communication of forgiveness, The
This investigation examined the interpersonal dynamics offorgiveness processes, by analyzingpersonal narratives recounting forgiveness situations. The interpersonal forgiveness process is described as consisting of relationship type, forgiver and offender motivations, and o ender strategies, and relational consequences. Findings indicate that the process forgiveness pays an important role in determining progress in interpersonal relationships. In addition, the forgiveness process was found to vary by relationship type. Implications and directions for future research are discussed.
“I cried some, too, then, holding him in my arms, kissing his hair ….All the same I knew I was forgiving him. I had that miraculous clarity for an instant and so I understood that the forgiveness itself was strong, durable, like strands of a web, weaving around us, holding us.” Alice-A Map of the World
ersonal and social relationships provide the context for much of the joy and suffering we experience in our lives. Relationships with spouses, children, co-workers, siblings, employers, employees, extended family, and other relational partners facilitate a range of personal experience, including personal fulfillment and personal pain. This study examined one specific response to pain and suffering in relationships-forgiveness.
In the last decade and a half certain researchers, primarily in the helping professions, have identified the benefits of forgiveness to individuals and their relationships (Al-Mabuk, Enright, & Cardis, 1994; Enright, Gassin, & Wu, 1992; Walters, 1984). In fact, forgiveness has become an important strategy for healing in a variety of therapeutic settings (Fitzgibbons, 1986; Hebl & Enright, 1993; Hope, 1987; Worthington & DiBlasio, 1990). Specifically, training in forgiveness has been found to increase self-esteem and hope for female incest survivors (Freedman & Enright, 1996), to increase mental health for parentally love-deprived college students, to decrease negative emotions and judgments, and to increase positive affect and behavior toward offenders (Hebl & Enright, 1993). In addition to the emotional benefits, the process of forgiveness has been shown to have positive physical benefits such as, lowering blood pressure (Huang, 1990, as cited in Al-Mabuk, Enright, & Cardis, 1994).
Given the fact that much of the current research indicates that forgiveness positively impacts individuals’ psychological state and the quality of individuals’ relationships, there is a clear need to understand how forgiveness is communicated in daily interactions. Numerous researchers have emphasized that examining daily communication interactions is critical to understanding relationship functioning (Bolger & Kelleher, 1993; Duck, 1988; Duck, Rutt, Hurst, & Strejc, 1991). Specifically, a communication-based approach to studying forgiveness would recognize the transactional nature of forgiveness interactions, that is, the mutual influence that forgiver and offender exert on one another, and would emphasize the potential of forgiveness to restore hurting relationships. As such, the focus of the current investigation was to examine interpersonal forgiveness as a transactional process, within nontherapeutic relationships, and as a possible strategy for relational repair.
Interpersonal Aspects ofForgiveness North (1987) developed the philosophical underpinnings of interpersonal forgiveness by placing forgiveness in the role of restoring damaged relationships. She recognized the necessary element of a change of heart, but claimed that the change of heart leads one to engage in some outward action toward the wrongdoer. As North (1984) described: Typically an act of wrongdoing brings about a distancing of the wrongdoer from the one he has harmed …. Forgiveness is a way of healing the damage done to one’s relations with the wrongdoer, or at least a first step towards a full reconciliation. (pp. 502-503) Although little social scientific research has been done to study directly the interpersonal dynamics of the forgiveness process, certain researchers have developed theoretical models that addressed issues of importance in understanding the interpersonal nature of forgiveness. Enright and the Human Development Study Group (1991) have developed a psychologically-based developmental model that is process-oriented and includes the need for the forgiver to respond behaviorally to the offender. This model focuses on the forgiver and identifies seven components in the forgiveness process. After the initial injury occurs, the injured party first experiences and becomes aware of negative psychological consequences such as emotional pain. Second, this produces a need to resolve the conflict. The third component represents the choice between two basic strategies: justice and mercy. Justice can take the form of legal action, seeking personal fairness, or revenge. Mercy can involve deciding not to punish the other, simple condonation, or a more active response, such as forgiveness. The fourth component, forgiveness motive, influences whether or not forgiveness strategies will be selected. The fifth component, decision to forgive, is a cognitive decision to forgive the injurer, which leads to the sixth component whereby the forgiver engages in one of several possible internal forgiveness strategies. These strategies involve changing the way the injury or injurer is viewed. Stage seven, need for action, recognizes the need for a behavioral response to the other. This behavioral response leads to either reconciliation or release; whichever outcome is achieved, the forgiver experiences less negative affect and more positive affect toward the offender. Release occurs if reconciliation is impossible or unwise. On the other hand, successful reconciliation has been associated with the use of direct strategies and increased involvement (Courtright, Millar, Rogers, & Bagarozzi, 1990).
