Communicating Forgiveness


Vincent R. Waldron & Douglas L. Kelley

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  • Dedication

    To Kathleen for your patience, love, encouragement, and occasional forgiveness; to Emily and Laura for the love, wit, and joy you bring to our lives; to George and Eileen, who have always been there for me.


    To my wife, Ann, for her unfailing belief in me, and constant patience with me; to Jonathan and Daniel who play and talk and laugh with me, and have given me their forgiveness more than once; to Shirley, who as a single mom, has always encouraged me to pursue my dreams.



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    To be honest, we needed to write this book, whether or not anyone published our ideas about the potentially powerful role that forgiveness plays in social life. As we write these pages, the news outlets broadcast a steady stream of jarring stories about the failings of human relationships: religious strife, workplace violence, school shootings, high divorce rates, stressed-out families, shrinking circles of social support. We know from our students and our interviews with couples, friends, and coworkers that nearly all of us at times suffer profound hurt and feel deep moral disappointment in our close relationships. Against this backdrop, we find forgiveness to be a vitally important and hopeful relational alternative to bitterness, vengeance, and disillusion. Studied as a communication process, forgiveness is a means by which distressed partners can negotiate improvements in relational justice, create a renewed sense of optimism and well-being, and potentially recover lost intimacy and trust.

    Research on forgiveness has been accumulating for more than a decade, but communication scholars, practitioners, and students have yet to fully reap its benefits or shape its direction. This is puzzling, given that the discipline has been teaching and researching forgiveness-related processes for many years, including conflict management, repair and maintenance of romantic relationships and friendships, dysfunctional patterns of family communication, account-making, and problematic work relationships. Communicating Forgiveness remedies this situation in several ways. For scholars and advanced students, we provide a detailed synthesis of historical, theological, and contemporary forgiveness scholarship (Chapter 1). We demonstrate how communication theories can yield questions and answers that usefully reframe and supplement existing psychological approaches (Chapter 3). We also propose a new Negotiated Morality Theory (NMT), which we hope will fuel future investigations. For students, we developed a descriptive model of the forgiveness process, depicting it as a transgression-driven, relational, and morally negotiated process, embedded within a cultural and temporal context (Chapter 2). Drawing on our interviews with long-term couples (married 30–80 years) and other research, we provide a framework for effective application—the Communication Tasks of Forgiveness model. We also provide a personal account of our experiences as forgiveness researchers, with special emphasis on the methodological tradeoffs and personal transformations that accompany this kind of research (Chapter 6). Finally, for researchers and students from all disciplines, this volume offers rich qualitative data and detailed analysis of the specific communication practices that partners use to enact forgiveness. This is particularly in evidence in Chapter 4, which focuses heavily on interpersonal communication behaviors.

    This book is intended to have broad applicability as a teaching tool for instructors from all of the disciplines that concern themselves with personal and work relationships. Colleagues intend to assign it in upper-division undergraduate courses in subjects such as interpersonal communication, personal and family relationships, conflict management, relational justice, psychology of human relationships, and work relationships. The chapters on communication theory will be a useful supplement in courses on communication theory.Chapter 6 was explicitly designed to provide students in research methods classes (at all levels) with a personal and rich account of the decisions (and emotions) that inform studies of personal relationships. The book may be particularly useful in graduate courses offered in such disciplines as communication studies, psychology, family studies, counseling, justice studies, and mediation.

    Communicating Forgiveness is a unique book in several ways. First, it contributes to a rich intellectual discussion being conducted by scholars from multiple discipline and divergent research paradigms. For example, both Chapter 1, Conceptual Foundations, and Chapter 2, Elements of the Forgiveness Process, cast forgiveness as a phenomenon that is individual and relational, simultaneously psychological and interactional. Our desire is to address the interplay between communication practices, psychological states, religious and social context, and relational morality.

