To explore this question, InPsych production editor PAULA BRADLEY interviewed psychologists Associate Professor Eleanor Wertheim FAPS from La Trobe University and Dr Julie Fitness MAPS from Macquarie University, who have both recently conducted exploratory research into this area.
Eleanor Wertheim became interested in researching forgiveness after many years' involvement with conflict resolution workshops and training, and in revising her co-authored book, Skills for Resolving Conflict. "After reading the restorative justice literature, I realised that we were offering a problem-solving model for resolving conflict which was relatively straightforward to put into practice, as long as the parties didn't have all sorts of historical grievances that would prevent them sitting at the same table and negotiating about the future with each other," Eleanor says.
"I came to the conclusion that, for some conflicts, in order for a facilitator to use good conflict resolution skills, he or she needed to have the parties explore and resolve the hurts and grievances they brought forward from the past."
Indeed many psychologists working with couples and families or in organisational settings find that the extent that one or both parties can forgive the 'wrong' that has been done, can predict not only the satisfactory resolution of the conflict but the well-being of the person or people doing the forgiving.
To look at the factors that promote and inhibit forgiveness, Eleanor conducted exploratory research with colleagues at La Trobe University in which a small group of people representing different education levels, marital status, religion, country of birth and occupation were interviewed. A number of themes emerged related to factors people said were important for them to be able to forgive the hurtful behaviour of another person.
The researchers were able to categorise these themes into three logical areas, Eleanor says. "Firstly, there were factors related to 'the offender' (the person who behaved in a way the participant considered hurtful). Secondly, there were factors related to 'the victim' (the participant who experienced the hurtful behaviour), and then there was a third set of external factors," she says.
When offenders have done something hurtful such as (in a marital context) lied, had an affair, left their partner for someone else or (in a work context) 'sabotaged' the career of or betrayed the victim in some way, there are a number of things they can do to make it easier for the hurt person to forgive them, Eleanor says. "They can acknowledge what they've done, take responsibility for it and validate the feelings of the other person. If they regret what they've done and feel remorse about it, then communicating those feelings can be helpful," she says.
However apologising isn't necessarily enough, Eleanor says, although it can be helpful if it is sincere. "Victims may fear that the hurtful behaviour is going to happen again. Even though offenders may promise they won't repeat the offence, it may be that victims believe, 'Well, that's what they're saying, but they may not be able to follow through'. Perhaps an offender has had some personal difficulties that have led him or her to do what they've done, so the victim may want that person to have counselling," she says.
"So offenders need to make assurances that they are not going to respond in a hurtful way again and they also may need to take steps to show that they are serious about ensuring that the hurt does not happen again. They can also take concrete steps to restore the situation, for example by repairing what was damaged or, if that is not possible, offering some sort of compensation."
There are many things feeding into the decision of the victim to forgive or not, including whether the offender is helping the process by doing some of what is described above. How the victim interprets the hurtful behavior also influences his or her decision to forgive.
It may be that a 'rule' of theirs has been transgressed and/or they believe the motives of the offender were malicious. But if they are able to look at the offender's perspective and realise what factors in that person's life may have led them to act as they did, or if the hurt person takes some responsibility for part of what happened, then the likelihood of their forgiving increases.
"That means being able move on from thinking:'the offender is entirely to blame and they are a terrible person for doing this to me' to a position such as "we are all humans doing the best we can with our lives, even if sometimes we do a bad job of it!" or 'They're responsible for this/maybe I'm responsible for that." Eleanor adds that one needs to be careful about this in certain situations, such as sexual assault, where victims may take on too much of the responsibility for what has occurred.
"In any case, reaching this new position doesn't mean the victim takes on responsibility for or condones what the other person did - the offender is completely responsible for his or her behaviour. Neither does it mean forgive and forget," Eleanor says.
In fact, forgiving may not necessarily mean that you reconcile with the other person, Eleanor says. "Victims may choose not to go back to the same form of relationship or have that relationship at all. Forgiving may be something that people do for themselves to be at peace and then they make a separate decision about how they want to respond to the other person."
