Relationship Help - What Helps and Hinders Forgiveness?

Updated: Apr 14

by Dawn L. Billings, founder of RelationshipHelp.com

Recent research has found that empathy, attributions and appraisal, and rumination all play significant roles in one's ability to forgive.


Empathy for the Transgressor

Empathy has been defined as an intellectual identification with another’s life, whether it be an emotional state, or a set of circumstances. Empathy allows someone to feel compassion, tenderness and sympathy for another. In several studies (McCullough et al., 1997, 1998; Worthington et al., 2000), people’s ability to forgive was highly correlated with the empathy the person felt for their transgressor.

When transgressors apologize, they express degrees of fallibility and vulnerability, which might cause their victims to feel empathetic, which helps them forgive. Indeed, empathy for the transgressor is the only psychological variable that has, to date, been shown to facilitate forgiveness when induced experimentally (McCullough, et al., 1997, Worthington et al., 2000).

Generous Attributions and Appraisals

Compared with people who have not forgiven those who have transgressed against them, people who have forgiven their transgressors believe that their transgressors are more likable (Bradfield & Aquino, 1999), and they feel that the transgressors explanation or excuse is more adequate and believable (Shapiro, 1991). This is also related to the victim’s appraisal of the severity of the transgression (Shapiro, 1991).

Rumination About the Transgression

A third factor associated with someone’s ability to forgive is the extent to which the victim ruminates about the transgression. Rumination, or the tendency to experience intrusive thoughts, feelings, and images about past events, appears to hinder forgiveness. The more people brood about a incident or action that hurt them, the higher the levels of revenge, and avoidance motivation (McCullough et al., 1998, 2001).

Dawn L. Billings is the architect of the Primary Colors Relationship Personality Tests and Insight Tools. Dawn is the executive director of the luxury Relationship Help Resort in Arizona, and author of the Relationship Help at Home comprehensive ONLINE program that you can enjoy in the comfort of your own home. Dawn is creator of OverJOYed Life, a powerful, positive work culture initiative.


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