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:

THE ART AND SCIENCE OF FORGIVENESS

This guest blog was written by Rosemary Kite, Founder and President of Forgive4Peace in Los Angeles, CA.


They say that unforgiveness is like a poison you take hoping that the other person will die! I hope that’s not you.

Let’s start with the easy stuff. The science of forgiveness. Medical experts say that forgiving those who have wronged us helps lower blood pressure, cholesterol, and heart rate. The benefits aren’t just limited to the physical, though. Letting go of old grudges is known to reduce levels of depression, anxiety, and anger. People who forgive tend to have better relationships, be more optimistic, and overall, enjoy better psychological well-being.

So why is it so hard for us to do what is good for us to do? Well, forgiveness is about the hardest thing any one of us ever has to do. But the heart is a muscle and every muscle needs to be exercised. Forgiveness exercises the heart muscle, but not without the help of the head (and the hands for that matter), because forgiveness is above all, a CHOICE. So before moving onto the art of forgiveness, let’s try to define the word.

What exactly is forgiveness anyway? According to Dr. Robert Enright, an Educational Psychologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Founder of the International Forgiveness Institute, forgiveness can be defined as follows:

“Forgiveness is a willingness to abandon one’s right to resentment, negative judgment and indifferent behavior toward one who unjustly injured us, while fostering the undeserved qualities of compassion, generosity and even love toward him or her.”

See. . . Forgiveness involves the head, the hands, and the heart (the intellect, the will, AND the emotions). Let’s take a minute to look at each of these components:

1st – THE EMOTIONS….where it all starts, in the ANGER. In forgiveness, we strive to abandon our right to resentment, that “re-feeling” of the sting of injustice. Resentment is a feeling, a passion, a movement we feel in a painful way as we strive to abandon the desires for revenge, retaliation, desires of getting even, settling the accounts, the wallowing in self-pity.

2nd – THE INTELLECT. By channeling our emotions through the intellect, we invite our reason to have a say and we work toward abandoning our negative judgments (the critical spirit, the condemnation, the name calling, the depressing self-talk).

3rd – THE BEHAVIOR. Our actions that sometimes speak louder than words. We try to abandon negative behavior in our gestures, attitudes and treatment of the other (the sourpuss, the cold shoulder, the bad-mouthing, the finger, the backbiting). By integrating these three dimensions of ourselves, forgiveness makes us WHOLE. Forgiveness makes us more human.

What forgiveness is NOT is: a four-letter word, excusing, condoning (suggesting that something bad is really something good), forgetting (it doesn’t produce amnesia of the event or the hurt; forgiving and the memory of the event can coexist), or pretending that nothing happened.

So if forgiveness is a choice; it is also a process that is multi-layered and cyclical and that is where the art of forgiveness comes in. It places no conditions such as an apology or remorse or even justice for that matter.

The art of forgiveness looks something like this:

  1. We stop dancing around denial and acknowledge the injustice in order to uncover the anger.
  2. We wiggle and wobble around the need to decide to forgive. To make a tough choice. To try to end the resentment. To try to be a loving person even to the one who was unfair to us. We try to learn what Mahatma Gandhi meant when he said: “Forgiveness is an attribute of the strong.”
  3. Then we dig into the hard work of taking as wide a perspective as possible to re-frame the event, the anger and the pain. Can we consider the humanity in the person; can we see his/her woundedness, stress? Can we see that we both share a common humanity? That this person is not evil incarnate? Can we begin to feel any empathy? A softening of our heart toward understanding?
  4. Finally, we unearth the peace and freedom of letting go of resentment and bitterness; we release the pent-up anger; lessening the emotional anguish. We discover a freer heart; meaning in our suffering. We come to realize that, in the words of Walt Disney’s Winnie the Pooh: “You’re braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.”  We learn the great paradox of forgiveness: as you reach out to others in love, you yourself experience emotional healing.

So the secret art and science of forgiveness suggests that the best medicine we can possibly take to improve our physical, psychological, social and spiritual health is forgiveness. Forgiveness is like the pill that offers the deepest healing of the wounds that fester in the human heart.


