What is forgiveness theory?

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Forgiveness theory is a fairly new social psychology term, so much so that even its definition is still a matter of issue in the psychological community. Although most research supports the fact that a forgiving nature leads to a better quality of life, academicians and clinicians argue about the overall value of forgiveness, as well as its potentially negative effects.
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Perhaps the most prevalent issue in forgiveness research is the definition of the concept itself. Everett L. Worthington, Jr., observed that there seems to be a scholarly consensus on what forgiveness is not, yet researchers are nowhere near an agreement on exactly what constitutes forgiveness. The de facto consensus is that the verb “forgiving” is not synonymous with the verbs “pardoning,” “condoning,” “excusing,” “forgetting,” “denying,” or “reconciling,” although these actions may result; nonetheless, some of the literature reflects the reality that clinicians are well aware of the possibility that any focus on forgiveness, even for personal or spiritual growth, may unintentionally translate as pardoning or as condoning, regardless of attempts to distinguish between these motivations, as with situations of domestic violence, where fear of losing a relationship may play a role.

Michael E. McCullough, Kenneth I. Pargament, and Carl E. Thoresen raise interesting questions about the relationship between forgiveness and the idea of apology, identifying elements common to theorists’ diverse definitions. These common elements include the idea of an interpersonal context and an action that may lead to prosocial change toward a perceived transgressor. In addition, McCullough and his associates posit that forgiveness must be viewed through the lens of a specific context. Similar to the discourse used with the concept of apology, forgiveness theory uses the terms “injury,” “wrongdoer,” “transgressor,” “offender,” “injured party,” and “victim.” Because forgiveness can occur in the absence of reconciliation (with the wrongdoer), it is viewed primarily as an intrapersonal process. In other words, when victims forgive an offender, they have completed the process of internally changing for the better how they view the offender (and possibly the offense), without necessarily reconciling the relationship. By the same token, transgressors can also forgive themselves through an internal process of coming to terms with their role in transgressions.


Overall, forgiveness can be viewed as being one of two types: Decisional forgiveness has to do with behavioral changes, and emotional forgiveness hinges on a difference in feelings toward the wrongdoer or situation. The literature identifies three responses to transgressions: cognitive, affective, and motivational. Cognitive responses include attributions of blame and ruminative thoughts; affective responses include feelings such as hostility, sadness, or fear; and motivational responses include desires for revenge or avoidance. Traditionally, definitions of forgiveness have hinged on whether the process involved only a reduction in the victim’s experiences or whether it also led to a corresponding movement toward a positive experience toward the offender. In other words, definitions of the concept emphasize either the reduction of negative emotions, motivations, behaviors, and cognition, or both a reduction and a resulting tendency toward amelioration of the offender. Both schools of thought agree that forgiveness occurs within an individual, and most theorists agree that people who forgive are emotionally and physically healthier. Forgiveness myths include the belief that forgiving is the same as condoning, that forgiving solves all problems and does not involve lamenting, and that forgiveness is an isolated moment in time rather than a process.


According to McCullough, forgiveness theory is a fairly new field in the social sciences. The concept itself was never mentioned by Sigmund Freud, and left untouched by most other great psychologists, perhaps because of its usual association with religion and spirituality. In the social sciences, the beginnings of forgiveness theory can be traced to the 1930s and 1940s, with Jean Piaget, among others, sometimes examining its significance. The 1950s saw a movement toward forgiveness as being part of religiosity, as pastoral counselors theorized that forgiveness could be an important antidote to pathology. In the 1960s, James G. Emerson posited a relationship between forgiveness and well-being and developed a crude measuring method that was loosely related to the Rokeach Value Survey. Articles on forgiveness began to appear in trade books, such as Lewis B. Smedes’s Forgive and Forget: Healing the Hurts We Don’t Deserve (1984) and in clinical journals during the 1980s and 1990s, and eventual strategies for using forgiveness in counseling and psychotherapy became popular in the latter decade. There is some argument that the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Robert Enright, founder of the International Forgiveness Institute, should be credited with calling attention to forgiveness as an important psychological concept.

Interpersonal Versus Intrapersonal Forgiveness

Forgiveness has been conceptualized as both an interpersonal process and an intrapersonal process. Interpersonal models that incorporate forgiveness focus on an expression of forgiveness toward the offender and can include models based on reconciliation, evolutionary processes, and the interdependence theory. Intrapersonal models include decision-based and cognitive models, in which case the process emphasizes cognition, affect, and behavior. Other possibilities include emotion-focused models, change-over-time measures, attributional models, and stress and coping models. Regardless of which model is used, the question of how to measure forgiveness continues to vex theorists, because most forgiveness ratings will suffer from rater biases since many measurements are based on self-ratings. In addition, rating systems must take into account the roles of culture, geography, ethnography, and age because these factors have been shown to influence and even determine forgiveness beliefs and practices. Various measurement constructs are being examined, such as offense-related scales, dyadic or tendency (toward forgiveness) measures, and dispositional measures. Each of these takes into account self-reporting, partner reporting, observer reporting, and behavioral methods of measuring.


According to psychiatry professor Karl Tomm, one of the big problems with forgiveness-based therapy is that counselors find it easier to work with victims; wrongdoers, in fact, are unlikely to seek help of their own volition. In cases in which the wrongdoer is forced into therapy, the person is likely to act defensively. In couples therapy, the need for forgiveness is sometimes viewed as the underlying problem, and it then becomes the focus of therapy. Most models of forgiveness involve structured psycho-educational methods for use with groups, and their aim is to facilitate forgiveness independently of responsibility, apology, or atonement. In these cases the focus is on dealing with the problem by letting go of the desire for vengeance and the recollections of wrongdoing. In such interventions, forgiveness is considered a therapeutic goal. Other aspects of the forgiveness process, such as identifying responsibility, receiving an apology from the transgressor, and reaching a level of atonement, may come to be viewed as unnecessary steps in the process. This does not mean that the transgressor’s responsibility is ignored; it is simply de-emphasized. Some theorists argue against this de-emphasis and state that it undermines the wrongdoer's responsibility and may give the message to victims that they should again trust the transgressor. In other words, therapy that emphasizes forgiveness alone defeats the idea of accountability.

