Forgiveness & Apology


In my previous post on forgiveness, we explored the different ways to conceptualize and define forgiveness. Today we will be discussing apologies and how they influence the forgiveness process. I will use direct quotes from participants in my dissertation study to help illustrate my points.

There are a number of factors influencing whether or not a person is able to forgive. Some factors are related to the characteristics of the offense itself. One of the characteristics of an offense is whether or not an apology has been given for it. Not surprisingly, when an apology is given, the likelihood of forgiveness increases. We are more likely to forgive people with whom we are in a close relationship and we are more likely to offer an apology in closer relationships as well. There is also evidence to showing that apologies mediate the influence relationship closeness has on forgiveness. In other words, it is through apologies that close relationships have their impact on forgiveness. This suggests that if it weren’t for apologies, we may be equally as likely to forgive a stranger as we are our own family members.

Not surprisingly, if and how someone apologizes is important to most people. There are instances in which there is no apology and this negatively impacts the wronged person’s reactions to the event. When asked if her wrongdoer had ever apologized, one participant replied, “No, not once, ever. And that’s something that I have to forgive her for even though she never said ‘I’m sorry’ or ‘how do you feel about that.’” For this person, the absence of an apology is one more thing for which she must forgive her wrongdoer. Another participant described becoming more frustrated when she realized her wrongdoers were not going to apologize or admit any fault.

There are also times when a wrongdoer apologizes and this is helpful for the person who was wronged. Receiving an apology can be described as if “a weight was lifted off me.” It can also cause the wronged person to change their view of the wrongdoer: “it takes a lot for someone to apologize and really mean it.” There may also be times when an apology is not helpful. One participant described her wrongdoer giving a “half-ass apology.” Even though he did apologize, she perceived his approach to be very off-putting. For the participant, her wrongdoer’s apology showed his lack of remorse for what he did.

For some, an apology is helpful, while for others the way it is offered can be off-putting. Also, there were two participants in my dissertation study who indicated that receiving an apology was not important to them in their situation. One participant said that she did not “need apologies from people.”

The presence or absence of an apology can influence the forgiveness process in different ways. Typically, it seems that an apology from the wrongdoer helps the person move closer to letting go and moving on. In contrast, a lack of an apology typically seems to make it more difficult for the person to move towards letting go and moving on. However, there are some exceptions to these trends that are worth noting. First, if the delivery of the apology is off-putting, it may do more harm than good. It also seems there are some people who do not think an apologies are important. What are your thoughts on apologies? How do they influence your own forgiveness process?

References and Resources:

Enright, R., & Fitzgibbons, R. (2000) Helping clients forgive: An empirical guide for resolving anger and restoring hope. Washington, DC US: American Psychological Association.

E. McCullough, K. I. Pargament & C. E. Thoresen (Eds.; 2000), Forgiveness: Theory, Research, and Practice. New York: Guilford Press.

L. Worthington, Jr. (Ed.; 2005), Handbook of forgiveness (pp. 557–573). New York: Routledge.

Special thanks to my dissertation committee:

Dr. Amy Peterman, Dr. Charlie Reeve, Dr. Lawrence Calhoun, Dr. Richard Tedeschi, and Dr. Edward Weirzalis

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