If you want to be happy for a moment, take revenge. But if you want to be happy forever,  forgive.
                                                                                                                                 ~ Rosemary Kite


Rosemary Kite

Rosemary Kite and Forgive4Peace have been long-time supporters and financial contributors to the International Forgiveness Institute.  Its mission is “to promote forgiveness education at home, at school and at work for the sake of world peace. Forgiveness fills the gap between our world’s unrest and world peace. All education fosters peace. Forgiveness education brings peace.” In addition to rewarding achievements in forgiveness, Forgive4Peace raises awareness of the importance and value of forgiveness in one’s everyday life. Visit the Forgive4Peace website here.

My son has been bullied in school. He actually came to me and asked how he might start to forgive those who bully him. I was surprised by his maturity, actually. What can you tell me in terms of advice that I can pass on to my son?

Yes, I agree with you that your son is showing maturity in wanting to explore forgiveness. First, I would take the time to be sure he knows what forgiveness is and is not. He needs to know that as he forgives, he needs to strive for justice, as you do, with the school administrators. Next, I would ask him to see the people who bully as genuine persons, who have built-in worth despite their troubling behavior. This can take time and effort. Help him to see more broadly than just the hurtful actions of those who bully. For example, you could ask this: “Do you think that those who bully you have been hurt in the past? Might they be carrying these wounds into the school and imposing their own hurt now on you? Can you see a hurting person through their inappropriate actions?” Again, I would be sure that your son sees the need to forgive and seek justice together.

Learn more at How Forgiveness Benefits Kids and The Anti-Bullying Forgiveness Program.

What is the one, central issue about forgiveness that you would give to those who are preparing for marriage?

I would encourage them to get to know very deeply what forgiveness is (a moral virtue in which you practice goodness toward those who are not good to you) and is not (to forgive is not to excuse unjust behavior, to automatically reconcile when the other is a danger to you, nor to abandon the quest for justice). Then I would urge both people to examine the injustices which they suffered in their family of origin, forgive the people, and discuss the pattern of injustices together so that they do not reproduce the injustices in their own marriage.

Learn more at Forgiveness for Couples.

You say that all people have inherent worth. What about mass murders or those who commit other horrific crimes. Don’t you think they have lost that right for us to see them as having worth?

We need to separate a person’s actions and who they are as persons. Some who commit horrific crimes end up repenting, being very sorry for what they did. They no longer will engage in such behaviors. Still others may remain unrepentant, but should we define them only by their actions? Are they not unique human beings and if so, does not that make them special and irreplaceable?

People of faith would say that we are all “made in the image and likeness of God.” If we are **all** so made, then so too are those who commit horrific crimes. We, then, are not to stand in judgement of them as persons, although we must have impartial law officials make judgements about their behavior.

To learn more, see Actor Kelsey Grammer Forgives Serial Killer Who Raped and Murdered His Sister.

Can you give me some pointers for bringing forgiveness into my family?

Yes, please consider three ideas.

First, you can be aware of what I call “teachable forgiveness moments.” For example, suppose you are watching a film in which revenge is occurring. You could ask, after the film is over, “How might the story have continued if the one on whom revenge was sought decided to forgive and then seek justice in a reasonable way?”

Second, you could have a regular conversation, say once a week, at mealtimes in which you ask, “How did it go for you today? Were there any challenges? Did you consider forgiving under those circumstances?”

Third, you might consider sharing your own experiences, at least on occasion, in which you had to forgive someone at work or in some other context. The point is not to pressure family members to forgive, but to show them the way by your example.

Learn more at Family Forgiveness Guidelines.

I have seen in the definition of forgiveness that to forgive is to offer love to those who have acted badly. Could you please explain further what is meant here by the word love?

First, we have to make a distinction between what forgiveness actually is and how we imperfect people go about forgiving. In its essence, forgiveness is the heroic moral virtue of seeing the inherent worth in the other (not because of what was done, but in spite of this) and then the offer of a caring concern for that other. The caring concern can start as respect and compassion. At its highest level, that concern centers on agape love (the Greek term) which is to try to aid that other person despite one’s own suffering. We imperfect people do not always reach this highest level of forgiving, but it can be a goal toward which we strive.

Learn more at What is Forgiveness?