Is Temperance The Key To A Good Relationship?

VCU's Everett L. Worthington, Jr. discusses the future of temperance interventions in clinical psychology.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | August 23, 2021

A new article appearing in Frontiers in Psychology suggests that a better understanding of the human virtue of temperance has the potential to unlock new treatments for a range of psychological issues such as depression, relationship conflict, impulsiveness and impatience, and anxiety.

I recently spoke with Dr. Everett L. Worthington, Jr., the lead author of the paper, to discuss his research. Here is a summary of our conversation.

What inspired you to investigate the topic of temperance interventions and what did you find?

Temperance is about moderation in action, thoughts, or feelings. In the current polarized social climate, such moderation is often lacking. Its lack can lead us to react strongly to differences in political positions, race, religion, and even opinion. For over 30 years, I've been studying forgiveness and for about 20 years, I've been studying humility. I thought that those two virtues, coupled with patience, could help people moderate reactions so they can avoid socially destructive acts.

Clearly, we must be able to discuss differences, but I believe that most change happens if we practice committed civility rather than simply react to perceived provocations. Committed civility is about holding our convictions firmly — that's the "committed" part — but acting civilly toward people who hold different positions. If we listen to others with empathy, seeking to understand their position, and act civilly to get behind the position to their real interests, we can often find common ground with our own interests.

To listen empathically and act civilly requires humility. Humility has four parts:

  1. Being aware and acting on an accurate self-assessment of both our strengths and weaknesses
  2. Being teachable to correct our weaknesses
  3. Presenting ourselves modestly instead of arrogantly
  4. Being other-oriented to elevate others instead of putting them down. Humility is a position of strength that allows us to treat others with respect because we have self-respect. It is our jumping-off point for committed civility.

As we interact with others, we will often feel provoked to respond out of anger or selfish self-interest instead of other-oriented humility. To act in the restraint of temperance requires practicing patience. Patience is waiting calmly for a desired outcome. Patience is more likely if we do not have to carry the baggage of unresolved hurts and offenses.

Forgiveness is one way of dealing with injustices. There are many legitimate ways of handling injustices. For example, we could pursue justice or perhaps see justice done. We also could relinquish the matter to God. We could restrain ourselves by practicing tolerance, forbearance, minimization, or acceptance. Or, we could forgive.

Tolerance is just sucking it up and suppressing our response to injustices. It can keep from escalating conflicts, so it can contribute to peace and is useful as a social peacemaking strategy. But when we are tolerant, we often have a lot of emotional loading on an issue and sometimes our suppressed anger is like a bomb with a trip-wire, waiting for any disturbance to set it off.

Forbearance is better than tolerance because it restrains our emotional and behavioral reactions for the good of the collective. Thus, the restraint has a purpose of affecting good.

Minimization is changing our perception of an issue to see it as not important enough to destroy relationships. It essentially puts the emotional issue in a locked box, protecting a valued relationship. The problem is, the box can be reopened with a sufficiently provocative offense, bringing the minimized event back to a more prominent place and fueling future conflict. Acceptance involves a defusing of the emotion and a commitment to move on and try not to look back. All of these require temperance, which is restraint that moderates reactions.

Forgiveness is another strategy that can be practiced in combination with seeing justice, turning the matter over to God, tolerance, forbearance, minimization, and acceptance. When we seek a temperate response to an offense or hurt, it is as if each of those might reduce our sense of injustice some amount. Forgiveness can close the injustice gap completely. Whereas each of the others seeks to reduce the sense of injustice, forgiveness seems to set it to rest. Forgiveness is of two types. Decisions to forgive are changes in our intent to react negatively to the other person. We choose to treat the person as a valued and valuable person. But we can decide to forgive and treat the other person differently for the rest of our lives and still feel emotionally upset — resentful, bitter, angry, hostile — every time we think of the offense. So, emotional forgiveness is replacing those negative unforgiving emotions with positive other-oriented ones like empathy, sympathy, compassion, or love for the person who offended us. Both decisions to forgive and emotional forgiveness happen inside our skin, and they often are confused with social acts like saying, "I forgive you" or reconciling. A person could say "I forgive you" and simply not mean it or even be setting us up for retaliation. So, saying "I forgive you" is not forgiving, but can be part of reconciling. Reconciliation is restoring trust in a relationship. Restoring trust is not something that happens in one person. It requires two people trying to be trustworthy for trust to begin again. If one person refuses to act trustworthily, reconciliation will not happen.