Based on this process model, Enright et al. (1991) identified seventeen psychological variables that may be engaged during the forgiveness process. These variables can be organized into three categories: psychological distance and discomfort, turning points, and reframing. Psychological distance and discomfort involves experiencing hurt, denial, anger, and comparisons of one’s own state to the offender’s. Turning points represents a change of heart and a commitment to forgive the other. Reframing allows one to view the transgressing behavior in light of the context, outside pressures, or the person’s developmental history.
Hargrave (1994a, 1994.b) also examined psychological processes of reframing and identified the importance of behavioral responses in the forgiveness process. For Hargrave, the work of forgiveness in families consists of two broad categories of approaches: exonerating and forgiving. Exonerating involves gaining insight and understanding into the offender’s situational constraints, which leads the offended party to no longer hold the offender accountable for his or her actions. Forgiving differs from this in that opportunity for compensation is given to the offender. That is, the offender is held responsible for her or his actions. Forgiveness also involves an overt act of forgiving. This overt act places much emphasis on one situational point in time, occurring between the offender and offended, in which a new covenant, of sorts, is created to restore balance in the relationship. This perspective is consistent with Cunningham’s (1985) construction of the forgiveness process as one that involves renegotiating the relationship.
Hargrave (1994a, 1994b) believes that there are three prerequisites for renegotiating the relationship covenant: (1) agreement as to the nature of the violation, (2) acknowledgment of the hurt and pain that the violation caused, and (3) an apology from the offender for the relational and personal damage that has occurred. These three prerequisites parallel the phases of account sequences (Cody & McLaughlin, 1988; Schonbach & Kleibaumhuter, 1990). Accounting is the way in which failure events are managed between social interactants (Cody & McLaughlin, 1988). The first phase of the account process involves experiencing a failure event, which could involve an acted offense or an omission of something that was expected or required. Second, the reproach phase occurs when the offended party indicates his or her perception that some breech has occurred. The offender may also experience a reproach from his or her own guilt or anxiety. Third is the account phase. Here the one who was reproached responds in some way to the reproach. In the fourth phase the one who experienced the transgression evaluates the account, the offense in light of the account, and the characteristics of the perceived offender. At this point, much like Enright et al. (1991) describe release and reconciliation, the account sequence is ended through, 1) mitigation, elimination of conflict, or restoration of the relationship, or 2) through conflict escalation and possibly relationship disruption (Shconbach & Kleibaumhuter, 1990).
Hargrave’s (1994a, 1994b) suggestion that an apology is needed before the relationship is renegotiated is also consistent with the accounts research which indicates that more mitigating strategies, such as concession (of which apology is one type), are more likely to bring mitigating responses (Cody & McLaughlin, 1988), such as forgiveness of the offense. McCullough, Worthington, and Rachel (1997), in a study which tested the relationship between apology, empathy, and forgiveness, found strong evidence for the relationship between apology and forgiveness. Likewise, Emmers and Canary (1996) also conceptualized forgiveness and apology as related constructs. In a study examining the effect of young couples’ communication strategies on relational repair, they found that individuals listed forgiveness when asked to describe what was done to repair the relationship after a negative event. Forgive was defined as “forgave” or “accepted apology” (Emmers & Canary, 1996, p. 174). Forgiveness was one of many interactive strategies reported by respondents. Interactive strategies are those which involve directly interacting with the target (Baxter & Wilmot, 1984). These findings are consistent with Walters’ (1984) conceptualization of “follow-through” which recognizes the potential benefit of interaction in the forgiveness process. For Walters, followthrough involves the need at times to talk to the person being forgiven.
Interestingly, McCullough et al. (1997) also found that the apology-forgiveness relationship was partially mediated by empathy. The authors suggest that this relationship may be due to attributional change which would affect the offended party’s willingness to give forgiveness, as well as his or her feelings of empathy toward the offender. Certainly this idea fits with Enright et al.’s (1991) description of refraining and Hargrave’s (1994a, 1994b) discussion of gaining insight and understanding; that is, now that I understand how badly you feel about hurting me, I am willing to forgive you. In addition, Boon & Sulsky (1997) found that perceptions of the avoidability and intent of the offense influence one’s decision to forgive and one’s attribution of blame. This suggests that attributions of internality (when actions are accounted for by “internal volitional forces”) (Jellison, 1990, p. 289) may affect individuals’ willingness to forgive. Rationale for the Current Investigation Although certain researchers have studied forgiveness somewhat programmatically (e.g., Enright et al., 1991) there is still a need to study the communication of forgiveness in non-therapeutic settings. Consistent with North’s conceptualization of forgiveness, the current investigation explored the interpersonal dynamics and relational consequences of forgiveness, some of which have been identified in previous forgiveness models, but have yet to be empirically examined. For example, Enright et al. (1991) included execution of behavioral reconciliation strategies in their model, although this facet of the model was outside the scope of their discussion because it dealt with “interaction patterns rather than internal resolution in forgiveness” (p. 140).
