for the sake of two minutes if you’ll spend your afternoon stewing over her passive-aggressive death stare?

Marina Cantacuzino, founder of theforgivenessproject.com, agrees there are times when the benefits off forgiving outweigh the reasons for letting rip. ‘When you’re hurt, it’s hard to think of anything else, so, in a way, you’re controlled by it. Forgiveness can be a kind of victory over events.’ On Marina’s website, a father writes about forgiving his son’s killer, and consequently being able to reclaim his own life. This might be too much for many of us, but we probable all have a friend who’s allowed the bitterness of a failed relationship to prevent her from moving on and finding happiness.

The problem is, we often see forgiveness as a weakness (think tabloid headlines about ‘downtrodden’ celebs taking their ‘bad boys’ back) and ‘not forgiving’ as mean, angry or vengeful. In reality, it’s not that simple, and rather than a sign of weakness, forgiveness can be and empowering choice. The key, say experts, it to shift our perception. As marina says, ‘Forgiveness doesn’t mean excusing what happened. You can speak up for yourself without being aggressive, meaning you don’t hold onto the resentment that can build.’

What’s more, in the right circumstances, forgiveness has psychological benefits, says Miriam Akhtar, psychologist and author of Positive Psychology for Overcoming Depression. ‘Studies show forgiving reduces anger, hostility, depression, and anxiety,’ she says. Another study, published in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine, associated forgiveness with lower blood pressure and stress relief, and the University of Tennessee and University of Wisconsin researchers found forgiveness was associated with fewer chronic conditions and physical symptoms from illness.

‘Forgiveness isn’t about being a doormat to someone’s abusive behavior,’ insists Miriam. ‘By shifting your perception, you can feel proud of your choice to forgive because it frees you – not because it excuses the other person.’ In a relationship, ‘Forgiveness is important,’ agrees Chiristine, ‘but there are some things that should be an unforgiveable deal-breakers, such as violence or cruelty. Putting up with that doesn’t make you a happier, better person, but having good boundaries can.’

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