FORGIVENESS: The Basic Building Block of Loving Relationships

What comes to mind when you hear someone mention the term “therapy”? Do you envision a patient lying on a couch with a therapist sitting behind and nodding sagely as the patient talks about the shortcomings of his or her life? If so, it’s time to upgrade your thinking.

Liza Elliott (American film star Ginger Rogers) undergoes psychoanalysis by Dr. Alex Brooks (Barry Sullivan) in the 1944 hit “Lady in the Dark.”

Thanks to less-than-accurate portrayals in movie and television docudramas, that approach to therapy (known as psychoanalysis) is still dominant in the minds of most individuals. And while it is still practiced, it is in the minority. There are now an estimated 400 different kinds of therapy used by practitioners around the world.

That’s but one of the many mind-altering revelations in a just-published book called Introduction to Psychology by Jorden A. Cummings (Associate Professor) and Lee Sanders (Sessional Lecturer), both in the Department of Psychology at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.  The book offers a comprehensive treatment of core concepts, grounded in classical studies and current/emerging research.

Another major revelation of the new book is its focus on Positive Psychology–the study of happiness. While psychology has traditionally focused on dysfunction–people with mental illness or other issues–and how to treat it, positive psychology, in contrast, is a field that examines how ordinary people can become happier and more fulfilled–in other words, what makes life worth living. 

Three Key Strengths

Within positive psychology, three key human strengths have been identified–forgiveness, gratitude and humility. While Introduction to Psychology provides meticulous coverage of those three strengths (Chapter 12.5), this post will focus on forgiveness. Here are excerpts from the book:

Forgiveness is essential to harmonious long-term relationships between individuals, whether between spouses or nations, dyads or collectives. At the level of the individual, forgiveness of self can help one achieve an inner peace as well as peace with others and with God.


“Forgiveness can be an avenue to healing. It is the basic building block of loving relationships with others.”
Introduction to Psychology


Because the potential for conflict is seemingly built into human nature, the prospects for long-term peace may seem faint. Forgiveness offers another way. If the victim can forgive the perpetrator, the relationship may be restored and possibly even saved from termination.

The essence of forgiveness is that it creates a possibility for a relationship to recover from the damage caused by the offending party’s offense. Forgiveness is thus a powerful pro-social process. It can benefit human social life by helping relationships to heal. Culligan (2002) wrote “Forgiveness may ultimately be the most powerful weapon for breaking the dreadful cycle of violence.”


“On a social level, forgiveness may be the critical element needed for world peace.”
Introduction to Psychology


Forgiveness studies demonstrate that self-forgiveness was associated with increased self-esteem, lower levels of anxiety, lower levels of depression and a more positive point of view. 

In many of these studies, it was shown that people who are able to forgive are more likely to have better interpersonal functioning and therefore social support. The act of forgiveness can result in less anxiety and depression, better health outcomes, increased coping with stress, and increased closeness to God and others (Enright, 2001).


ADDENDUM:

Introduction to Psychology has been created from a combination of original content and materials compiled and adapted from several Open Educational Resources (OERs)—teaching, learning and research resources that reside in the public domain or have been released under an intellectual property license that permits their free use and re-purposing.

Compared to commercial textbooks and other commercial resources, OERs are: free to access, free to reuse, free to revise, free to remix, and free to redistribute.

This provides opportunities for instructors and learners to shape course content and meet the needs of specific learning contexts. Teachers and students become learners together, and content becomes a dynamic, always changing category to be engaged rather than a stable set of facts to be mastered.

This is called Open Pedagogy–the practice of engaging with students as creators of information rather than simply consumers of it. This dynamic, often called Open Education, is transforming lifelong learning in the process.


LEARN MORE:

I can be rather rude sometimes and I do not like that at all. How can I find the true origins of my anger?

In my book, The Forgiving Life, I have an exercise called The Forgiveness Landscape. In this exercise, I ask you to take a paper and pencil and begin writing down the hurtful injustices against you: from your earliest childhood memory, to later childhood experiences of injustice, then into adolescence, early adulthood, and up to the present time. I then ask you to rate the hurtfulness of these experiences. Next, you order these unjust experiences from the least hurtful experience (yet, still significant because you have identified it) to the most hurtful experience at the top of the page. That most hurtful experience at the top, if it still is causing you considerable pain, may be the primary source of your current anger. The key is to start at the bottom, where you still may have some hurt, and forgive that particular person. Move up the list, forgiving the people as you go. When you reach the top, you already will have practice in forgiving and so you may be ready to forgive this particular person, even though it is hard to do. This may lessen your anger so that you are not displacing it onto others.

