Are We Too Lenient On Loved Ones When They Cheat And Lie?

A new study investigates how we behave when our significant others misbehave.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | March 30, 2022

A new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology investigates why we might be too easy on our loved ones' (and too harsh on ourselves) when they indulge in unethical behavior.

"When someone close to us behaves unethically, we face a conflict between upholding our moral values and maintaining our relationship," explains Rachel Forbes, the lead author of the study from the University of Toronto in Canada. "We conducted this research to better understand this conflict."

After conducting a series of studies where people were asked to evaluate the ethically questionable behavior of close others and strangers, Forbes points out the following results:

  1. Respondents reacted more leniently to close others, reporting less anger and disgust toward them, rating them as less unethical, and reporting less of a desire to punish or criticize them compared to strangers.
  2. Respondents also reported only a minimal impact on their relationship with those close others.
  3. Respondents also exhibited harsher responses towards themselves, such as greater embarrassment, shame, and guilt and sometimes even lower ratings of their own morality when close others, compared to strangers, transgressed.

"The most interesting finding to me is the deep ambivalence we find when people respond to close others' unethical actions," highlights Forbes. "There is a surprising irony in people's responses: by protecting close others, the self seems to bear some of the burdens of their misbehavior. We seem to maintain our relationships with unethical close others by reacting leniently, but our moral values still lead us to feel embarrassed, ashamed, and guilty about their actions."

According to Forbes, one reason why we might be lenient is that leniency allows us to maintain our relationships in the simplest way possible.

"One option to maintain our moral values in the face of a loved one's transgression is to distance ourselves from close others who transgress by exiting the relationship," says Forbes. "But given our reliance on those we care about, this is extremely costly. It is far less costly, and preferable, to avoid seeing a close other negatively even in the face of their bad behavior."

There are a couple of ways this leniency might manifest in people, according to Forbes:

  1. Reducing the severity of the act. When judging close others' bad behavior, it is common to view the act itself as less unethical. For instance, people judge the unethical act of putting a bar bill on someone else's hotel tab as less unethical if it's committed by a romantic partner or a friend. By viewing the act as 'less bad,' people are able to perceive their close others' in a more positive light.
  2. Attributing the behavior to situational factors. There is also evidence that people tend to attribute close others' unethical actions to situational factors (e.g., "He was so drunk that he was not thinking clearly") rather than personality factors (e.g., "He is vindictive and petty"). Attributing bad behavior to the situation again allows people to view their loved ones in a more positive way.

Perhaps the most interesting result of the research is that despite responding more leniently towards close others who transgress, people felt worse about themselves when people they love misbehaved.

"We find evidence that having a connection to the perpetrator, through a close bond, may enhance the sense that a close other's bad behavior somehow reflects upon you," expands Forbes. "For example, if a person finds out their romantic partner spread an untrue rumor about one of their coworkers, they tend to feel guilty and ashamed of the behavior, even though they didn't do anything wrong themselves. This is likely due to the shared sense of identity we have with those we care about."

Finally, for the people who might be struggling with being honest about their loved ones' misbehavior, Forbes has the following advice:

"The ambivalence we feel when confronted with close others' bad behavior is difficult to reconcile," says Forbes. "When faced with a loved ones' unethical behavior, it's important to reflect on our moral values and whether the act itself fits within those values."

A full interview with Rachel Forbes discussing this research can be found here: Do we let our loved ones off the hook too easily