Can you talk a little bit more about temperance, and where it fits within the canon of human virtues? 

Aristotle named four cardinal virtues: prudence (being able to judge rightly and wisely), justice, courage, and temperance. Christianity named three Christian virtues: faith (confidence in that which is not necessarily observable), hope (the motivation to persevere when things are hard), and love (willingness to value and not devalue others). Augustine identified humility as the most important virtue. Over the millennia, there have been many ways of dividing up the human virtues. One of the most recent is Chris Peterson and Martin Seligman's character strengths and virtues. They posited that there were six core virtues, each of which was made of several of the 24 character strengths. Wisdom and knowledge (creativity, curiosity, open-mindedness, love of learning, perspective, and innovation), courage (bravery, persistence, integrity, vitality, and zest), humanity (love, kindness, and social intelligence), justice (citizenship, fairness, and leadership), temperance (forgiveness and mercy, humility, prudence, and self-control), and transcendence (appreciation of beauty and excellence, gratitude, hope, humor, and spirituality).

Research I've done and Robert McGrath has done suggests that one way of categorizing virtues is as warmth-based virtues (like love, forgiveness, compassion, etc.), conscientiousness-based virtues (like justice, self-control, courage), and epistemic virtues (like wisdom and curiosity). Temperance fits snugly within Aristotle's system of virtues except that Aristotle saw it as more rationally chosen than we understand it today. In Peterson and Seligman's values in action scheme, tolerance is named but patience is not included in the character strengths they say make up temperance. Temperance cuts across warmth-based and conscientiousness-based virtues in my scheme. There is no universally agreed-upon scheme for classifying virtues, but most agree that virtues are interrelated with each other to some extent.

What can people learn from the existing research on forgiveness, humility, and patience that may help them improve the quality of their lives?

There have been over 75 randomized controlled trials investigating the efficacy of forgiveness interventions, and other trials are proving the effectiveness of those interventions in communities and many cultures. Those interventions have been delivered in counseling and psychotherapy, in psychoeducational groups, in classrooms, in DIY workbooks, and in internet-based programs. Meta-analyses and reviews of these interventions have shown that two have been studied more than others. One is Robert Enright's process model. The other is my REACH Forgiveness model (see for free resources). REACH is an acronym to help people remember the five steps to emotional forgiveness. R stands for Recall the hurt. E is for empathize with the person who hurt you so you can emotionally replace the negative unforgiving emotions with positive ones. That makes a decision to forgive easier. A stands for an Altruistic gift of forgiveness. We can give that gift even though the person who hurt us does not deserve it. C is for Commit to the forgiveness you experience. Committing is necessary because it helps one H, Hold onto forgiveness if you doubt you've forgiven.

The scientific studies of forgiveness have shown a couple of important things. First, they work. Second, the longer you seriously try to forgive, the more forgiveness you'll experience. Third, forgiving also increases hope and lessens both depression and anxiety. Forgiveness benefits both the one forgiven and the forgiver. In fact, it has relational, spiritual, and mental health and well-being benefits for the forgiver, and if it is practiced over time, it can yield lowered physical risks and better physical well-being.

Humility research has shown that when people are humble it acts as a social oil, oiling the operation of relationships. Also, humility is a buffer against relationship harms. It has mental health benefits for both the one who is humble but also for those in relationship with that person. Interventions have been developed to promote humility, too, and have been shown to be effective. Patience, too, has had interventions created to promote it.

Where do you think this research needs to go in the future?

I have a heart for both basic psychological science and clinical science and clinical practice. I would love to see the research be applied to the big problems of the decade of the 2020s — political polarization, racial reconciliation, relationship reconstruction, and character development.

What would you say are the two or three most important lessons from temperance research that everyone should know about?

  1. It is possible to build temperance.
  2. Temperance is really important in smooth relationships.
  3. The person who practice temperance enjoys many psychological and physical benefits as well as do relationship partners.

Do you believe positive psychology will become an increasingly important area of psychological science in the future?

I think positive psychology will remain an academic subfield and will become increasingly important, but in the mind of the public, I believe it will just be seen as the positive part of psychology, complementing the part of psychology that seeks to help people understand themselves and others and become better people through solving problems and through growth.