Forgiveness occurs in an interpersonal context, as a response to the intentional harm caused by another.
When one individual insults another, reveals confidential or embarrassing knowledge, harms another or another’s valued property, or is unfaithful to a committed partner, then the victim rightly feels that a moral transgression has occurred. One may seek justice to repair the harm or not, but the immediate cognitive, emotional, and behavioral responses are likely to be condemnatory, angry, and retaliatory. The long-term effects of the harm may involve angry rumination, chronic negative feelings, and obsessive thoughts of revenge. These long-term effects may lead individuals to seek alternative coping responses, either on their own or with therapeutic intervention. Forgiveness represents an alternative response that leads to more positive thoughts, feelings, and actions, while reducing anger, anxiety, and depression.
The Definition of Forgiveness
Forgiveness is often defined by exclusion. Forgiveness does not involve condoning an offender’s behavior, nor does it imply that the offense is forgotten. One may seek to understand the offender and the reasons behind his or her behavior in order to achieve some cognitive resolution. To the extent that the behavior can be excused, due to inexperience or extenuating circumstances, then forgiveness is not relevant. Finally, forgiveness does not necessarily imply reconciliation.
There is no consensually agreed-upon definition of forgiveness, but there is some common ground for forming an understanding of the concept. Forgiveness is an intrapersonal phenomenon, occurring within the individual, but taking place within an interpersonal context. It involves letting go of negative thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and their gradual replacement by more charitable ones. Forgiveness of another involves the transformation of oneself, challenging one’s assumptions about the world and others, and coming to terms with reality.
Types of Forgiveness
There are two primary ways of thinking about forgiveness: as a state and as a trait. State forgiveness is defined as the degree of positive thoughts, feelings, and intentions toward an offender, in regard to a specific instance of interpersonal conflict. Several self-report questionnaires have been developed to measure state forgiveness; individuals describe a time when they were betrayed or hurt and answer questions about their current feelings, thoughts, and intentions toward the offender. These instruments show that the context surrounding the event plays a role in the likelihood of forgiveness. If the offender shows remorse, apologizes, and/or tries to make amends, then forgiveness is more likely. Similarly, forgiveness decreases with the severity of the event and increases with the closeness of relationship between the offender and the individual. Using these instruments, one can assess the cur-rent experience of forgiveness in relation to a specific context and measure changes over time.
The second way of conceptualizing forgiveness is as a relatively stable characteristic, that is, an individual or personality trait. Warren H. Jones and his colleagues have developed the Forgiving Personality Inventory that assesses forgiveness as a personality trait, operative across a variety of contexts. Forgiving individuals value forgiveness, have a higher threshold for perceiving offenses, and are less willing to endure the separation from relationship partners that follows from a lack of forgiveness. Ryan P. Brown has developed a measure to assess the Tendency to Forgive. He found that highly forgiving individuals recall fewer offenses and get over their conflict experiences more quickly. Kathleen A. Lawler-Row has studied the forgiving personality in adults across the age range. Highly forgiving adults have better conflict management skills; they express less anger outwardly, but are more likely to calmly confront an offender, discuss the conflict, and come to an acceptable resolution. These measures of trait forgiveness are used to determine individual differences in forgiveness and their relationship to other variables, such as age, gender, or religious commitment.
The Case for Forgiveness: Psychological Well-Being
The rationale for the development of forgiveness, either as a personality characteristic or as a response to a specific event, rests on its relationship to psychological well-being and beneficial character traits. Trait forgiveness has been positively related to empathy, relationship satisfaction, and self-esteem. In addition, the tendency to forgive has been related to lower levels of anxiety, depression, hostility, rumination, narcissism, passive-aggressive behavior, and neuroticism. Thus, forgiveness has clear psychological benefits for the forgiver, even when the offender is not in a position to alter his or her behavior or to make amends.
Forgiveness has been shown to increase with age and vary with gender. Women have higher scores on trait forgiveness, while men have higher scores on state forgiveness. Among older adults, trait forgiveness is associated with several dimensions of successful aging: positive relations with others, self-acceptance, environmental mastery, purpose in life, personal growth, and autonomy. In addition, forgiveness is positively correlated with healthy behaviors, social support, and religious, existential, and subjective well-being.
The Case for Forgiveness: Physical Well-Being
Forgiveness has also been shown to have physical health benefits. Highly forgiving adults have lower resting blood pressure, while state forgiveness has been associated with decreased magnitude and duration of physiological stress responses. In addition, both state and trait forgiveness have been correlated with fewer physical symptoms of illness, lower rates of smoking, and fewer medications. Statistical models indicated that these associations between forgiveness and health are mediated by existential well-being, conflict management, stress, and negative affect. Highly forgiving individuals have higher levels of existential well-being, or purpose in life, and better conflict resolution skills. People who forgive also experience less stress and less negative affect, particularly less anger, depression, and tension. When these factors are taken into account, the relationship between forgiveness and health is reduced.
Interventions to Help Clients Forgive
Given the positive associations between forgiveness and psychological well-being, several interventions for helping clients forgive have been developed. Robert D. Enright was the first to study forgiveness from a therapeutic perspective; he developed a process model for increasing forgiveness and decreasing negative affect, particularly excessive anger. This model employs four phases: uncovering, decision, work, and deepening. In the uncovering phase, clients explore their anger and the effects it has on their lives. During the decision phase, clients explore their current coping strategies and consider forgiveness as an option. In the work phase, reframing, developing empathy, bearing the pain, and giving a moral gift are considered. Within the deepening phase, clients focus on finding meaning, examining their worldview, and finding a new purpose. This model has been successfully employed with a range of client populations, and guidelines have been prescribed for applying the model to clients with depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and eating and personality disorders.
Forgiveness in Families
Numerous events within families necessitate forgiveness. Families that report forgiveness report better individual mental health and better family functioning. Parental socialization is a significant factor in teaching forgiveness, and individuals with secure attachment styles show greater levels of forgiveness. Thus, forgiveness can be thought of as both a moral value and a coping skill that is learned through example and specific training within the family. As the family is the source of many of the offenses that one experiences growing up, this method of conflict resolution can have an impact on both the quality of family life and individual, subjective well-being.
Various interventions have explored the role of forgiveness in marriage, showing that forgiveness is related to relationship satisfaction, intimacy, and lower levels of conflict. Kristina Coop Gordon and colleagues have developed a trauma-based, cognitive-behavioral therapy for couples that have experienced a significant betrayal. The impact stage focuses on emotional regulation, the meaning stage adds insight therapy to promote greater understanding of the partner, and the moving on stage assesses the viability of the relationship and the couple’s commitment to work toward change. Assessment of these couples shows both improved forgiveness and dyadic functioning.
The Future of Forgiveness
Research has focused on forgiveness of others and its effects on the forgiver. Future work will seek to examine the effects of forgiveness on the forgiven and the effects of self-forgiveness. The natural history of forgiveness within the context of real-life events will be important to address the issue of whether forgiveness is always beneficial. False forgiveness, or forgiveness offered without having traversed the difficult path of arriving at genuine forgiveness, is critical to understand in developing effective forgiveness interventions and in determining the long-term effects of forgiveness.
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- Enright, R. D., & North, J. (1998). Exploring forgiveness. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
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- McCullough, M. E. (2001). Forgiveness: Who does it and how do they do it? Current Directions, 10, 194-197.
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- Worthington, E. L., Jr. (2005). Handbook of forgiveness. New York: Routledge.