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'Communicating Forgiveness' examines process of forgiving

February 25, 2008
“Forgiveness does not change the past, but it does enlarge the future.”
-- Paul Boese, Dutch Physician Botanist, 1668-1738

Not long ago, the shootings that took place in a small one-room Amish schoolhouse in Pennsylvania dominated the headlines. It was an all too familiar scenario that occurred in a highly unusual setting. What was most unusual about the incident, however, was the reaction of the Amish community: forgiveness. People around the world have been both inspired and puzzled by the Amish community and their expressed forgiveness toward the killer.

How are people and societies able to recover from these types of events? Is it possible to forgive such heinous crimes? Is it even a good idea?

To learn more about human forgiveness, Arizona State University professors Vincent Waldron and Douglas Kelley dedicated the past several years to researching the process of relational forgiveness. Considered an essential component in the process of relationship reconciliation, little research exists relating to how forgiveness is actually communicated.

In their book, “Communicating Forgiveness,” communication experts Waldron and Kelley examine the process of forgiveness, pulling from variety of related studies -- psychology, counseling, family studies, conflict management, religious studies and organizational behavior. The book includes data from three separate studies and draws upon real-life examples that examine the forgiveness process of family members, friends, lovers, and workplace relationships.

“Most people, at some time, make a decision to forgive,” says Kelley, associate professor in the department of Communication Studies in the College of Human Services. “Sometimes this is after emotions have begun to settle down and become less negative, and other times it is right after the transgression and, then, emotions settle and move from negative to more positive.”

For more than a decade, Waldron and Kelley researched and gathered data, which included interviewing dozens of couples, including one couple married for 80 years – the world’s longest marriage as recorded in the “Guinness World Records.” The couples were asked to identify key areas of conflict, and then discuss how they managed these relational difficulties, giving specific reference to forgiveness.

According to the research team, forgiveness is a positive, hopeful alternative to estrangement, bitterness and retribution. Waldron and Kelley define it as a communication process that allows people to confront the transgression, manage emotions, forgo claims of revenge, and potentially repair the relationship.

Not surprisingly, they found that nearly everyone has experienced some sort of conflict in their relationship, personal or professional. What was surprising, however, was how long the forgiveness process can take.

“We were surprised to learn that forgiveness can actually be a very long progress,” says Waldron, a Communications Studies professor in the College of Human Services. “Some couples we interviewed were still working on it 10 to 20 years after the incident. Some will be doing so for the rest of their lives.”

According to Kelley, some couples viewed forgiveness as a daily event and were able to let go of their daily disappointments. Others continued to experience the same conflicts they encountered early in their relationships; they just view them from a different vantage point.

“People often told us that they had some of the same problems today that they had when they first married. Only now their perspectives have changed, and they realize their problems aren’t as important as they had thought when they were 22 years old.”

Kelley’s research focuses on marriage and family processes and includes a look at the role religion and spirituality play in the development of healthy relationships. Waldron has conducted numerous studies that examine long term personal and professional relationships, many of which are discussed in “Communicating Forgiveness”

The two ASU professors have collaborated on a new book, “Marriage is For-Giving,” a popular audience book scheduled to be distributed later this year. For additional information about “Communicating Forgiveness” or “Marriage is For-Giving,” contact professors Waldron and Kelley at 602-543-6600.