Research has actually shown that people who can forgive, whether or not they reconcile with the other party, are physically more healthy than those who can't forgive, Eleanor says. "Researchers (Witvliet, Ludwig, & Vander Laan, 2001) have shown that the cardio-vascular system comes under increased pressure when people rehearse grudges and grievances in their mind. On the other hand, in thinking about forgiving, the pressure decreases."
"Whether it is their physical or mental health at stake, some people realise that holding onto the anger associated with someone else's hurtful behaviour is hurting themselves (the victims)," she says.
Other factors related to the victim and external factors
United States forgiveness researcher, Dr Fred Luskin, says victims are more likely to forgive if they can move away from the 'story' they have created about what happened. He believes the 'story' starts with a grievance - when somebody did something wrong - and then it becomes something that you 'personalise'. The victim holds onto this story and tends to believe that his or her feelings are due to what the other person did.
Luskin says if a victim hangs onto the 'story' about what a terrible thing this person did to them and repeats it to many different people and rehashes it over and over again to themselves, then they will have a hard time moving toward forgiveness. A more useful response, according to Luskin, is for the 'victim' in the story to become the 'hero', someone who has learned to take control of their own feelings.
This ties in with the third category in Eleanor's research - 'external factors'. "The people around you can have an influence on whether or not you are going to forgive," she says. "When people hold a grudge, they talk to other people. To the extent that other people encourage them not to forgive or to take revenge of some kind, then an inability to forgive is more likely to occur.
"On the other hand, the process of forgiving can be helped if people around the victim are saying supportive things such as: 'Yes, it was very hurtful and I can understand how you feel. Perhaps let's also look at whether holding onto all these angry, upset feelings is helpful for you at this point. Is there another way that we can view the situation that will help you move forward so it doesn't affect you so much?'"
Time can sometimes be helpful, but usually not on its own, Eleanor says. "Sometimes the longer the time lapse from the hurtful behaviour, the less obvious the pain and the victim can start rethinking what happened."
The public face of forgiveness
Macquarie University psychologist, Dr Julie Fitness, has researched forgiveness in marital and family relationships, and offers some additional perspectives on the topic. One of the major findings in her marital research has been the notion that the more 'public' the offence and the more humiliation involved for the victim, the more difficult the hurtful behaviour is to forgive.
"Being the last to know, for example, that your partner was sleeping with your best friend, was a scenario very difficult for a victim to forgive because he or she felt they had been publicly shamed by the offender," she says.
This thinking around public shaming was also reported in Julie's most recent explortory study that looked at unforgivable rule violations in family relationships. In that study, people were asked to report the kinds of offences that parents, children, and siblings would find the most difficult to forgive. The offence that fathers, in particular, were considered least likely to forgive their daughters for involved so-called 'taboo sex', Julie says. "That is, for daughters to become promiscuous or choose the 'wrong' partner to sleep with, such as sleeping with a business partner of her father.
"Whereas for sons, to become a criminal was considered the worst thing he could do to both his parents. Part of the reasoning behind these reports was this notion that there's a public face to the family (as well as to a marriage) and that the actions of sons and daughters can incur costs to the reputation or 'honour' of the family. These kinds of offences can have serious consequences, such as when the family 'closes ranks' on the offender and ostracises or rejects them.
The public face notion also came up in the sibling data, she says. "People considered that the worst thing siblings could do to each other was betrayal or treason - when you don't support, help, or stick up for your brother or sister, especially to outsiders or in the face of an external threat. People acknowledge that siblings are competitors for resources within the family, but expect that they will co-operate and present a united front to other people. The feeling of betrayal associated with being publicly let down by your sibling was particularly strong."
Nothing is impossible to forgive
Julie says that in her research, when she asks people about hypothetical marital offences that they could not forgive, off the top of their heads they often say 'infidelity' or 'hurting the children'. But when you look at what people have actually had to contend with, she says, there's no one offence that is impossible to forgive.