While scholars and practitioners have validated forgiveness as an important phenomenon from a psychological/counseling viewpoint, there is little information as to how forgiveness is communicated in daily interactions. As such, individuals’ use of forgiveness to repair relationships needs to be studied outside the counseling context, where most relational repair work takes place. Both the therapeutic and relational repair literatures would suggest that forgiveness should be done verbally and interactively. Yet it is unclear as to what types of means are used by individuals to offer forgiveness and as to whether or not direct forgiveness strategies are effective in repairing nontherapeutic relationships.
Forgiveness research has also placed a primary emphasis on the role of the forgiver, without much regard for the role of the offender. This approach fails to take into account the transactional nature of communication. For instance, the Enright et al. (1991) model does not take into account that both the forgiver’s motive and decision to forgive are likely to be affected by the offender’s behavior after the infraction or injury. Therefore, additional research is needed to understand the role of the injurer in the interpersonal communication process.
The forgiveness models described previously identify four major components that influence the forgiveness process: the nature of the relationship, motivation, strategy, and relational consequences. The first component, the nature of the relationship, is implicit in both Cunningham’s (1985) and McCullough and Worthington’s (1994) research. Specifically, McCullough and Worthington call for forgiveness research that examines the antecedents of forgiveness, such as the relationship between the parties and the characteristics and behaviors of the two parties.
Motivation, the second component of the forgiveness process, identifies reasons why individuals try to obtain forgiveness or why they extend forgiveness. Motivation is a specific component in the Enright, et. al (1991) model, however, other models discuss components that influence motivation, such as, reframing the offense (McCullough and Worthington, 1994), seeing it in a new light (Cunningham, 1985), or receiving an apology from the offender (Hargrave, 1994a, 1994b). As such, internal psychological processes, as well as behavior by the offender, may influence the desire to forgive.
The third component, strategy, is represented by a variety of researchers who all recognize the importance of some type of behavioral response toward the other (Cunningham, 1985; Enright et al., 1991; Hargrave, 1994a, 1994b; Walters, 1984). In fact, Hargrave (1994a, 1994b) goes so far as to claim that a very direct behavioral response, apology, is a necessary condition for forgiveness. Likewise, the findings from the relational repair literature suggest that more direct, interactive approaches are most effective in restoring the relationships (Courtright, Millar, Rogers, & Bagarozzi, 1990; Emmers & Canary, 1996). The final component, relational consequences, describes the relational effect of forgiveness. Enright et al. (1991) recognize that reconciliation or release is a possible end result of the forgiveness process. McCullough and Worthington (1994) also discuss possible reconciliation. Hargrave (1994a, 1994b) frames the relational consequences differently by talking about the creation of a new covenant between the two participants. Cunningham (1985) echoes these thoughts by highlighting the renegotiation of the relationship.
In light of the reviewed research the following research questions are advanced: RQ,1: Is the type of relationship in which an injury occurs associated in a systematic way with any or all of the other three components of the forgiveness process: motivations, strategies, and consequences?
RQ2: Is the directness of a forgiveness-granting strategy associated in a systematic way with the relational consequences of a relational offense?
METHOD This study used a qualitative/interpretive method for initial data collection and analysis, followed by a systematic categorization of account elements, and subsequent analysis using the chi-square procedure. Qualitative/interpretive approaches (cf., Braithwaite, 1995) examine words and symbols in participants’ responses in order to identify patterns of meaning. Participants were asked to provide personal narratives concerning forgiveness. Such retrospective self-reports have been shown to be a productive and valid means of obtaining information about behaviors that are generally not accessible through direct observation (Metts, Sprecher, & Cupach, 1991), e.g., occurrences of forgiveness in daily interactions. In addition, use of personal accounts should allow for more detailed and differentiated data than more closed-ended approaches afford (Burnett, 1991, p. 123).
Procedures Narratives were obtained by asking participants to complete a questionnaire in which they were to write three personal narratives regarding their experience of interpersonal forgiveness. Instructions encouraged respondents to include elements of Gergen and Gergen’s (1987) criteria for a “well formed narrative” (Burnett, 1991), while at the same time trying not to set a formal structure which all narratives had to follow. Instructions asked participants to describe the elements that stood out as most important for each forgiveness interaction, and, specific to the proposed research question, to think about the questions in terms of motivation, strategies, and relational consequences. The first narrative was to describe a time when they had been forgiven. The second narrative was to focus on them as a forgiven For example, the instructions for the second question read as follows: Describe a time when you forgave someone else. Please describe the situation in as much detail as possible. What elements stand out as most important in this interaction? For instance: Why did you forgive them? Was the forgiveness requested or offered spontaneously? How was the forgiveness expressed? (What, if anything, did you do or say?) How did they respond to the forgiveness? (What, if anything, did they do or say?) What occurred within the relationship after you forgave them? (Feel free to use the back side of this page if necessary.) Because most forgiveness research has placed a primary emphasis on the role of the forgiven without much regard for the role of the offender, the third narrative recorded a time when the respondent felt a need for forgiveness. Describe a time when you believed that you needed forgiveness from someone. Please describe the situation in as much detail as possible. What elements stand out as most important? For instance: Overall, what happened? How did you let the other person know you needed/wanted forgiveness (or did you let them know of your desire)? How did the other person respond? (Feel free to use the back side of this page, if necessary.)
