A 2023 study published in the journal Personal Relationships examined why some married individuals refuse to forgive their spouses for their mistakes. They found that acts such as infidelity, physical or emotional abuse, lying or betrayal of trust, addiction to drugs or alcohol, criminal acts, disinterest in the relationship or harming a child were considered completely unforgivable for many.
Researchers also found that the refusal to forgive a partner for their mistakes largely depended on various interpersonal and situational factors.
Here are three reasons why married couples struggle to forgive each other, according to the study.
1. Stewing In Your Negative Feelings
Researchers found that an individual’s personality traits, including stubbornness, self-respect, a sense of pride or a “hurt ego” often stops them from forgiving their spouses. Enduring feelings of anger, humiliation, helplessness, disappointment and the fear that they will be hurt again also affects their ability to forgive.
A 2023 study found that an inability to forgive is linked to “anger rumination,” which refers to the tendency to repeatedly dwell on feelings of anger, resentment or hostility. It involves recurrent thoughts, images or memories related to perceived injustices or past grievances, which fuel and intensify the experience of anger and seeking revenge.
Researchers found that the “dark” personality traits of psychopathy, machiavellianism and narcissism are also associated with anger rumination and an unforgiving nature. In marriages, if one or both partners engage in anger rumination, they may find it challenging to move on from conflicts, leading to a buildup of resentment and a reluctance to forgive.
“Some participants mentioned that their own sensitivity, vulnerability, low self-esteem and feelings of inferiority negatively influenced their ability to forgive,” the researchers add.
2. Being Indifferent To Your Partner’s Emotions
Researchers found that the offending spouse’s lack of interpersonal responsiveness—whether they are egotistical, stubborn, neglectful, insensitive, disinterested, not acknowledging the gravity of the situation or inattentive towards their partner or children—can make their actions seem more unforgivable.
Individuals also find it harder to forgive their partners if they misunderstand their point of view, refuse to admit fault or communicate effectively, brush aside their guilt or engage in evasive counter-arguments.
“A lot of participants reported situations where their partner made no effort to fix the situation and be forgiven, did not want to talk about the transgression and kept their distance,” the researchers explain.
Such avoidance or lack of accountability communicates to a spouse that their partner does not care about hurting them or rectifying their mistake. A hurt partner may then perceive a lack of commitment to the marriage, making them less inclined to invest the effort required to forgive their partner.
3. Repeating Your Mistakes Multiple Times
“The nature of the transgression, such as its severity and whether it is a repeat offense, are important factors in assessing whether the act will be forgiven,” the researchers write.
Researchers found that serious or repeated offenses can be harder to forgive as they erode trust and emotional intimacy over time. Such transgressions cause deeper emotional pain and lead to doubts about the offending partner’s intentions and the likelihood of future transgressions. In fact, forgiveness in marriages is often conditional on the wrongdoing never occurring again.
“Less serious repeated transgressions could become more difficult to forgive than a single severe transgression,” the researchers add, highlighting how repeated disappointment can cause deep-rooted damage in a relationship.
With serious transgressions, researchers suggest that individuals often need more time to process their pain, rebuild trust and feel emotionally safe in the relationship again. They may also worry that forgiving too easily could send the message that the event was not significant or would minimize and excuse the hurt they experienced.
Finally, a 2021 study found that contextual factors such as the depth of hurt, the partner’s intentions behind the act and the closeness of the relationship can also influence the decision to forgive.
Addressing marital issues requires open and honest communication, a willingness to understand each other’s perspectives and a commitment to working through conflicts together. Couples therapy can be beneficial in helping spouses navigate forgiveness, let go of past hurt and rebuild their relationship.
Curious how your marriage compares to others? Take the Marital Satisfaction Scale to gain clarity.