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Arguments For And Against Forgiving, Forgiveness As An Intervention In Family/marital Relationships

Long a topic of discussion and inquiry among theologians and philosophers, forgiveness has attracted the serious attention of scholars within counseling, family studies, and psychology as well. Those interested in understanding this concept, however, will find that there is nearly as much disagreement as agreement among experts about how best to define forgiveness. Numerous definitions of forgiveness exist, and considerable debate continues concerning key components of these definitions.

Despite this debate, most definitions of forgiveness share three elements. First, most describe forgiveness as an active, effortful, and typically difficult process (Enright and Fitzgibbons 2000). Second, most require that the injured party renounce the right to take revenge or exact retribution on the offender (Pingleton 1989). Third, most assume that forgiveness involves cessation, or at least considerable reduction, in negative feeling toward the offending party (North 1998). In an apt summary of these points of agreement, James N. Sells and Terry D. Hargrave (1998, p. 22) describe forgiveness as "the antithesis of the individual's natural and predictable response to violation and victimization."

Apart from the relative consensus on these three basic elements of forgiveness, theorists and scholars disagree on various salient issues concerning what forgiveness involves. For example, although some scholars believe that the reduction of negative feeling toward the offender is sufficient for forgiveness, others (Enright and Fitzgibbons 2000) argue that true forgiveness requires that the injured party endeavor to replace negative feelings with such positive feelings as compassion and respect. Scholars also vary considerably in the extent to which they believe that reconciliation is an integral part of the forgiveness process. Some authors argue that forgiveness without reconciliation is not true forgiveness at all (Hargrave 1994); others contend that reconciliation, although perhaps a desirable goal in many cases, is neither a necessary condition of true forgiveness nor, in every case, advisable (Enright and Fitzgibbons 2000).

Related to the debate concerning reconciliation and its part in forgiving are issues surrounding the role of the offender in the forgiveness process. Those who view reconciliation as an issue separate from forgiveness argue that the offender need not even be aware that the injured party is considering a move toward forgiving (Freedman 1998). Regardless of their perspective on reconciliation, however, most scholars believe that the forgiveness process is facilitated when offenders acknowledge their wrongdoing, express remorse, and are willing to change their behaviors (Enright, Freedman, and Rique 1998). At their roots, these disparate views regarding the importance of reconciliation and the role of the offender may derive from more fundamental disagreements about whether forgiveness is primarily for the benefit of the injured party (Gustafson-Affinito 1999) or the offender (Enright and Fitzgibbons 2000; North 1998; Gordon and Baucom 1999).

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Marriage and Family EncyclopediaRelationships