Let’s play a game of choose your own adventure. You’re walking down the street when you spot a friend rounding the corner down the block, headed in your direction. Ordinarily, this is a person you’d say hi to, but you’re kind of in a fight right now – maybe you’re still peeved about a mocking comment they made a few days ago, or maybe the last time they blew you off was one time too many. Whatever. The reason, for the purposes of this game, doesn’t matter. What does matter is what you do next:
Option A: Pivot around and scurry in the other direction, keeping your head down and praying you weren’t spotted. And then resolve to avoid that particular block for a while. Maybe the neighborhood, just to be safe.
Option B: Notice the rather large truck driving that’s about to drive by your friend. Notice the puddle in the street. Notice your friend’s nice-looking outfit. Pray for an unfortunate spraying incident. Start eagerly scanning your friend’s path for other possible sidewalk dangers.
Option C: All of the above.
Option D: Awkwardly make eye contact, keep walking towards them, and steel yourself for a heart-to-heart. Clearing the air may be uncomfortable, but this grudge is starting to feel a little stale – better for you both to just rip off the band-aid and get back to being good again.
The first two, you’ve probably noticed, represent two very different ways of handling conflict: there’s avoidance, and then there’s revenge. One theory of forgiveness, developed by psychologist Michael McCullough and colleagues, holds that everyone’s approach to conflict resolution exists somewhere around the intersection of the two. In a 1998 paper on the two styles, they explained that avoidance motivation has both physical and mental forms: People high in avoidance will do their best to steer clear of the person on the other end of the conflict, but they also work hard to push them out of their thoughts. Revenge motivation, meanwhile, is pretty self-explanatory, spurring people to wish harm on the offending person – and, in some cases, even working to make it happen. Avoidance is caused by hurt, they argued, while revenge is driven by righteous anger. (McCullough later expanded on the idea in his 2008 book Beyond Revenge: The Evolution of the Forgiveness Instinct.)
To test how how a person handles conflict along these two spectrums, the researchers developed a measure called the TRIM scale (short for Transgressions-Related Interpersonal Motivations), which Science of Us has adapted here. Find out your conflict style with this quiz: Are you high in revenge, avoidance, or both, or neither?
In their 1998 paper on TRIM, the psychologists who developed it explained that forgiveness depends on the absence of both of these responses: “When an offended relationship partner indicates that he or she has forgiven, his or her perceptions of the offense and offender no longer create motivations to avoid the offender and seek revenge,” they wrote. “Rather, the victim experiences relationship-constructive transformations in these motivations.” A willingness to forgive, in other words, can powerfully shift the way we think about the painful event itself – and, therefore, about the person that harmed us.
But that’s not to say that scoring high in revenge means you’re some vengeance-thirsty obsessive, destined to go on a life-ruining bender after every spat with a pal. Nor does high avoidance make you a wet noodle, doomed to spend your life tiptoeing around the growing number of people you’re afraid to face. Your ability to easily forgive, the TRIM authors noted, can also vary depending on who you’re dealing with – how close you were, how much empathy you feel towards them, the seriousness of what they did, how they handled the fact that they betrayed you. Generally speaking, though, understanding your natural tendencies can help you handle one of the many hurdles between a conflict and its resolution: yourself.