Academic journal article Family Relations

Forgiveness in Marriage: Current Status and Future Directions

Academic journal article Family Relations

Forgiveness in Marriage: Current Status and Future Directions

Article excerpt


Interest in forgiveness has exploded in recent years as researchers and clinicians have begun to recognize its value for maintaining emotional well-being, physical health, and healthy intimate relationships. Forgiveness appears to be especially important in the marital relationship. This article offers an overview of forgiveness in marriage including a review of major research and clinical efforts in this area. A number of recommendations are offered for practitioners and future research directions are outlined. Marital forgiveness is seen as an exciting area for future exploration and one that is ripe with possibility.

Key Words: couple therapy, forgiveness, intimate relationships, marriage.

A happy marriage is the union of two good forgivers.-Robert Quillen

Although practitioners have long understood the importance of forgiveness in relationships, only in recent years has it become a topic of inquiry in the empirical and clinical literatures. Only five studies on forgiveness appeared prior to 1985, a number that has since increased by over 4,000% (Fincham, Jackson, & Beach, 2005). The slow infusion of forgiveness in counseling (DiBlasio & Proctor, 1993) may reflect an aversion to the religious origins of the construct (e.g., Rye et al., 2000) or the fact that many of the early models of forgiveness had limited utility for clinicians (McCullough & Worthington, 1994). However, the importance of forgiveness for mental and physical health has now become widely recognized (e.g., Harris & Thoresen, 2005; Toussaint, Williams, Musick, & Everson, 2001). Forgiveness is also an important element in romantic relationships; the capacity to seek and grant forgiveness is seen as one of the most significant factors contributing to marital longevity and marital satisfaction (Fenell, 1993). Further, marital therapists note that forgiveness is a critical part of the healing process for major relationship transgressions such as infidelity (Gordon, Baucom, & Snyder, 2005) as well as dealing with everyday relationship hurts (Fincham, Beach, & Davila, 2004). This article describes the nature of forgiveness and its importance in marriage and briefly summarizes some of the major research and interventions in this area. Finally, it explores the implications of this work for practitioners and highlights future directions for the field.

What Is Forgiveness?

Scholarly definitions of forgiveness abound, but we choose to start with an exploration of lay conceptions of forgiveness as these conceptions have important implications for couple behavior and clinical work with couples. Often clinicians will find that clients are averse to the idea of forgiveness before any attempts to facilitate forgiveness are even underway. This is not surprising as many individuals believe that forgiveness requires one to forget about a transgression and reconcile with the offender (Kearns & Fincham, 2004). It is also widely believed that one must accept, condone, or excuse an offense in order to forgive. Finally, some individuals associate forgiveness with feelings of weakness or being a pushover and fear that forgiving an offender permits that person to hurt them again (Kearns & Fincham). Given these negative beliefs about forgiveness, it is easy to understand why clients might be hesitant to work toward forgiveness and why therapists might refrain from encouraging the process. Particularly in the case of egregious transgressions such as physical violence or infidelity, advocating acceptance and reconciliation can be potentially dangerous. Many clinicians and clients may also be uneasy with the idea of forgiveness because of a belief that it is a religious act, or must be approached from a religious perspective, a viewpoint shared by those scholars who view forgiveness as a "method of coping, often religious in nature" (Pargament, 1997, p. 303).

Many elements of lay conceptions of forgiveness fall in direct opposition to the way researchers have defined the construct. …

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