Participants The participants were 107 volunteers at a state university in the Southwestern United States who completed the forgiveness survey for extra credit in one of their courses. The average age of students was 26. Sixty-nine percent were female and 29% were male, with 2% not reporting. Respondents reported taking 30 to 90 minutes to complete the survey. The total number of usable narratives was 304 (not all respondents provided an example for each of the three types of narratives). The average length of the narratives was 471 words.
Analysis ofData The first phase of the analysis involved using analytic induction (Baxter, 1991) to identify themes within each of the three types of narratives: forgiven, forgiven and needing forgiveness. Because all three narrative types included information about both offender and forgiven all of the narratives were used to generate themes for both offender and forgiver. Themes were identified within each of the four major categories that were derived previously from the review of models that include interpersonal forgiveness (as described earlier, these categories were also represented in the instructions on each survey): relationship type, motivation, strategy, and relational consequences. For example, within the category forgiver strategies, three types of strategies were identified: direct, indirect, and conditional. Judges (the researcher and two advanced students in communication studies) discussed the appropriateness of using the four major categories (relationship type, motivation, strategy, and relational consequences) to understand the narratives. All three judges agreed that this structure fit the nature of these data.
Within each of these major categories, themes/dimensions were derived inductively by the three judges, each of whom read all of the narratives. Three criteria were used to identify themes: (1) recurrence in semantic meaning wherein different language expresses the same concept, (2) repetition of words, phrases or concepts, and (3) intensity, which typically is indicated by paralanguage or gesturing (Owen, 1984). For the written data in this study, intensity was identified by punctuation (e.g., exclamation points) or variations to the text (e.g., underlining a certain word or putting it in quotes). Judges independently identified themes occurring in the forgiveness narratives, and then engaged in a dialogic process to integrate the themes into one common list (see Table 1). Phase two of the analysis involved coding each narrative in light of the themes/ dimensions determined in phase one. For each narrative, coders rated relationship type, motivation, strategy, and relational consequence. Four coders (advanced students in communication studies) received training on sample narratives. Percentage of agreement reached over ninety percent for each pair of coders before they were allowed to code the set of participant responses. At the conclusion of the coder training, each of the 304 narratives was coded by two of the four coders. After coding the narratives, coders compared their evaluations, calculated their percentage of initial agreement, and then worked toward consensus as to how to code the dynamics in each story. One hundred percent agreement was obtained for all categories and dimensions after comparison and discussion. Initial agreement scores, corrected using Scott’s Pi Inter-rater Agreement Index (Scott, 1955) in order to control for chance error between coders, ranged from .85 to .99 (see Table 1). Finally, chi-square analyses were conducted to further determine if motivation, strategy, and relational consequence varied by relationship type.
Identifying and Coding Themes/Dimensions Relationship type. As participants wrote their narratives, they typically discussed the nature of the relationship between the forgiver and offender. The most common type of relationship mentioned was family, primarily parent-child, followed by spouse, sibling, and extended family relationships (see Table 1). After family, the most frequently reported relationships were friendships and then dating relationships. A relatively small number of narratives described work relationships and stranger/acquaintance relationships.
Forgiver Motivation. In many of the narratives (113, 37%) individuals discussed the reasons why forgiveness was given. As one might expect, forgiver motivation was mentioned most often in the narratives where participants were asked to recount a time when they forgave someone (71 out of the 106 usable forgiver narratives). These forgiveness stories indicated that there were a number of different reasons for forgiving someone. Analyses resulted in the identification of five dimensions of motivations for forgiving: love, well-being, restoring the relationship, strategy of the other, and reframing.
The first dimension mentioned by respondents was love. This was mentioned in 17 of the forgiveness stories, and represented 15% of the forgiver motivation statements (17, 15%). This consisted primarily of direct statements of love, for example, one narrative stated, “I forgave him, primarily because I love him. . .” (#2018).1
It should be noted that in the forgiver motivation category, love was retained as a dimension, separate from restoring the relationship, because respondents did not always mention restoring the relationship as connected with love. The following two examples demonstrate how love was discussed without a reference to restoring the relationship, “I guess the reason I was forgiven was because he loves me” (# 1002) and “I forgave him because I love him and he needed my forgiveness to make himself feel better” (#2026).
The second dimension, well-being (24, 21%), included forgiving in order to restore well-being to oneself or to the offender, as reported in the following revelation: “Then I began to realize that this anger was not only torturing him, but myself as well. It was eating me up inside and making me more of an angry person. Why should I suffer for what he has done? So I wrote him. . .” (#2033).
