Anger makes you smaller, while forgiveness forces you to grow beyond what you were – Chérie Carter-Scott, Ph.D.
Research shows that people with secure emotional attachments are more likely to forgive.
Forgiveness is an essential aspect of healthy romantic relationships, and understanding the role of emotional attachment patterns in shaping forgiveness can help couples overcome conflicts and strengthen their relationship. Couples can work with mental health professionals to develop personalized strategies for managing conflicts and cultivating forgiveness. They can also approach conflicts through the lens of attachment theory, in which they consider how early childhood experiences affect them as individuals and play out in their relationships.
What is Attachment?
Attachment theory is based on the work of psychologists, John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth, who aimed to understand the bonds and relationships among people. This theory focuses on how the bonds we create with caregivers in early life affect us in relationships throughout life. It also proposes that people develop internal working models of relationships based on their early experiences with attachment figures, typically their primary caregivers. These working models guide our ideas, expectations, and beliefs about relationships. They deeply influence our thoughts, emotions, behaviors, and responses in close relationships throughout our lives.
Attachment styles refer to the ways in which individuals typically relate to others in close relationships based on their internal working models of attachment. There are four main attachment styles:
Secure attachment: Individuals with a secure attachment style generally feel comfortable with emotional intimacy and closeness, and they trust that others will be available and responsive to their needs. Children who are securely attached as infants tend to develop stronger self-esteem, resilience, and better self-reliance, independence, and sense of self.
Anxious-preoccupied attachment: Individuals with an anxious-preoccupied attachment style often feel insecure and worry about the availability and responsiveness of their partners. They may seek constant reassurance and may feel anxious when their partner is not immediately available.
Avoidant-dismissive attachment: Individuals with an avoidant-dismissive attachment style tend to avoid emotional intimacy and close relationships. They may value independence and self-reliance and may avoid emotional vulnerability and dependence on others.
Disorganized attachment: Individuals with a disorganized attachment style may exhibit inconsistent or contradictory behaviors in close relationships, such as seeking proximity to their attachment figure while at the same time avoiding or pushing them away. People with a disorganized attachment style may have experienced trauma or abuse in their early attachment relationships, which has led to unresolved emotional and psychological problems.
These attachment styles are not fixed, and individuals may develop different attachment styles in different relationships or across different stages of their lives. Overcoming attachment trauma and healing insecure attachment can be done with the support of a therapist and can greatly improve relationships and overall mental well-being.
Research on Attachment and Forgiveness
According to a recent study of German couples published in the Journal of Research in Personality, individuals with secure emotional attachments are more likely to forgive their partners and to be forgiven. Conversely, people with an insecure attachment style were more likely to forgive their partners but were neither more nor less likely to be forgiven.
Emotional attachment patterns play a significant role in shaping forgiveness in a romantic relationship. In the study, researchers distinguish between secure attachment and insecure attachment patterns. Secure attachment is characterized by reciprocity, closeness, intimacy, and constructive behaviors in a conflict. Insecure attachment patterns were characterized by low trust and negative views of oneself. In the study, researchers analyzed data acquired from 149 heterosexual couples recruited in Southern Germany in 2020.
Researchers hypothesized that individuals with a secure attachment style are more likely to be forgiving and also have a positive influence on their partner’s willingness to forgive. Conversely, individuals with a preoccupied attachment pattern – one of the insecure attachment styles – may be more inclined to forgive but may not have the same effect on their partner’s forgiveness.
As hypothesized, the results of the study showed that individuals with secure attachment characteristics were more likely to forgive their partners and were also more likely to be forgiven by their partners. People with preoccupied characteristics were also more likely to forgive their partners, but they didn’t have an effect on their partner’s forgiveness.
The study sheds light on the connection between attachment and forgiveness. However, it doesn’t take into account the motivation for forgiving or the nature of conflicts between partners. Currently, this still requires assumptions based on what we know about attachment styles and how they can influence our behavior and emotions.
Attachment Theory and Forgiveness
Although more research is needed, what we already know about attachment styles is that
individuals with secure attachment styles tend to be more forgiving than those with insecure attachment styles. Securely attached individuals generally have a positive view of themselves and others, which enables them to empathize with and understand their partner’s perspective at the same time as feeling angry, sad, or hurt by their partner’s behavior. They are generally more likely to have the capacity to separate how they feel from the intent of their partner’s actions. For example, when their partner fails to meet their needs in some way, such as not remembering an important date, a securely attached person may find it easier to view this as an accidental mistake rather than seeing it as a sign of their partner’s dislike, disloyalty, or lack of care for them. Having an empathic understanding can make it easier for a person to have a constructive conversation about how this felt for them and forgive their partner’s mistakes or transgressions.
In contrast, individuals with insecure attachment styles, such as those with an anxious or preoccupied attachment style, may struggle with forgiveness. For example, those with an anxious attachment style may be more likely to hold onto negative emotions and ruminate over past hurts, which can make it harder for them to forgive their partner. They might be more likely to internalize their partner’s mistakes or transgressions, feeling unloved or unworthy as a result. Those with avoidant attachment styles often find it difficult to express vulnerability or acknowledge their own mistakes, which can hinder the forgiveness process.
Conversely, some anxiously attached individuals can be more likely to forgive serious transgressions by their partners. Research shows that anxious and avoidant attachment is linked to higher rates of intimate partner violence. Individuals with anxious or avoidant attachment styles are more susceptible to either victimization or perpetration of domestic abuse, with attachment anxiety being a risk factor for remaining in an abusive relationship.
Overall, attachment styles can influence forgiveness by shaping how individuals perceive themselves and others in relationships, their capacity for empathy and understanding, and their ability to express vulnerability and seek forgiveness. Healing your attachment style is not easy, it requires careful exploration of early childhood relationships and how parenting styles and significant events in childhood have influenced who you are as a person today. Alongside a therapist or with the support of a loving partner, building a secure attachment is possible.
 Bowlby, J. (1979). The Bowlby-Ainsworth attachment theory. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 2(4), 637-638. doi:10.1017/S0140525X00064955
 Körner, R., Schütz, A. and Fincham, F.D. (2022) “How secure and preoccupied attachment relate to offence-specific forgiveness in couples,” Journal of Research in Personality, 101, p. 104308. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jrp.2022.104308.
 Barbaro, N., & Shackelford, T. K. (2019). Environmental Unpredictability in Childhood Is Associated With Anxious Romantic Attachment and Intimate Partner Violence Perpetration. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 34(2), 240–269. https://doi.org/10.1177/0886260516640548