For additional information, see  The Four Phases of Forgiveness.

In your book, Forgiveness Is a Choice, you say that we should approach the process of forgiving with a sense of “willingness” rather than “willfulness.” I thought that forgiving is an active process and “willfulness” seems to capture that sense of being active more than “willingness” does. Would you please clarify for me?

When I use the term “willfulness” I mean this: We have to be careful not to force the process of forgiving. We, for example, cannot demand that we now feel compassion toward someone who treated us in a cruel way. We have to be open (willingness) to this gradual change of heart toward those who have hurt us. I do not mean to imply either that forgiving is passive or outside of our free will. Instead, I am suggesting that as we actively engage our free will, the process of forgiving still takes time. We are not in absolute control of the timing or the difficulty involved in forgiving another person.

For additional information, see Forgiveness is a Choice.

I want to start working on the theme of forgiving toward one of my parents. I have a therapist with whom I have been working for many years. She says that she has not studied Forgiveness Therapy, but is open to exploring forgiveness with me. What do you suggest under this circumstance?

I recommend that you, personally, first examine one of my self-help books (Forgiveness Is a Choice, The Forgiving Life, or 8 Keys to Forgiveness). See which you prefer. Then bring a copy of the chosen book to your therapist as you also retain a copy. Both of you can work systematically through the book that you choose. Given the therapist’s years of experience in the mental health profession, she should have no problem assisting you on your forgiveness journey.

For additional information, see Learning to Forgive Others.

In your book, Forgiveness Is a Choice, you talk about finding meaning in suffering. You talk about growing beyond yourself. What does this mean?

When people find meaning in suffering they often develop a deeper sense of what it means to be a person. You may begin to see, for example, that your suffering has shown you that all people suffer, all people are emotionally wounded to one degree or another. You begin to realize that your suffering is making you a more sensitive person to other people. In other words, your world expands as you see humanity more deeply.

For additional information, see Forgiveness Is a Choice.

I am newly married and my wife seems to have some suppressed anger from her childhood. Here is what I mean. At first, she talked about how idyllic her childhood was. Yet, over time, she has begun to develop nightmares about some of her interactions with her parents. These are not just nighttime fantasies because, as she looks back now, she is seeing some ignoring by the parents and putting-her-as-second best within her family of origin. What do you suggest?

In my book, The Forgiving Life, I recommend an exercise that I call the Forgiveness Landscape in which you begin to think about all of the people who have ever been unjust to you. You rate what the injustice is and how deeply that injustice hurt you. You then order these people from the least-severe hurt to the most-severe hurt. You start with the least-severe hurt and begin the forgiveness process with that person. Once you finish the forgiveness process with that one person, you move up to the next person, and then the next until you are experienced enough with forgiveness to start forgiving those who have been the most hurtful to you. This exercise may prove worthwhile for your wife. In other words, she does not start with the parents. As she forgives others, who are less hurtful to her, then her psychological defenses toward her parents, in which she may have been denying the degree of hurt, may change so that she sees the deeper hurt that she has. At that point, she may have the strength, the resolve, and the expertise to forgive the parents. At that point, the nightmares may end. I wish both of you the best on this forgiveness journey.

For additional information, see: How to Forgive.
To order Dr. Enright’s book, see: The Forgiving Life.

I am an adult who has hurt my mother a number of times when I was a teenager.  I now very much would like to have her forgive me, but I am not sure that she has thought much about forgiveness.  She seems to have accepted who I was as a teen—a very immature young person.  Yet, I would like to see her truly forgive me.  How can I approach her with the idea of forgiveness?

One approach is to take one of the self-help books, such as my The Forgiving Life book published by the American Psychological Association.  I recommend that you read it first.  If you think it is appropriate for your mother, then share it with her and point out some of the sections in the book that proved helpful to you.  Your mother might get interested and, if so, this would give her a chance to work through the forgiveness process.

Learn more at The Forgiving Life.
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