The Sliding Scale Of Forgiveness

Which dating infractions are you willing to let slide, and which are your deal-breakers? And does your ability to forgive someone's mistakes change over time? Learn the surprising answers right here.

By Jane Ganahl

had an experience several months ago that made me wonder about "dating sins" and my ability to forgive them. On my third date with an otherwise fantastic man — a special effects artist with whom I was becoming smitten — he told me with a smile that the other woman he was dating was feeling a little threatened by our increasing interest in
Call it being less tolerant of dating missteps, if you want.
each other.

My butternut squash tortellini suddenly didn't taste as good as it had a moment before. "Back up a minute," I said. "What do you mean, 'the other woman I'm dating' — I thought you said you were free?"

His smile faded. "Well," he stammered, "It's not like I've proposed to her or anything! I mean, we've talked about marriage, but I wanted to make sure there were no other fish in the sea…"

Oh, waiter? Check!

Drawing the line at dating missteps
He couldn't understand when I coolly said I didn't want to see him anymore, and sent an email later suggesting that I was being both picky and unforgiving. But in my mind, he'd committed a pretty insurmountable dating faux pas by not honestly communicating his availability (or lack thereof) to me from the get-go. And whereas earlier in my life I'd have excused this kind of behavior and continued dating him to see where it would lead — perhaps to see if I could win? — now that I'm in my 50s, I am much less likely to forgive such trespasses.

Call it being less tolerant of dating missteps, if you want; I call it knowing myself — and at this stage in my life, I have an aversion to unnecessary drama and conflict. When I was young I thrived on both, but at this age, I only want to date someone if it feels easy and fun. My 33-year-old daughter told me that she also thought I was being a little hasty with my conflicted suitor's dismissal. Clearly, this forgiveness thing changes along with the demographic of the dater in question.

Single vs. married people: Who's more forgiving?
In recent years, forgiveness has been a hot topic on the national media stage. Politicians like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Anthony Weiner and Eliot Spitzer have committed some of the most world-class relationship sins — and yet, some wives have shown the ability to forgive… and even take them back.

Not surprisingly, single women are less forgiving than those who are married, according to a survey conducted by iVillage. Among the 338 women surveyed, 48 percent of those who were married said "sexting" (a la Anthony Weiner) was unforgivable, compared to a much larger number for single women: nearly 70 percent. And when it comes to a one-night stand, 60 percent of married women think it's an unforgivable act versus 75 percent of single women. Meanwhile, cyber-flirting with an ex on a social networking site was unacceptable to 36 percent of married women and 51 percent of single ladies surveyed.

Reading this, I grew curious: Are single people less forgiving because we have an idealized notion of what marriage should be? Or are we perhaps still single because we're so rigid? (My artist date would probably give a hearty "yes" response to this question himself.) And I also wondered whether there might possibly be a "sliding scale of forgiveness" — i.e., you've only gone on one or two dates — where discovering an indiscretion or discrepancy is somehow more easily forgiven, because it's commonly understood that everyone fibs a bit during those early stages of getting to know someone. But after you start dating each other exclusively, the sliding scale eventually tips the other way, and any slight or slip-up starts weighing more and more on your mind.

Following the three-strike rule and Happen magazine recently ran a series of four surveys covering the topic of forgiveness and dating. The first one asked over 12,000 men and women how many "dating mistakes" (i.e., fibbing, being late, taking calls while on a date, etc.) someone could make before they would choose to move on to another dating prospect. The majority (53 percent) of those surveyed said it depended on how long they'd been dating each other, thus proving the sliding scale theory about forgiveness to be true. And 24 percent would stop seeing someone after just one or two mistakes, while another 23 percent said they'd tolerate three mistakes from someone they'd been seeing — "but that's the last strike."

