Academic journal article Journal of Psychology and Theology

The Transgressor's Response to Denied Forgiveness

Academic journal article Journal of Psychology and Theology

The Transgressor's Response to Denied Forgiveness

Article excerpt

The study of forgiveness has flourished in recent years, but little is known about how transgressors respond when their request for forgiveness is denied. Two studies examined how transgressors react to a denied request for forgiveness in romantic relationships. Across both studies, when participants were denied forgiveness or delayed in receiving a forgiving response, they exhibited differences in the degree to which they held unforgiving motivations (e.g., anger and avoidance) and experienced positive emotions (e.g., empathy). The observed effects remained even after controlling for relationship commitment in Study 2. These results expand our knowledge of forgiveness processes by describing in more detail the internal experience and motivations of the transgressor toward the victim when forgiveness is denied, which has implications for relational repair (e.g., transgressor's motivations toward reengaging and repairing the relationship) after an offense has occurred in romantic relationships.


The scientific study of forgiveness has flourished in the past 20 years (for reviews, see Fehr, Gelfand, & Nag, 2010; Worthington, 2005). Most of this research has focused on the perspective of the victim of an offense (e.g., factors that promote granting forgiveness, benefits of forgiveness). Little attention has been given to the perspective of the transgressor. Thus, little is known about the experience of the transgressor after committing an offense.

One reason for this disparity is that forgiveness is most often conceptualized as an intrapersonal phenomenon (Enright & Fitzgibbons, 2000), suggesting that a proper understanding of forgiveness necessitates the focus on the individual doing the forgiving. Along these lines, forgiveness researchers have developed and tested models that describe the process for how a victim might move toward forgiveness. For example, McCullough and colleagues developed a model that placed empathy for the offender as an important predictor of forgiveness (McCullough, Worthington, & Rachal, 1997). Building on this model, Worthington and colleagues developed an intervention to promote forgiveness that involved (a) recalling the hurt in a more neutral manner, (b) experiencing empathy for the offender, (c) giving an altruistic gift of forgiveness, (d) committing to forgiveness, and (e) holding onto forgiveness (Harper et al., 2014; Lin et al., 2014; Worthington et al., 2000).

Although most models that aim to promote forgiveness have been focused on the individual doing the forgiving, researchers recognize that forgiveness usually occurs within the context of ongoing interpersonal relationships (McCullough et al., 1998). In this context, the transgressor and victim play an important role in the promotion of forgiveness within the victim as well as in the potential reconciliation between the victim and the offender. Both processes, forgiveness and potential reconciliation, will be dependent on each individual's emotional reactions, patterns of cognition, behavioral responses, and personal dispositions (Rusbult, Hannon, Stocker, & Finkel, 2005). Initial evidence suggests that the interpersonal process between the victim and transgressor affects resolution after betrayals (Hannon, Rusbult, Finkel, & Kamashiro, 2010). Thus, especially within ongoing relationships, a victim-centered approach only yields a partial picture of forgiveness processes and the larger interpersonal dynamic of relational repair. The aim of the present research is to expand our knowledge of the transgressor's experience and response when his or her request for forgiveness is denied by a romantic partner in an effort to understand how this might impact further conciliatory efforts to repair the relationship after an offense has taken place.

Seeking Forgiveness

In Scripture, Christ encourages us to both seek forgiveness when we have wronged someone (Matt. …

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