Forgiveness: Its meaning and the family process

Honor Rhodesbnw

Honor Rhodes, OBE, CQSW

For many people their first encounters with the idea of forgiveness come from religious observances. For devout Christians there is a double injunction contained in the Lord’s Prayer, ‘Forgive us our trespasses and those who trespass against us.’ There is a thought missing here.

The supplicant asks first that they themselves be forgiven and secondly that the deity absolves from sin anyone who has aggrieved them. On close reading we can see that the ability to forgive, personally, the transgressor, is not asked for. Perhaps it is assumed that any person of faith has already done so or perhaps it is an acknowledgment of just how hard it can be to find forgiveness in our hearts.

There is a clear social function to acts of forgiveness, apart from any moral construct, in that it can act as punctuation. Instead of retaliation for a wrong some people seem to have the capacity to put that hurt to one side and offer an asymmetrical and often unexpected response. Perhaps they do this because they can imagine the mind of the wrongdoer and can find some understanding. Despite being hurt they can see that a genuine mistake was made, for example. Some people appear to forgive because it is required of them, by their religion or their family, by coercion or inducement. This is a state of pseudo-forgiveness and it can be deeply problematic for those of us who encounter it in work with family systems.

In our training for work with families, whether we are social workers, teachers, health visitors, housing or police officers it is probably true to say that we have not be invited to think about family troubles and distresses using a forgiveness lens. We will have read and been taught something about communication patterns, parenting and relationships and what research tells us about the family life cycle and its challenges. Unless we are thinking about it specifically we may not recognise the troubles that stem from the need to negotiate forgiveness for what they really are. We might miss the chance to have a thought as to how we might work specifically with someone who is withholding such a resolution from another.

As a social worker in London’s East End I worked with many families where issues of guilt and a desire for absolution were at the heart of the troubles a family faced; rarely did I or they understand it as such. It is only now, working at the Tavistock Relationships and after much reading and thinking, that I wonder if practice could be improved if we were able to talk about forgiveness as a part of our enquiry work with families. We have known for a very long time that families’ secrets and lies can distort communications and emotional responses as Pincus and Dare (1980) described. In helping families describe themselves to us, as they draw a family tree that seems a puzzle, we might take a moment to wonder with them whether the emotional ties include unforgiveable and perhaps unspeakable things. This is particularly useful in those families whose genograms contain sudden disappearances and severed connections. We will all have met some families who can’t mention names of relatives and where they have no intimate knowledge of new arrivals or deaths in a relatively close branch of their wider family tree.    

There is a question about whether thinking about forgiveness is useful. Some people consider that forgiveness is a semi-judicial construct, not an unmediated emotional response and therefore a matter of personal morality rather than an area of possible change and influence.

There is interesting research on the use of communications theory and its relationship to forgiveness, including restriction of choice and a sense of obligation (Carr, K. and Wang, T. 2012). Here the notions of power are explored; Carr and Wang suggest that we find it easier to forgive those more powerful than ourselves, as a sort of ‘tribute’ gift. On the other hand we more readily withhold forgiveness from those family members, work colleagues or friends and acquaintances that are felt by us to be less powerful than ourselves. Here the denial works in the non-forgiver’s favour to prompt further displays of contrition, further offerings of goods we value or an increase in indebtedness ‘cashable’ later when the need arises. Whilst this sounds mercenary or sadistic it reflects the truly human desire to render our social, emotional and material environment more favourable to our personal experience.

The entrancing Channel 4 documentary programmes in the series, ‘The Secret Life of Four Year Olds’ and the companion episodes on five and six year olds are illuminating generally; but particularly fascinating when viewed with an eye to wrongs and slights, forgiveness and social capital. Not only fascinating but painful to watch as we see the casual and intended hurts that register as pain on children’s faces, with fierce verbal or physical retaliations from some or angry tears and protests to powerful adults. What we see too is the adult’s, or supervening authority’s, intervention that is usually one of requiring the ‘wrong doer’ to apologise and for the ‘victim’ to accept that apology, with the usual injunctions to now play together ‘nicely’. This appears an even handed response, it certainly requires the least emotional engagement from the person appealed to as judge.  There is often a problem here, visible to us as viewers, who have seen calibrated intention to hurt, perhaps as a retaliation for an earlier injury that might have been worse but was not visible to the arbiter. We might also see the equivalent of the ‘dive’ in football, a child showing distress in order to attract adult attention and punishment for another. The rough and ready reckoner used by most adults of ‘six of one and half a dozen of the other’ works by distributing activity to both parties, often to neither’s satisfaction. A wrong doer who had an explanation for his or her actions goes unheard and the victim may well receive less than they consider their due in the satisfaction of watching the other’s punishment.