Uses and Limitations in Family Therapy

Although these models assume that forgiveness is healthy and a worthwhile goal of intervention, there are exceptions such as in family therapy literature concerned with abuse and trauma. Here the emphasis is on protecting the victims and not expecting the victims to forgive. The focus in not on the offenders’ accountability. Authors who focus on child abuse or domestic violence are more likely to emphasize such responsibility. Forgiving is also considered questionable when there is a likelihood of further transgressions, as in interpersonal environments characterized by hostility and mistrust. Therefore, encouraging someone to forgive a wrong without an assessment of the relationship may be inviting further injury. Another limitation with this type of therapy is that victims who are unable to forgive (despite undergoing the processes) may judge themselves lacking, which may then perhaps lead to feelings of self-blame that compound the original transgression. A number of studies have elaborated on the forgiveness process in relation to extramarital affairs, particularly using the decision-based forgiveness treatment approach, while other couple-based studies focus on apology (and forgiveness/reconciliation) as a method of overcoming insult, devaluation, irreconcilability, and emotional distancing. One of the claims of current forgiveness theory is that the ability, and perhaps even the propensity, to forgive is integral to an individual’s health and well-being. Some theorists view the act of forgiving, especially when combined with a sincere eschewal of resentment, as indicative of a more enlightened and desirable personality, particularly if the alternative is the polar opposite: holding grudges and carrying unresolved anger. Discussions of forgiveness imply that the ability or willingness of a victim to forgive is a salient personality characteristic; often this tendency is portrayed as a virtue or as a positive personality trait.


The idea that one can be predisposed to forgive has piqued the curiosity of forgiveness researchers. Some have examined the neuropsychological possibilities, positing that forgiveness may be tied to three factors: a victim’s sense of self, perception of beneficence or injury, and ability to recollect the cause-and-effect behavior by the perpetrator. Forgiveness research on nonhuman primates indicates that there may be a neurological function at play, as studies have found that feelings of reconciliation and consolation occur among various primates and that reconciliation aims to restore the most valuable tribal relationships. In family therapy literature, there has been increasing interest in the area of forgiveness and apology. Family therapists use face-to-face interaction in what is called a forgiveness intervention. In this planned session, family members (after each meets privately with the therapist) admit whatever wrongdoings they have committed and do so with the understanding that they will seek and give forgiveness to others. Contextual family therapy addresses issues such as intergenerational problems and violations of trust and emphasizes forgiveness as a significant component of healing. Some therapy methods encourage the wrongdoer to validate the victim’s experience, acknowledge the transgression, and offer restitution or compensation. As with most forgiveness therapy, the onus is placed on the injured party to acknowledge efforts on the part of the wrongdoer.

To date, forgiveness researchers have tended to examine responses to wrongs that people have experienced directly, what might be called firsthand forgiveness. Ryan P.Brown, Michael J. A.Wohl, and Julie Juola Exline, by studying Americans’ reactions to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, examine the experience of forgiveness among people who have not been wronged directly. Secondhand forgiveness research looks at indirect victims who experience antipathy toward offenders, leading to a dynamic similar to that experienced by firsthand victims. In secondhand forgiveness, social identification is important, and the effects of apologies are moderated by the level of identification with the wronged group.

Another recent trend in forgiveness theory is the exploration of the extent to which religious belief and being forgiving are related, which is a notion referred to as the religiosity-forgiveness link. Such research examines both specific and dispositional forgiveness measures (dispositional forgiveness, also referred to as forgiveness dispositions, refers to the stable tendency to forgive transgressions across time and situations). Because dispositional forgiveness is associated with a number of long-term mental and physical health benefits such as less psychological distress and greater life satisfaction, theorists view the concept as worthy of further investigation. The literature discusses three types of forgiveness dispositions: attitudinal, behavioral, and projective forgiveness. Respectively, these refer to general attitudes toward forgiveness, the tendency to forgive transgressions, and the likelihood of forgiving in the future. Theorists interested in forgiveness have at their disposal a vast array of literature.


Alford, C. Fred. Trauma and Forgiveness: Consequences and Communities. New York: Oxford UP, 2013. Print.

Brown, Ryan P., Michael J. A. Wohl, and Julie Juola Exline. “Taking Up Offenses: Secondhand Forgiveness and Group Identification.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 34.10 (2008): 1406–19. Print.

Enright, Robert D. Forgiveness Is a Choice: A Step-by-Step Process for Resolving Anger and Restoring Hope. Washington: American Psychological Association, 2006. Print.

Holmgren, Margaret R. Forgiveness and Retribution: Responding to Wrongdoing. New York: Cambridge UP, 2012. Print.

McCullough, Michael E., Kenneth I. Pargament, and Carl E. Thoresen. Forgiveness: Theory, Research, and Practice. New York: Guilford, 2001. Print.

Pettigrove, Glen. Forgiveness and Love. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2012. Print.

Smedes, Lewis B. The Art of Forgiving: When You Need to Forgive and Don't Know How. New York: Ballantine, 1997. Print.

Worthington, Everett L., Jr., ed. Handbook of Forgiveness. New York: Routledge, 2005. Print.