The third dimension focused on restoring the relationship (39, 35%). Responses in this dimension were grouped three ways. Sometimes individuals simply mentioned that they desired to forgive the other so that the relationship would continue. Second, individuals mentioned that forgiveness was imparted due to the nature of the relationship, indicating at times that there were implicit or explicit obligations because of the relationship type, for example, “I forgave her because she is my friend of 12 years. . .” (#2035). The third grouping represented statements that compared the severity of the infraction to the worth of the relationship, “I forgave the person because it was not a major problem that a tape was destroyed. It was not worth risking a friendship over” (#2009). Statements of this kind did not solely minimize the injury or maximize the value of the relationship. There had to be a clear statement about the relationship between the infraction and the relationship itself.
The fourth motivation dimension was strateg of the other (35, 31%). Here forgivers’ motivations were seen to be influenced by how the offender responded to his or her own infraction. Specifically, individuals mentioned such elements as apologies, a show of responsibility, and remorse as types of behavior that influenced the injured party to forgive. The following example demonstrates apology and responsibility: “He said he forgave me but only because I apologized and admitted I was wrong” (# 1038).
The final dimension of forgiver motivation is entitled reframing (50, 44%). This concept is consistent with several of the more psychologically-based models of forgiveness (Cunningham, 1985; Enright et al., 1991). Reframing often took the shape of claiming to understand why the other person engaged in the offending behavior, viewing the offender as not responsible for his or her actions, viewing the offender’s act as unintentional, and diminishing the perceived amount of effect of the offending behavior. One female participant expressed her motivation as follows, “I forgave him, primarily because I love him and I know that what occurred was not part of his normal character. He comes from a great family, he’s a Christian, and I knew he wasn’t the cheating kind” (#2018). Narrative #10 12 clearly shows a diminishing of the perceived amount of effect as a motivation to forgive, “he forgave me because it was a small issue to him.” Offender (Forgiveness-Seeking) Motivation. Especially for scenarios that were written from the perspective of needing or receiving forgiveness (80 of the 88 responses that described offender motivation were from these two scenario perspectives), participants discussed the offender’s motivation for seeking forgiveness. While less varied than forgiver motivations, it is clear that not all forgiveness comes from the same motives. Analyses identified two primary dimensions: well-being and restore the relationship. The well-being dimension represented motivations for the well-being of the self and/or the other (58, 65%). One respondent discussed his relationship with his mother, “When I could not stand this behavior any more, or needed her forgiveness. I started visiting her more frequently. . .” (#3007), and another discussed disappointing her parents, “I felt so bad, I disappointed my parents…. I told him `I’m sorry,’ and asked what I could do to let them forgive me” (#3029).
The dimension, restore the relationship, (31, 35%) was represented a little differently in reference to offenders than it had been in reference to forgivers. As with forgivers, this dimension represented a sense of obligation to obtain forgiveness in certain relationships. For offenders, however, restoring the relationship was also associated with restoring trust and a simple desire to maintain the relationship, for example, “I feel that we lost that friendship…. After I talked to him, I explained to him that I hoped he could forgive me and we could remain friends” (#3043).
Forgiver Strategies. Of the 304 usable narratives, over half of them (153) reported the manner in which forgiveness was mediated within the relationship. Analyses identified three strategy types that were used to communicate forgiveness to an offender: direct, indirect, and conditional. The first dimension represented the forgiver directly addressing the issue with the offender (97, 63%). Direct strategies included discussing the issue and the forgiver telling the offender that he or she understands, directly telling the other “I forgive you,” or using a third party to mediate the issue. Narrative #2020 reports forgiveness being mediated in a direct manner, “I told him I understood, but would hope he would be more up front with problems. I told him of course I forgave him.”
Indirect strategies (66, 43%) included the tactics of humor, diminishing the perceived effect of the infraction (e.g., saying that it was “no big deal”), nonverbal displays such as hugging, touching, eye contact, changes in vocalic patterns and shows of emotion, returning to normal behavior in the relationship, and implicit understanding. For these last two tactics, individuals mentioned acting normally toward the offender as a signal that they were forgiven and, even less specific, at times they mentioned that the forgiveness was “just understood.” For example, one respondent describes forgiving his father, “The forgiveness was spontaneous but not vocalized, it was understood” (#2026). A third dimension described whether the forgiveness was given with conditions (23, 15%). In one narrative describing a child-father discussion, wherein the father asks forgiveness as part of his alcohol recovery, forgiveness is given in the following way, “I told him I would accept his apology, however, we both knew that there was the stipulation that he stay off of the booze” (#2016).
Offender (Forgiveness-Seeking) Strategies. The category of offender strategies represents strategies that are used to gain forgiveness from the injured party. Offender strategies were often mentioned as part of the forgiveness process, with 221 out of 304 usable narratives reporting something about the communication strategies that the offender used to facilitate forgiveness. These 221 references to offender strategies occurred with equal frequency across the three types of narratives, demonstrating that offender strategies are a very salient component of the forgiveness process. The dimensions identified here were the same as for the forgiver; however, specific tactics within each dimension differed when forgiveness-seeking rather than forgiveness-granting. For example, conditions (17, 8%) that were placed on the forgiveness as they related to the offenders’ strategies, were not set by the forgiver, but offered instead by the offender.