This also takes us into the interesting and problematic territory of the requirement to apologise. It can seem the most natural and sensible thing in the world to suggest that a child apologises for an apparently hurtful action and the other accepts this apology without further exploration or negotiation. This may seem sensible but for many children, and the adults we grow into, the requirement from a higher agency to offer apologies and in return to offer forgiveness can be painful and, in some cases, impossible. We have all received a cursory, “sorry”, in our lives, we know that this is no authentic apology; we may offer an equally inauthentic, “that’s fine, don’t worry”, back. Some part of this is merely pathic, social speech occurring when we are bumped in a crowd but we can find ourselves apologising or being expected to forgive a hurt that is more serious and preoccupying than an accidental push in a queue.

As we identified earlier, ritualising the seeking and granting of forgiveness is a valuable social act, it allow us to leave hurts behind and accept that the past that surrounds them is closed and needs no further negotiation. This works poorly in practice where the hurts are significant and aggravated, perhaps repeated over time, deliberately and sadistically wounding or attacking something we hold very dear. In these cases forgiveness, to be truthfully, as opposed to inauthentically, offered requires some authentic contrition on the part of the wrong doer.

These thoughts about real and false acts take us to the heart of the problem in that it is human nature to view forgiveness as binary, one either forgives or one does not, one seeks forgiveness or one does not. The idea that our capacity to relent and forgive fluctuates, that we can wish we had not expressed our forgiveness so unequivocally, that we ‘gave it away too easily’ are unspoken but deeply felt experiences, they may relate to the enforcement of the requirement to say “sorry” in childhood, or the power exerted over us by the wrong doer.

In thinking about our work with families this is the emotional terrain in which domestic abuse and violence exists; where a penitent abuser is forgiven only to be violent or controlling again. Perhaps the seeking of forgiveness is real, if temporary, and perhaps the granting of absolution is the same; there is something very hopeful for both parties in the resetting of the emotional clock, the wiping of the slate that records the wrongs. The temporary nature of this fragile peace is clear, and without intervention the pattern of violence and the seeking of forgiveness continues.

Many of the families we have worked with have members who have either struggled to forgive or to be forgiven, sometimes the wrongs are historic and the wrong doer may be old, ill or dead, this in itself does not prevent a sense of lasting sense of injustice for some. The parent who still finds themselves furious with their own mother or father, for being not enough loved, for being abused, for not being a favourite. For some families the wrong and the pain are very fresh, perhaps there had been infidelity, a secret gambling or other addiction; the act may be of smaller magnitude but still a strain to be negotiated, the damage to household goods or the child who loses an expensive coat. The question in our minds is how we might help these particular people, in this particular family best. For that work we need to have a model in our minds of how we all, as humans, develop the capacity to forgive, both as a general psychological process and what the specific act of forgiving in a particular family might be confounded and supported by.

There has been some considerable research on forgiveness, but only a few researchers have looked at the psychological processes required to move from a state of vengeful hurt to one of more positive thoughts and feelings. In this last state it is plainly more possible to accept an apology if one is offered and is experienced as sufficiently authentic or sincere (Fincham, F. Paleari, G and Regalia, C. 2002).

Only a few professionals seek out a chances to think with families about this, largely because it is an area in which we have plenty of highly personal experience and very little by way of formalised intervention tools. But we can be faced with the need to equip ourselves better when we find our planned family work obstructed by a singular event that offends or requires forgiveness. Equally our work may bring to the surface a long standing resentment of such power that we need to ask where it came from, what it means to all members of the family, why it has been sustained and why it has come to the foreground now. 

For some families and individuals true authentic forgiveness is a bridge too far, an unachievable state, we are left to consider with them what can be achieved in its absence. A good enough position in one family I met was the acknowledgement that a wrong had been done to them; they had been badly swindled by a trusted friend. They would never be reconciled to the betrayal and were never going to be compensated but they wanted to be able to talk about the episode without the level of rage and turmoil that has surrounded it and that had affected the children badly. With some help and practice the parents found a script that they could use to explain to themselves and others what has happened and in doing so proportioned the pain it caused them.

The painful nature of betrayals and insults is seemingly obvious, but, as with physical pain our experiences of slight or light insults and hurts is a subjective one. For some people angry words can be damaging and deeply problematic, for others these would ignored, returned in kind or not seen as any form of behaviour that could require a forgiveness if the other person asked for it.

This subjective nature makes the work by Fincham, Paleari and Regalia on a Forgiveness Scale interesting and useful. The scale is built from a research review on the movement to forgiveness, with a five stage process being conceived and measured by the instrument.

Whether one might use the tool or not the five R’s acronym can help us to frame questions as to where someone identifies themselves to be on a forgiveness pathway –or not as the case may be. The steps identified are realisation, recognition, reparation, restitution and resolution; the process through hurt to seeking resolution seems both logical and consistent with our sense of natural justice.

