To Err is Human, to Forgive Divine

A long history of research has shown the power of forgiving. It benefits the transgressor and the victim. One of the things that research has been showing recently is that forgiveness isn’t the same across all relationships and can have big impacts on the entire family.

An interesting paper by Gregory Maio, Geoff Thomas (Cardiff University), Frank Fincham (Florida State University), and Katherine Carnelley (University of Southampton) showed how powerful this effect can be. They looked at 114 families in the UK and had both parents and one teenage child report on how likely they were to forgive each other, their own personality and the relationship between all of the different possible dyads (child-mother, child-father, mother-father). Not surprisingly, the tendency to forgive was greater from parents, especially mothers, towards their children. This tendency to forgive was more than children towards their parents or the parents towards each other. Moreover, fathers were less likely to forgive and be forgiven than mothers (come on fathers, step it up!). Those relationships that had more forgiveness were related to less anxiety, depression, higher self-esteem, and agreeableness. They also had better relationships; more likely to apologize, less likely to repeat the offense, greater relationship quality and closer.

This makes sense, but all of those questionnaires were taken at the same time and that makes the interpretation of the results hazy. It could be that forgiveness leads to these good outcomes, that these outcomes lead to greater forgiveness, or that some third quality leads to both outcomes. For example, maybe families who are benevolent both forgive each other more and also are less likely to apologize, etc.

The authors managed to address these concerns by looking at how the families were doing a year later. And the results were pretty amazing. A year later the families who had greater levels of forgiveness had positive outcomes in their relationships AND as individuals. They had less family conflict, as well as more family cohesiveness and expressiveness. They were closer, showed more secure attachment and had better resolution to conflict. And the most amazing thing, the members of the family had better personalities. Those who were in families who forgave more often had fathers and children who were more emotionally stable and conscientious, mothers and children who were more agreeable, and parents who were more extroverted.

It is a little difficult to interpret exactly why this happened. It could be that families who are more likely to forgive are also more likely to develop better relationships. Or that forgiveness cuts off the tendency to seek revenge, which would have many negative effects on the family. Or it could be that forgiving someone creates more trust and intimacy inside the family which promotes both relationship quality, and also individual development. No matter what the reason the impact of forgiveness on relationships really is Divine.

For more information:
Maio, G. R., Thomas, G., Fincham, F. D., & Carnelley, K. B. (2008). Unraveling the role of forgiveness in family relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 94, 307-319.

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