Direct strategies (212, 96%) for the offender involved discussion, as they did for the forgiver, but the focus was not on the forgiver understanding, but rather on the offender explaining. Also, direct requests for forgiveness were reported, as was the use of third parties. Paralleling the forgiver motivation category, individuals also reported such elements as apologizing, taking responsibility for their actions, and showing remorse. These types of behavior were deemed direct because of their direct focus on dealing with the infraction, for example, “I apologized to him over and over. I told him I didn’t deserve him and that I took him for granted” (#10 11). Taking responsibility and apologizing were an effective combination in the following description, “At this time he apologized and explained that he felt responsible for my leaving…. At the time I forgave him. . . . ” (#2046).
Indirect strategies (66, 33%) included such elements as humor, nonverbal displays of acceptance or emotion, using a social network to communicate remorse or apology, ingratiation, or returning to normalcy. An example of nonverbal display of emotion comes from #1019, “I was crying because I was truly sorry for my action.” Narrative #1063 describes a combination of strategies to ensure forgiveness from her friend, “After not talking for two days I came home from work one day with a funny belated Birthday card for her and a gift certificate to her favorite restaurant … We went to dinner and in a joking manner, I expressed to her how sorry I was ….”
Relational Consequences. Forty percent (123) of the narratives mentioned some form of relational consequence occurring after forgiveness had taken place. The most common form of relational consequence was to experience some type of change in the relationship. In fact, 72% (100) of the narratives reporting relational consequences described some type of change, while 28% (39) reported a return to normalcy. Relational change consisted of strengthening the relationship, deterioration, change in behavioral rules, and change in relationship type. An interesting example of change in relationship type occurred between a father and his son, “The typical father/son relationship we had prior to the separation is gone and has been replaced by one where we exist more as friends rather than father/son” (#2075). Some relationships did not change in type, but rather the relationship either deteriorated or strengthened, as is illustrated in this work scenario, “My forgiveness was appreciated. The relationship seemed to improve slightly, as evidenced by more casual talk and sharing of what’s going on in our lives” (#2004). Some relationships were not so lucky, “I apologized and asked him to forgive me and he did. After a while he did, and we were still friends, but not as good of friends” (#3027). Finally, some relationships experienced a change of behavior or rules. One participant’s story demonstrates this well, “No-name calling’s become a rule in our relationship and we stand by it. It’s helped us fight fairly” (#2022).
The second relational consequence was a return to normalcy. Some individuals reported that once the forgiveness had taken place, the relationship returned to its former state. For example, #2302 stated, “After I forgave her things returned to normal.”
Time The initial inductive process of generating dimensions resulted in time being recognized as an important component of the forgiveness process for motivation, implementation of strategies, and relational consequences. However, it was often difficult to identify when time was a significant factor or during what part of the process (motivation, strategy, or relational consequence) time had an impact. For example, individuals noted that it took time before they could finally forgive the other person, “It took probably ten months for her to get over my disappointing her. She finally forgave me when she found out that I was pregnant with my first child” (#1023). In this situation, while it is evident that time is a factor, it is not clear as to whether time is primarily influencing motivation, strategy, relational consequence, or some combination of the three. What is obvious, however, is that time is often an important component of the forgiveness process.
Certain findings were only found in one of the narrative conditions: family members were less motivated to forgive, than was expected, by the strategy of the offender; dating couples were more likely than expected to be motivated by a desire to restore the relationship or by the strategy of the offender when deciding to forgive someone, and as the offender they were more likely than expected to seek forgiveness to restore well-being; dating couples were the only relationship to experience change in relationship type more than expected; friends were motivated to forgive by love less than was expected, but were more motivated than expected by a desire to restore the relationship; in addition, friends were less motivated, than expected, to seek forgiveness in order to restore well-being.
Research Question 2. This research question asked whether using more direct means of offering forgiveness would result in more positive relationship consequences. None of the chi-square analyses demonstrated significant results.
DISCUSSION This study has laid the groundwork for beginning to understand the interpersonal dynamics of the forgiveness process. A heuristic framework has been generated in order to identify components of interpersonal forgiveness, specifically identifying relational components, reports of motivations and strategies of the offender and forgiver, and the relational consequences of forgiveness.
