7 minute read


Forgiveness As An Intervention In Family/marital Relationships

Some theorists and practitioners have argued that forgiveness can be used as an effective means of resolving marital and family conflict and promoting healing of the pain associated with the hurtful actions of close family members (Enright and Fitzgibbons 2000; McCullough and Worthington 1994). Some, in fact, have argued that forgiveness is absolutely essential to family and marital relationships because, even when reconciliation may be inadvisable, forgiving enables the hurt individual to move on with his or her life free of the disabling effects of the injury or betrayal (Coleman 1998). There have been several efforts to document specific approaches to conducting forgiveness interventions with spouses and family members (Coleman 1998; DiBlasio 1998; Gordon and Baucom 1999; Safer 1999).

Various unique issues emerge when transgressions occur in the context of extended relationships with kin. For example, sometimes family members may pressure an individual to forgive before he or she is ready or able to consider the possibility or will expect forgiveness to occur within a shorter timeframe than is reasonable. In contrast, family members may sometimes prefer to sweep transgressions under the rug, so to speak, because they would rather not deal with the broader implications of or the fallout from the harm that has been caused. In other cases, family members may choose sides, supporting the offender and perhaps blaming the injured party. Sometimes they may actively discourage forgiving (e.g., in situations involving acts of infidelity, in the case of bitter divorces).

The therapist may often encounter additional challenges when delivering the intervention as part of family as opposed to individual therapy (see Worthington, 1998, for a more detailed discussion). For example, within a family context, transgressions seldom exist as isolated events, but instead as part of chains of events that stretch far back in time and in which the roles of offender and injured party may have been exchanged repeatedly (i.e., often individuals will have both suffered and caused harm themselves). If the offender or other family members are present during therapy, it is unlikely that this point will go unnoticed. In addition, both the offender and the injured party may have their own agendas (as may other family members attending the sessions), some of which may conflict with the therapist's goal of promoting authentic forgiveness. For example, research by Robert D. Enright and Richard P. Fitzgibbons (2000) has demonstrated that people vary in their developmental understanding of forgiveness. If the offender and injured party differ in their characteristic way of thinking about forgiveness (e.g., differing in their views regarding whether or not the offender must make restitution as a prerequisite to being forgiven), it will be more difficult to establish the common ground during therapy needed to facilitate true forgiving.

Several variables have been identified as potentially influential in determining whether or not an individual will forgive. First, forgiveness is generally facilitated if the injured party experiences— or can be brought to experience—empathy for the offender (McCullough, Worthington, and Rachal 1997). Accordingly, forgiveness interventions typically involve efforts to promote cognitive reframing of the hurtful event as a means of separating the offender from his or her hurtful actions (i.e., distinguishing the person from his or her behavior) and thus inducing in the injured party a measure of empathy for the wrongdoer. Forgiving also requires a certain degree of humility on the part of the person who has been harmed (Cunningham 1985; Worthington 1998). Wounded individuals must recognize—or come to recognize—that it is not fair to expect mercy from others in situations when they have done wrong without also extending mercy to those who have hurt them. Therapists will often work with individuals to help them recognize their own fallibility, to acknowledge that they too have needed forgiveness on occasion, and thus to assist them in coming to terms with the paradox that, at some level, being forgiven requires being willing to forgive. Finally, commitment to the forgiveness process is important because it helps to reify the decision to forgive in the forgiver's mind and contributes to the initiation and maintenance of behaviors and changes in attitude that promote continued efforts at forgiving (Worthington 1998). Forgiveness interventions often include real or symbolic gestures that signify in an overt and often public fashion the injured party's (and perhaps the offender's) dedication to the forgiving process.

Unfortunately, there have been relatively few attempts to test the efficacy of forgiveness interventions, whether designed specifically for application within families and marital relationships or for a broader client base. The results of those studies (DiBlasio 1998; Enright and Fitzgibbons 2000; McCullough and Worthington 1995; Worthington 1998) that have sought to empirically validate such interventions have, however, generally been promising. Obviously, there is an urgent need for further research directed toward systematic assessment of the effectiveness of existing forgiveness therapies and the theoretical frameworks upon which they are based.

