The Therapeutic Use of Forgiveness in Healing Intergenerational Pain

Article excerpt

The author discusses the therapeutic use of forgiveness in healing intergenerational pain. Forgiveness is conceptualized as a 4-station process that is used to break unhealthy developmental and relational patterns and to promote healing. These stations can help the client gain insight and understand the intergenerational pain, provide an opportunity for compensation, and empower the client to act on the forgiveness. A case example of an adolescent is presented to illustrate the therapeutic value of encouraging exoneration and then forgiveness.


Too common is the experience of many counselors who find themselves working with adolescents who are angry and who exhibit volatile behavior. Such behavior is frequently influenced by difficulties surrounding the family of origin. Divorce, betrayal, abuse, deceit, racism, unreliability, neglect, and criticism are common experiences for many children. Even in functional families, a child may experience pain that is associated with low income, the death of loved one, or the chronic illness or disability of a family member, "all of which may predispose children" (Coleman, 1998, p. 86) to reexperience the hurt in adult relationships.

Unless the pain is addressed, these volatile behaviors have the potential to become a vicious lifelong cycle. The challenge for counselors is to help clients break this cycle. I propose that forgiveness is one means to do so. The capacity for genuine forgiveness can be central to both spiritual development and psychological healing (Gartner, 1988).

Within the therapeutic community, forgiveness has been used as (a) an overt action for resolution in wounded relationships (Worthington & DiBlasio, 1990), (b) a necessary element for healing deep emotional wounds (Davenport, 1991; Moss, 1986; Ritzman, 1987), (c) an action that is associated with mercy or with giving a gift to the one who has inflicted deep hurt (Enright, Sarinopoulos, Al-Mabuk, & Freedman, 1992), and (d) an opportunity to advance personality development (Enright, 1994; Wolberg, 1973). Furthermore, deficits in forgiveness may contribute to increased levels of psychopathology (Mauger et al., 1992) and difficulties in maintaining or restoring mental health (Brink, 1985).

Counseling literature indicates that forgiveness is integral in a variety of counseling settings. For example, forgiveness has been a part of individual (Brink, 1985; Hebl & Enright, 1993; Veenstra, 1992), couple (Finkelstein, 1991; Imber-Black, 1988; Worthington, 1991), and family counseling (Boersma, 1989). Researchers speak of reconciliation and healing regarding painful experiences, such as severe trauma (Davenport, 1991), and debilitating emotions, such as bitterness, anger, and depression (Benvenuto, 1984; DiBlasio & Benda, 1993). Although relatively new as a body of research, much of the forgiveness literature focuses on the healing of peer relationships. In this article, I broaden this focus by addressing the healing of intergenerational family pain. The process of forgiveness begins with an understanding of the dynamics of pain.

Intergenerational Family Pain

The theoretical construct of contextual therapy (see Boszormenyi-Nagy & Krasner, 1986; Boszormenyi-Nagy & Spark, 1984; Boszormenyi-Nagy & Ulrich, 1981) seems helpful in conceptualizing how relational damage originates and affects family members. The foundation of contextual therapy is the healing of human relationships through commitment and trust (Boszormenyi-Nagy & Spark, 1984). According to this perspective, relationships exist in four dimensions that are intertwined in terms of their effect on the family (Boszormenyi-Nagy & Krasner, 1986). Three of these dimensions include objective facts or givens of individuals' lives, subjective integration of experiences and motivations, and family or systemic transactions that are the interaction patterns of relationships. …