Some of the richest descriptions provided by participants involved motivations and strategies that occurred during the forgiveness process. Both forgiver and offender motivations to forgive were identified as the desire to restore the well-being of self and/or other and a desire to restore the relationship. Individuals reported forgiving the other person in order to restore the relationship because they were obligated to, that is, because they had been friends for a long time, or because the infraction was not worth ruining the relationship. Forgiver motivation was also based on the ability to reframe the problem incident through gaining understanding, diminishing the effect of the infraction, viewing the offender as not responsible for his or her infractions, or viewing the offender’s behavior as unintentional. Two additional reasons for offering forgiveness were love and the strategy of the other. The strategy the offender chose affected the decision to forgive, as individuals noted that they forgave because the other apologized, took responsibility for his or her actions, or showed remorse. Although it was not within the scope of this study to examine dyadic interaction, the influence of the offenders’ strategies on the decision to forgive demonstrates the need to conceptualize forgiveness as a dynamic interpersonal process.
The presented list of possible motivations parallels Veenstra’s (1992) six-part typology which involves releasing the offender from blame and refraining the infraction in some manner. Reframing, in the current investigation, includes such elements as understanding, recognizing that the other person did not mean to hurt you, or realizing that the offender can not be held responsible for his or her actions. This perspective also represents what Hargrave (1994b) refers to as exoneration. That is, because one reframes the infraction, the incident is no longer viewed as a violation, and therefore the offender is no longer held accountable, and subsequently is no longer in need of forgiveness. It is important to realize that while the distinction between exoneration and forgiveness is interesting theoretically, the individuals who participated in this study believe that all of the events they reported involved forgiveness.
The dimensions generated as possible motivations in this study both consolidate and build on Enright et al.’s (1991) process model of forgiveness. For Enright et al., motive to forgive is influenced by one’s social cognitive development stage, cultural conditioning, environmental encouragements/sanctions, philosophical or religious education, time since the injury, degree of suffering, and conversion. While social cognitive development stage, cultural conditioning, and philosophical or religious education are beyond the scope of the present study, environmental encouragements/sanctions do fit with being obligated to forgive because of the type of relationship. Also, it is interesting to note that the degree of suffering was not discussed by participants as a reason they were willing to forgive, although this may be due to the nature of the questions, which asked for situations where forgiveness had taken place or been sought after. Conversion, or “a change of heart,” is related to refraining in the present model. While refraining in the Enright et al. (1991) model is located as an internal forgiveness strategy rather than motivation, it must be remembered that their model focuses on motivation to forgive psychologically, whereas the present model focuses on interpersonal expressions of forgiveness. As such, internal forgiveness strategies in their model become motivations for interpersonal expressions of forgiveness in the present model. It is interesting to observe that these findings are consistent with Droll’s (as cited in Enright, Gassin, & Wu, 1992) interviews with 27 adults. He found that offendees (forgivers) refrained the infraction and selectively focused attention so as to maintain the relationship or manage their own negative emotions (well-being of self).
The important emphasis placed on refraining, in this study and others that have just been discussed, raises interesting questions regarding attribution and account processes. It can be argued from an attribution theory perspective, that the most effective strategies with which to secure forgiveness would involve making external attributions for the cause of a relational transgression, since individuals are only accountable for an infraction if it can be attributed to internal causes (Jellison, 1990; Sillars, 1982). This is consistent with the current findings which indicate that individuals were often motivated to forgive because they refrained the infraction by concluding that the perceived offender was not responsible for his or her actions or did not intend to inflict harm-in other words, the cause of the infraction was located outside of the offending party. This refraining of the infraction from internal to external causes could be the result of the offender offering excuses. As was found by McClaughlin, O’Hair, and Cody (1983), “Excuse was by far the most popular mode of failure management and may simply reflect the fact that most people in judging their own behavior attribute failure to the circumstances of the situation rather than to their own bad intentions” (p. 222). However, although excuses may be quite effective in certain circumstances, concession, including apology, has been conceptualized as a more mitigating strategy than excuse (McClaughlin, O’Hair, & Cody, 1983), and therefore, could be more effective in achieving forgiveness. Concession can be understood as applying internal causal attributions to the offender’s actions. Clearly in the present investigation, apologizing, taking responsibility for one’s actions, and expressing remorse were related to the offended party’s motivation to forgive. As such, it appears that both internal and external attributions can be effective when seeking to achieve forgiveness or manage a relational failure. This is consistent with research that suggests that apologies, excuses, or an “excuse-apology” hybrid is most effective when deflecting blame in interpersonal settings (Cody & McClaughlin, 1990). In spite of these findings, however, it remains to be seen under what conditions internal and external attributions of behavior may be most effective in securing forgiveness.
Forgiveness strategies, as reported by respondents, were either direct, engaging the other specifically about the issue, or indirect, wherein the issue is never directly dealt with. Direct strategies for offenders were characterized by discussion and often by further explanation of the infraction, direct requests for forgiveness, using a third party to intervene, apologies, taking responsibility for one’s actions, and showing remorse. Indirect strategies involved humor, nonverbal behaviors and displays of emotion, using the social network to communicate the offender’s feelings to the forgiven and treating the injured party as he or she normally would.
