A Christian psychologist, Everett L. Worthington Jr., well known for his research on forgiveness discovered a model of forgiveness based on Christian principles and his own experience. He focuses on the altruistic gift of forgiveness, after one has acknowledged the seriousness of the offense and empathized with the offender. This may seem impossible! However, the gift of forgiveness touches every heart. An example is Dr. Worthington’s personal experience of coping with the murder of his mother. He had to experience the difficulty of seeking justice, learning to see the darker side of himself, empathizing with the murderer, and learning to let go. He did what most of us would consider impossible – he extended forgiveness even when justice was not served. His story is told in a documentary called The Big Question. The five steps of forgiveness that Worthington proposes are: (1) Recall the hurt, (2) Empathize with the offender, (3) give the Altruistic gift of forgiveness, (4) Commit to forgive, and (5) Hold on to the commitment to forgive even when in times of doubt.
Now that we have seen how forgiveness can impact someone personally, it is important to understand the benefits of forgiveness in a relationship. Every relationship has conflict and nobody is perfect (although though it is tempting to believe we are perfect at times!). Therefore, there is a good probability that people who know each other intimately and who spend an abundant amount of time together will hurt each other at some point. This hurt can be intentional or unintentional, but the fact is it fractures the health of a relationship. After this hurt has occurred, forgiveness allows a person to set the stage for reconciliation by reducing feelings of anger and resentment. Forgiveness has also been found to reduce marital conflict over time. Forgiveness does not mean that a person condones the hurtful behavior of their partner, but instead is a willingness to exit from a potential cycle of negative interaction.
There are two types or experiences of forgiveness that may occur at different times, depending on where a person is at in the forgiveness process. These are called decisional and emotional forgiveness. Decisional forgiveness is a willful decision to extend forgiveness to someone. It is not based on feeling, but is a decisional commitment. Emotional forgiveness on the other hand is much more of a process and may take time. It involves the replacement of negative feelings with positive feelings such as empathy, sympathy, compassion, and love. It is likely that decisional forgiveness will precede emotional forgiveness, due to its focus on commitment and not on feeling. However, it is a good place to start in the forgiveness process. The REACH model is a great tool that can aid in the development of both types of forgiveness.