Paleari, F. G, Regalia, C., & Fincham, F.D. (2009) have gone on to create a specific measure for marital forgiveness, again assessing the amount of subjective hurt but this time building on three specific lines of  research enquiry that form subscales measuring benevolence (capacity to forgive), avoidance (shunning) and retaliation (inducing regret in the wrong doer). This breach of trust is one of the most common reasons for relationship breakdown, whether partners are married or not. It is very pre-occupying for the adults but children are also deeply affected by the emotional turmoil that surrounds it and we need to have a practice vocabulary that enables us as workers to engage with pain of this magnitude, whether it arises from infidelity or some other action.         

As workers with such families we need to ask the ‘actors’ within the family to look at the possible path from hurt to forgiveness and if they can believe it is worth their time and emotional investment. What we need to resist doing is becoming the equivalent of the busy teacher who might ask both sides to make up through sorries and forgiveness. We need also to hold in mind the complexity of the task, the emotional snakes and ladders that confront families when they are working on something very hard and painful. 

The way we, as workers, ask questions and offer our thoughts about what is going on matters, in that we have some capacity for helping make complexity a little simpler or pain a little less sharp. It is the ‘relational’ aspect of our work that helps most effectively here, the bringing in of the other’s standpoint and helping all to try and imagine what was going on in another’s mind that allows for some of the relief that comes with understanding.    

Throughout our lives we exchange apologies and forgiveness, sometimes in unthinking and social defined ways, sometimes in great anguish and pain. It is always worth reflecting what we ourselves have learnt and continue to learn from the experience of needing forgiveness and giving it ourselves. Around us are images of forgiveness, religious iconography and occasional news stories of astonishing people who forgive those who have killed their children. These families are those we carry round as a yardstick and measure ourselves against, knowing or worrying that if we stood in their shoes we would not be forgiving but baying for blood or capable of carrying out mad and bloody vendettas.

We see far fewer images of the unforgiven, they are represented by either the medieval dead being tormented in hell’s fires or news clips and documentaries on war criminals or modern street gangs notorious for their unrelenting violence and utter contempt for the laws of nation or society. These are outcasts who have placed themselves far from any relationship with forgiveness; they stand beyond the Pale, beyond the lands of civilisation and humanity, proud of their isolation. It is hard to imagine their minds and most are so damaged by their experiences that any conversation on atonement, contrition and forgiveness would be incomprehensible. Perhaps it is not for them that forgiveness could be sought and found.

Some of the greatest writers of the twentieth century were pre-occupied by forgiveness, unsurprising after two world wars of hideous brutality. For the families we try to help these great conversations are less of a pre-occupation usually. In the work we need to help those who feel that they have no choice but to endure a state of anger, a sense of injustice and a persistent desire for reparation. This state of heightened arousal can affect ordinary everyday activities, sleep and digestion. For some hurt and angry people our most important job of work is to persuade them to release the rope that ties them to the injury. They may never experience the contrition of the person who hurt them but they may, using a ritual perhaps, use forgiveness to improve the quality of their life. For some it will be plain that they cannot forgive, particularly those who need some act of reparation, for these family members we can help by working to create a different story where they are able to exercise more power and agency, where they describe themselves as less broken and more hopeful, where a degree of understanding and acceptance stands in for forgiveness. This, for some people, is good enough, like parenting too.     


Tavistock Relationships offers parenting services.


Carr, K. and Wang, T. (2012) ‘Negotiating forgiveness in nonvoluntary family relationships.’ Communication Studies Theses, Dissertations, and Student Research. Paper 18 DigitalCommons @UniversityofNebraska-Lincoln

Fincham,F. Paleari, G and Regalia, C. (2002) ‘Forgiveness in marriage: the role of relationship quality, attributions and empathy.’ Personal Relationships 9, 27-37

Gilbert, P. (2009) The Compassionate Mind. London: Constable & Robinson Ltd.

Maio, R. Thomas, T. Fincham, F. and Carnelley, K. (2008) ‘Unravelling the role of forgiveness in family relationships.’  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 94, 2, 307-319

Pincus, L. and Dare, C. (1980) ‘Secrets in the family.’ London: Faber and Faber

Thompson, L. Y., & Synder, C. R. (2003). Measuring forgiveness. In Shane J. Lopez & C. R. Snyder (Eds.), Positive psychological assessment: A handbook of models and measures (pp. 301-312). Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association.

Paleari, F. G, Regalia, C., & Fincham, F.D. (2009). Measuring offence-specific forgiveness in marriage: The Marital Offence-specific Forgiveness Scale (MOFS). Psychological assessment, 21, 194-209