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Around Our Town...Family

Forgiveness: A Powerful Force in Family Relationships

11/01/2005 - The topic of forgiveness has traditionally been addressed in the fields of philosophy and religion. However, recently researchers in the social sciences are beginning to address how forgiveness is an important factor in the psychological well-being of individuals and the relational health of married couples and families. Wie-neng Lin and Robert D. Enright have conducted this type of research at the University of Wisconsin - Madison1. This research team defines forgiveness as "a willingness to abandon one's right to resentment, condemnation, and subtle revenge toward an offender who acts unjustly, while fostering the undeserved qualities of compassion, generosity, and even love toward him or her."

1Lin, Wie-neng & Enright, Robert D. (1999). Forgiveness and the Family: A Report on the Research at the University of Wisconsin Madison, Marriage & Family: A Christian Journal, Volume 2, Issue 2, 201-209.

Forgiveness (in this context) is not a legal pardon, condoning, excusing or forgetting. Neither is forgiveness synonymous with reconciliation. In other words, just because an individual forgives someone does not mean that the relationship will be restored to the way it was before the offense occurred. Restoring a relationship would depend on the nature of the offense, the repentance of the offender and the timing of the confession and repentance by the offender. As I looked more closely at the definition above, it occurred to me that it is with great difficulty that some of my clients are able to fit the first half of the definition the part about abandoning resentment, condemnation and revenge. The second half of the definition compassion, generosity, and love is nearly impossible to achieve through an act of the will. It is in this second part of the definition that all of us need, as the Alcoholics Anonymous program puts it, a "power greater than ourselves".

I try to prepare my clients to forgive those who have hurt, disappointed, betrayed and abused them. However, it is a goal to be set at the outset with the understanding that forgiveness takes time and that there is a very positive outcome for those who learn to forgive.

The research indicates that forgiveness is beneficial to couples, parents and children. Beyond the research, however, it has been my experience in therapy that there is a benefit to any individual in any situation to learn how to forgive not to put yourself in jeopardy again and again. Forgiveness that is genuine and sincere is offered with boundaries. For example, when dealing with a spouse who has been unfaithful, there needs to be accountability and precautions taken to prevent the individual from allowing infidelity in the future. When there is sincere remorse for this type of behavior, I have seen the offending spouse eager to answer questions, to be understanding when there is suspicion, and to get connected to an accountability group and counseling to find healing and to avoid relapse. When an individual is defensive, irritable, and resistant to getting help, it is obvious that he or she is not clearly repentant. In this case, the "offended spouse" should continue on the path of forgiveness but exercise caution in terms of reconciliation.

In dealing with other familial relationships, forgiveness is also an important factor. There are many times in working with "adult children" it has become clear that they have been "stuck" in unhealthy patterns for a long time because they have not forgiven their parents. This might be manifested in continuing to measure up to parents' expectations or blaming parents for their choices as adults. They sometimes make poor choices, medicate with a variety of addictive behaviors, struggle in relationships and experience mood disturbances. In a family where there are young children and adolescents, there are many opportunities to teach forgiveness. Sometimes a parent is in a position of realizing a mistake made in parenting: a harsh or critical word spoken, an assumption about a child that was wrong, a demand that was unreasonable, etc. In these cases, a parent can acknowledge the wrong and ask for forgiveness. Then there are the instances when a child makes a mistake and the parent can help the child see the need for forgiveness, offer that forgiveness and help the child by lovingly and constructively providing discipline and consequences.

In closing, it is amazing how asking for forgiveness and offering forgiveness can totally change the dynamic of relationships. If we want to improve our marriages and families, it would be wise to take a look at how well we repent (ask for forgiveness) and how well we forgive!

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The Healing Place,

Highland Park

Community Church

411 S. Walsh,

Casper, Wyoming 82601

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