"The people who won't tolerate anything — those who answered one or two mistakes, and they're out — probably don't date
And as I suspected, we do get less forgiving as we age.
anyone long enough to develop depth," says Louisiana-based professional relationship coach Patricia Drury Sidman, MBA, CPCC. "Everybody makes some kind of mistake. The key is to know yourself, and which mistakes are big deals and which ones aren't. For example: for some people, being late just once is a deal-breaker, period. For others, maybe being on time is important and they don't want to deal with chronic lateness, but a time or two isn't going to be the end of the world. It all depends on your priorities."

How familiarity affects the forgiveness scale
A second Happen survey of approximately 8,500 men and women the following week showed that daters are mixed as to whether people are more or less forgiving the longer they date someone. The largest group of respondents (37 percent) indicated that they become less forgiving once the early blush of attraction passes. Then again, 34 percent of respondents said they became more forgiving, while 29 percent say their ability to forgive dating blunders always stays about the same.

Why honesty really is the best policy
In yet a third poll, we asked just over 32,000 men and women which particular mistakes they have the hardest time forgiving in a date. Unsurprisingly, deception topped the list; 66 percent of those surveyed said that lying would most likely put the kibosh on a budding relationship. Following at a distant second and third place, 19 percent chose bad manners (being late, calling or texting during a date, etc.), while refusing to be exclusive was preferred by 13 percent of respondents. Only 2 percent of those polled thought that none of the abovementioned infractions are "a big deal."

Says Sidman: "It makes sense that actions that violate deeply held values — such as a value against lying — are less likely to be forgiven than those that are irritating but aren't value violations, like taking calls during dinner."

As they grow older, do daters become more or less lenient?
And as I suspected, we do get less forgiving as we age. A fourth poll asked the question: "At which age do you think people should be most forgiving of others' dating mistakes?" Of the approximately 12,000 men and women who responded, 38 percent said daters in their 20s should be the most forgiving of others' mistakes, while 26 percent said those in their 30s should be the most forgiving. And only 18 percent said singles in their 40s should be the most forgiving, with a near-identical response for those who were age 50 and older. (Been there, heard that — enough already!)

"Younger people will make more mistakes, so it makes sense that they should be more forgiving and able to explore relationships with an open mind," says Sidman with a laugh. "That way, everybody can finish growing up." But she disagrees that the older singles get, the less forgiving they necessarily become, which correlates with the poll data listed above.

"Maybe people do become more 'set in their ways' with age," says Sidman, "but they may also become more flexible in their attitudes towards others. It really depends on what is to be forgiven. It's easier to sort out the 'big deals' from the 'no big deals' when you've had a few years of life experience. Fewer things are big deals, but the ones that are become really big deals — like non-exclusivity or infidelity."

How to become more forgiving in relationships
And what if some of us would like to lighten up a bit and give potential dates the benefit of the doubt more often? Nina Lesowitz, coauthor of The Gratitude Power Workbook: Transform Fear into Courage, Anger into Forgiveness, Isolation into Belonging, believes that our ability to forgive is directly tied to our own personal happiness. "People who celebrate what's good in their relationships instead of focusing on disappointments are more likely to feel compassion and a willingness to forgive," she explains. "If your brain is wired for noticing omissions and amplifying transgressions, then you will stay angry. Obviously, dating mistakes will not spark feelings of appreciation, but I think it is important to give someone the benefit of the doubt — because everyone is capable of change."

Sidman's advice: Know yourself, but don't cut ties too soon. If you can soften your heart, you might discover that the diamond in the rough you've been dating can really shine. "Any relationship will go through stages. In the first stage, people notice what they like in each other and how they are similar to each other. Then the second stage inevitably comes, where everybody's focus shifts to what is different and what they don't like. If the inability or unwillingness to forgive takes over in this second stage, the relationship usually ends," asserts Sidman. "The third stage is, of course, the goal. It's not that everything is suddenly perfect again, but it is the stage of accepting differences that don't matter and deepening the connections that do matter. Not every relationship gets to the third stage, but those that do are the good ones."

Jane Ganahl is author of Naked on the Page: The Misadventures of My Unmarried Midlife, editor of the anthology Single Woman of a Certain Age, journalist of two decades, and codirector of San Francisco's Litquake literary festival.
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