Interestingly, forgiver direct and indirect strategies largely paralleled offenders’ strategies. Direct strategies included discussion, which often led to the forgiver understanding the offender’s position, statements of forgiveness (“I forgive you”), and use of third party mediators. Indirect strategies involved the use of humor, diminishing the perceived effect of the infraction (“It was no big deal”), nonverbal behaviors and emotional displays, a return to normalcy, and a sense that the other was forgiven and it was just “understood.” These findings are interesting in light of the fact that Hargrave (1994b) believes that forgiveness requires an overt expression. Only a little over one-half of the scenarios in this study which identified a forgiver strategy mentioned the forgiver using direct strategies. If Hargrave is correct, this would mean that “true forgiveness” was not experienced in almost half of the participants’ stories. To address this issue, it will eventually be necessary for forgiveness researchers to study dyads, where partners’ perceptions of forgiveness can be compared and contrasted.
Two additional strategy issues involve forgiving conditionally and time. Both forgivers and offenders were described as using conditional forgiveness at times. For instance, the forgiver might forgive the other as long as he or she promised that the transgression was never to happen again. Sometimes the offender initiated this condition when they were asking for forgiveness. Also, both forgiver and offender mentioned that forgiveness took time. That is, while forgiveness can be a one-time act, it often involves a process of discussion and repeated requests for forgiveness. It will be important for researchers to be able to study this time dimension in future studies, and to begin to study forgiveness as a process.
This study has also identified a variety of relational consequences that are associated with interpersonal forgiveness. The central dimensions are change and return to normalcy. Participants’ narratives revealed that relationships change in type, they can be strengthened or deteriorated, and they can develop new behavior or rules in response to forgiveness. A common response that served as both a relational consequence and a type of forgiver indirect strategy was returning the relationship to normal. Many participants indicated that the return of communication to normal was the way in which they knew that they had been forgiven. Also, respondents noted that time played a role in the relational effects. Time, as it is understood as part of relational consequences, typically referred to the process of relationship healing. Individuals indicated that even after forgiveness was imparted to the other person, it could still take time to restore the relationship.
Chi-square analyses indicated that forgiveness motivations, strategies, and relational consequences vary by relationship type. Possibly because family relationships are not voluntary relationships, family members reported being less motivated to give forgiveness because of love, restoring the relationship or because of what the other person might do to seek forgiveness. This obligatory quality of family relationships may also account for the fact that family members reported their relationships being weakened fewer times than was expected. Evidently the involuntary nature of these relationships creates a sense of stability and resiliency in the relationship.
In the voluntary relationships, both dating and friendship, there was more of a tendency for individuals to be motivated to forgive in order to restore the relationship. In both of these relationship types there are fewer social constraints to hold individuals in a relationship. However, dating relationships and friendships differed in that dating individuals were motivated to forgive by love, well-being, and the forgiveness-seeking strategy of their partner. Friends, however were less inclined to be motivated by love or well-being, but were more likely to report a deterioration of the relationship. Interestingly, dating individuals were the only ones to show a high likelihood of changing relationship type as a consequence of the infraction and forgiveness process. Here we are aware of the proverbial “lets just be friends” in response to some violation in the relationship. That is, I may forgive you, but I’ve also learned through the process that I no longer want to seriously date you. Friendships evidently can be weakened, but do not as often change relationship type.
The heuristic framework presented here, based on analysis of personal narratives, advances psychological models by clarifying elements of motivation, exploring interpersonal strategies, and emphasizing the importance of the interaction between forgiver and offender. The information presented here emphasizes the transactional nature of the forgiveness process as it demonstrates that the decision to forgive may be based on the post-offense strategy of the offender. In addition it is evident from these findings that forgiveness is important to relational repair, and that different relationship types experience a variety of relational consequences as a result of the forgiveness process. Further research needs to examine the relationships between motivations and strategies, and the effect of strategies on relational consequences.
This study has highlighted the importance of forgiveness in interpersonal relationships and has presented an initial perspective on the dynamics of communicating forgiveness in daily interactions. In addition, it has offered further understanding of the role of the offender as well as the forgiver. Essential to this understanding are the components of relationship type, motivation, strategy, and relational consequence. Finally, we do well to remember the words of Walters (1984), “When we have been hurt we have two alternatives: be destroyed by resentment, or forgive. Resentment is death; forgiving leads to healing and life” (p. 366).
‘Participants’ names are not included in order to protect anonymity. The first digit of the identification number refers to the type of narrative that was being written: I = a time you were forgiven; 2 = a time you forgave someone; 3 = a time you felt the need for forgiveness. The remaining three digits were assigned in order of sequence (001,002,003…).
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Douglas Kelley is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Communication at Arizona State University-West. Special thanks to Dr. Dawn 0. Braithwaite for her comments on earlier versions of this manuscript. Also, thanks to Linda Yowell, Darlene Miller,Julie Smith,Jenifer Gale, and Christine McKellar, all of who put some of their soul into this work. IfI required too much ofyou, Tcan only ask your forgiveness. can only askyourforgiveness.
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