It is also important to note substantial cultural and religious variation in people's definitions of forgiveness, their ideas concerning whether, when, and under what circumstances it is appropriate; the importance they ascribe to forgiving; and the processes by which forgiving is achieved (for a detailed discussion, see Augsberger 1992). Scientists and practitioners need to be alert to the implications of this variation in conducting their work. Diverse cultural or religious perspectives on forgiveness preclude broad application of forgiveness interventions grounded in one cultural or religious viewpoint. They also proscribe drawing general conclusions from research on forgiveness that is based largely on samples of North American, Judeo-Christian participants.


Augsberger, D. W. (1992). "Reconciliation: The Many Faces of Forgiveness." In Conflict Mediation Across Cultures: Pathways and Patterns. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press.

Bass, E., and Davis, L. (1994). The Courage to Heal. New York: Harper Perennial.

Coleman, P. W. (1998). "The Process of Forgiveness in Marriage and the Family." In Exploring Forgiveness, ed. R. D. Enright and J. North. Madison, WI: The University of Wisconsin Press.

Cunningham, B. B. (1985). "The Will to Forgive: A Pastoral Theological View of Forgiving." The Journal of Pastoral Care 39:141–149.

DiBlasio, F. A. (1998). "The Use of a Decision-based Forgiveness Intervention Within Intergenerational Family Therapy." Journal of Family Therapy 20:77–94.

Enright, R. D., and Fitzgibbons, R. P. (2000). Helping Clients Forgive: An Empirical Guide for Resolving Anger and Restoring Hope. Washington, DC: APA.

Enright, R. D., Freedman, S., and Rique, J. (1998). "The Psychology of Interpersonal Forgiveness." In Exploring Forgiveness, ed. R. D. Enright and J. North. Madison, WI: The University of Wisconsin Press.

Freedman, S. (1998). "Forgiveness and Reconciliation: The Importance of Understanding How They Differ." Counseling and Values 42:200–216.

Gordon, K. C., and Baucom, D. H. (1999). "A Multitheoretical Intervention for Promoting Recovery from Extramarital Affairs." Clinical Psychology-Science and Practice 6:382–399.

Gustafson-Affinito, M. (1999). When To Forgive: A Healing Guide. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.

Hargrave, T. D. (1994). Families and Forgiveness: Healing Wounds in the Intergenerational Family. New York, NY: Brunner-Mazel.

Luebbert, M. C. (1999). "The Survival Value of Forgiveness." In Evolution of the Psyche, ed. D. H. Rosen and M. C. Luebbert. London: Praeger.

McCullough, M. E. (2000). "Forgiveness as Human Strength: Theory, Measurement, and Links to Wellbeing." Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 19:43–55.

McCullough, M. E., and Worthington, E. L. (1994). "Encouraging Clients to Forgive People Who Have Hurt Them: Review, Critique, and Research Prospectus." Journal of Psychology and Theology 22:3–20.

McCullough, M. E., and Worthington, E. L. (1995). "Promoting Forgiveness: A Comparison of Two Brief Psychoeducational Group Interventions with a Waiting-list Control." Counseling and Values 40:55–68.

McCullough, M. E.; and Worthington, E. L.; and Rachal, K. C. (1997). "Interpersonal Forgiving in Close Relationships" Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 73:321–-336.

Nietzsche, F. W. (1887). On the Geneology of Morals, trans. W. Kaufman. New York: Vintage Books.

North, J. (1998). "The 'Ideal' of Forgiveness: A Philosopher's Exploration." In Exploring Forgiveness, ed. R. D. Enright and J. North. Madison, WI: The University of Wisconsin Press.

Pingleton, J. P. (1989). "The Role and Function of Forgiveness in the Psychotherapeutic Process." Journal of Psychology and Theology 17:27–35.

Safer, J. (1999). Forgiving and Not Forgiving: A New Approach to Resolving Intimate Betrayal. New York: Avon Books.

Sells, J. N., and Hargrave, T. D. (1998). "Forgiveness: A Review of the Theoretical and Empirical Literature." Journal of Family Therapy 20:21–36.

Worthington, E. L. (1998). "An Empathy-Humility- Commitment Model of Forgiveness Applied within Family Dyads." Journal of Family Therapy 20:59–76.


Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaRelationshipsForgiveness - Arguments For And Against Forgiving, Forgiveness As An Intervention In Family/marital Relationships