"People have managed to get over just about any kind of offence. It's more a question of what you believe the person's motives were, how remorseful you believe they are and what you believe the prospects are for the future of the relationship. Offence repetition is considered to be a particularly bad sign, indicating a lack of true remorse and importantly, a lack of love for the victim of such repeated offences."
Yet there are a lot of individual differences as well, she says: "Some people have quite strict rules for behaviour: their spouse could do something that other people might see as relatively minor and yet to them it is way over the line, they believe they can't forgive what's happened, so there's no hope for the relationship. Sometimes people report that over the years, their attitudes have mellowed and they wish they had not been so 'rule-bound' - they wonder if they could have saved the marriage.
Environmental constraints are a factor too: "I've had people who've said that what their partner did was unforgivable, but they weren't in a position to leave because they had young children at the time, so they hung on and bided their time," Julie says.
"Some people found that over time the hurt lessened and they were able to forgive, or at least forget, but others waited until the children were old enough and then they were off, much to the shock of their partner who had no idea why. Under these circumstances, the abandoned partner frequently feels like the victim, and finds it hard to believe that their partner could have been harboring resentment and even hatred for such a long time."
Forgiving is a process
Eleanor says the research made clear for her that forgiving is a process, rather than a single thing that a victim does at some point and then it is over. "Sometimes people in the interviews were thinking that they had forgiven, and then by the end of the interview, they realised that they hadn't. Sometimes they thought they hadn't forgiven and then realised they had moved forward a bit more than they thought in terms of forgiving," she says.
"Sometimes the participants had made a cognitive decision to forgive, but their emotions didn't follow suit. Some participants in our research described 'deciding' to forgive another who had hurt them, but then discovering that reminders of the hurtful incident still triggered off anger or upset. So they were aware that despite believing that forgiving was the right thing to do, they hadn't yet learned to let go of the associated emotions.
"Similarly, after deciding to forgive, sometimes people still found themselves avoiding the other person and they felt that complete forgiveness had not come about yet. So it really became obvious to me that forgiving is a process with all sorts of different aspects to it."
She also concluded that forgiving in the sense of not holding grievances or grudges was useful for most people, but sometimes it was not helpful to reconcile the relationship, and sometimes using the word 'forgiving' was not something that people wanted to do.
Sometimes the word 'forgiving' is too vague and may be better expressed in two parts, she says:
"I believe it is useful for people to let go of emotions that are getting in the way of them feeling OK about themselves and I think it is useful for them not to want to take revenge. I also believe that it is helpful for everyone to be able to see the humanity of all people, even ones who do very hurtful acts. Still, it may very well be useful for people to take action towards pursuing restorative justice.
"In many conflicts around the world, such as in Northern Ireland, Rwanda or Bosnia, the challenge is how to help people to overcome years and possibly centuries of grievances with other parties so that they can live with each other. My feeling is that they don't have any choice other than to find a way to reconcile, because they have to live with each other - so at some point they have to learn how to restore justice and forgive, so that they clean the slate in relation to what's happened in the past, negotiate future actions and restore trust.
"The processes in marriage are similar. The relationship you may choose to go forward with is not the same one as you had before the hurtful events occurred. Once you forgive, you don't go back to the way it was - you go forward with a new kind of relationship and new kinds of agreements."
Luskin, F. (2002). 'Forgive for good: A proven prescription for health and happiness'. San Francisco: Harper.
Wertheim, E. H., Love, A., Peck, C. & Littlefield, L. (in press). 'Skills for Resolving Conflict: Creating effective solutions through co-operative problem solving'. (2nd ed.) Melbourne: Eruditions.
Witvliet, C.V.O., Ludwig, T. E., & Vander Laan, K. L. (2001). 'Granting forgiveness or harboring grudges: Implications for emotions, physiology, and health'. Psychological Science, 12, 117-123.