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When to Punish, and When to Forgive

Retributive and restorative justice in relationships

“You always hurt the one you love,
The one you shouldn't hurt at all.
You always take the sweetest rose,
And crush it till the petals fall.”

So goes the old pop standard, but there’s wisdom in this little song. We all have our imperfections—thoughtlessness, carelessness, forgetfulness. So, inevitably we do things that harm or annoy those around us. And since we spend so much time with our most intimate partner, sooner or later we hurt the one we love.

Viktoriia Hnatiuk/Shutterstock
Source: Viktoriia Hnatiuk/Shutterstock

Likewise, it’s inevitable that the ones we love will hurt us. When a stranger offends, it’s easy to dismiss them. That person was rude, but we’ll never see them again. However, when a close friend, a family member, or most importantly our lover transgresses against us, it’s important that we find a way to forgive them. We have important relationships we need to maintain with these people, even when they’ve hurt us deeply.

According to Australian psychologist Peter Strelan, though, we need to punish before we can forgive. Punishment provides a sense of justice, which the victim must feel before true forgiveness can take place.

We can forgive the little things without first meting out punishment, especially when we recognize that our partner has likewise forgiven minor transgressions we’ve committed. This “don’t sweat the small stuff” attitude goes a long way toward smoothing social relations, especially our most intimate ones.

But when we try to forgive major transgressions without first exacting justice, the result is harmful not only to our own sense of self-worth, but also to the relationship as a whole. Forgiveness without justice leads to lingering resentment on the part of the victim. Further, it fails to communicate the seriousness of the transgression to the offender, so nothing has been done to keep the problematic behavior from recurring in the future.

The ability to truly forgive also depends on the form of justice that precedes it. Strelan distinguishes between two forms of justice—retributive and restorative. These two forms are based on different ideas about the purpose of punishment.

Many people feel that when a wrong has been committed, it somehow creates an imbalance in the world. If you do a crime, you have to do the time—just to set the world right again. Sometimes this sense of imbalance is viewed as something that is owed; we often say that criminals are sent to prison to "pay their debt" to society.

This sort of “balance theory" of crime and punishment carries into our personal relationships. Harry and Sally are attending a party. He’s drinking a lot, and he says some unflattering things about her in front of some friends. It’s all meant to be playful banter, but still, she feels hurt by his comments. Later, she sees him flirting shamelessly with a younger woman. When she pulls him away, he protests, saying he’s just making small talk. After the party, she gives him the cold shoulder during the ride home, and she makes him sleep on the couch that night. Harry’s in the doghouse, and there he’ll remain until Sally feels justice has been served—that is, balance has been restored.

After Harry has done his time, and things go back to normal, though, it’s still not clear—even to Sally—whether she’s forgiven him or not. Harry can try to salvage the situation by making a sincere apology and wholehearted promise to be more mindful in the future. This apology, if accepted, lays the groundwork for true forgiveness to take place.

More likely, however, Harry will feel his own sense of injustice, in that from his perspective, the punishment doesn’t fit the crime. Such a small mistake shouldn’t lead to such dire consequences. So even if he makes an apology, it may be resentful than remorseful. This is why retributive justice is an unfruitful approach to mending a relationship after a transgression. While the victim may feel they’ve evened the score, nothing has been done to ensure the same problem won’t happen again in the future.

A better approach is to seek restorative justice. This is based on the idea that the purpose of punishment is to communicate the victim’s pain to the transgressor. People will often try to use retributive justice for this purpose, as for example when we try to teach our partner a lesson by giving them the cold shoulder. “Now they’ll know how it feels,” we think. But of course, they don’t. Being on the receiving end of the silent treatment is nothing like the pain we experience when our partner fails to keep their word or does something we find offensive.

Ultimately, the aim of restorative justice is to find a way to avoid the transgression in the future, so that the relationship can be restored. There has to be a price to pay, so the transgressor understands the seriousness of the issue. But the focus is on restoring the relationship—not to the way it was before, but restructured, to keep the problem from occurring again.

Instead of giving him the cold shoulder, Sally needs to express her disappointment and what the cost of redemption is going to be. She could explain, “I’m just too upset to share my bed with you tonight, so you’ll have to sleep on the couch.” At least now Harry understands the severity of the transgression and the reason for his punishment. Communicating like this is far more effective than tossing a pillow and blanket on the couch and then locking the bedroom door.

Restorative justice requires open communication between the victim and the transgressor, which can certainly be hard when tempers are flaring. But it’s the only way to move the relationship forward. Retributive justice may restore a sense of balance, but it leaves behind a lingering resentment in both parties. The transgressor may apologize, although probably not sincerely. And the victim may forgive, but probably not completely.

The process of restorative justice can actually strengthen a relationship. When Harry makes a sincere apology, takes steps to prevent the transgression from recurring, and accepts his punishment—not as a price to be paid, but rather as an act of atonement—he shows Sally his commitment to their marriage. As a result, Sally feels safe forgiving Harry with her whole heart and letting go of any lingering resentment. Having overcome a difficult situation together, both feel stronger in their relationship than they did before.


Strelan, P. (2018). Justice and forgiveness in interpersonal relationships. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 27, 20-24.

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