    Regarding this last point, the development of a Negotiated Morality Theory of Forgiveness offers an alternative to familiar theories. In Chapter 3, we offer an extended exploration of dialectical, uncertainty management, and identity management frameworks for forgiveness research. However, we finish the chapter by addressing what many social scientists have shied away from in theory and research: the role and function of values in interpersonal processes. It is clear from our research that relational morality plays a key role in how people conceptualize forgiveness and, consequently, shapes their sense of its communicative possibilities and limitations. An advantage of this book is its sharing of the moral and justice concerns expressed in quotes and narratives reported by friends, coworkers, romantic partners, parents, sons, and daughters. Readers will see how communication is used to negotiate questions of relational justice and human dignity in the wake of serious transgressions, such as extramarital affairs and verbal abuse. NMT draws attention to the means by which moral standards are expressed, questioned, reinforced, and reevaluated as partners decide whether they should forgive and (possibly) reconcile.

    A final theme that will be appreciated by most readers is our effort throughout the book, but in the last two chapters in particular, to make our research and theorizing useful. Chapter 5, Practicing Forgiveness, and Chapter 6, Studying Forgiveness, are designed to help both students and researchers think through the practical ramifications of this field of study. Our desire is that readers will be better informed about the choices they must make, as relational partners and as researchers of personal relationships.

    Regarding choices. Although neither of us is typically inclined to read the end of a good book first, that is exactly what some readers may choose to do. Because it provides detailed information about us, our research participants, and how we conducted our research, Chapter 6 will be particularly useful for those interested in the research process. Some reviewers found this chapter an unusual and helpful addition to a book of this kind. They appreciated its personal account of the research process, communicated through vignettes we call On the Drive Home. We try to be honest in addressing the tradeoffs associated with various data collection methods and the effects this research had on us as people and friends.

    We can say with great enthusiasm that researching, analyzing, and “talking through” the complex and hopeful process of forgiveness has been a highlight of our academic careers (and our own relationship). The personal stories shared so generously by numerous participants transformed our thinking about personal relationships; we hope it has a similar effect on at least some readers. The many couples we interviewed, the hours of conversations we have had over coffee and on the drive home, changed our lives forever. We hope that they will change yours as well.


    The authors wish to thank the many graduate and undergraduate students who have shared our interest in the topic of forgiveness.

    In numerous class discussions, they helped us articulate the ideas that appear in this book. Some wrote papers on the topic and analyzed our data for new meanings. There are simply too many to name, but we are grateful nonetheless. Several students provided invaluable, tangible assistance. These include Jessica Harvey, Melissa Powers, and Kathy Langford.

    We are greatly indebted to the many people who shared their forgiveness narratives with us, including the long-term couples who welcomed us into their homes and shared their intimate and inspiring stories.

    We thank the Templeton Foundation for funding during the early phases of this work. Their support made it possible for us to interview the long-term couples who have been so helpful to our thinking about forgiveness.

    Ann Kelley provided valuable research assistance and editing suggestions through out this project.

    Vince Waldron also benefited from the generous support of the Bernard Osher Foundation, which partially funds his work with lifelong learning programs. Discussions with seasoned learners enrolled in these programs were very helpful as we interpreted our interview data. They helped us understand how forgiveness sometimes unfolds over years and even decades.

    Todd Armstrong at SAGE has been a pleasure to work with. We thank him for his guidance and support from the beginning to the end of the writing process.

    Finally, Arizona State University provided small but essential grants and other support at various times. We are thankful to the administrators who supported this work, including Lesley Di Mare, Mark Searle, and John Hepburn.

    SAGE Publications gratefully acknowledges the following reviewers: Jennifer L. Bevan, University of Nevada, Las Vegas; Kathleen M. Galvin, Northwestern University; Kristina Coop Gordon, The University of Tennessee, Knoxville; Janie M. Harden Fritz, Duquesne University; Jon A. Hess, University of Missouri-Columbia; Susanne M. Jones, University of Minnesota, Twin Cities; and Leanne K. Knobloch, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

  • Appendix A: Interview Questions/Instructions for Long-Term Married Couples Study

    Note: Start with the broadest questions in each section. Cover all sections, but not all questions need to be asked. Many answers will be provided without asking. Use conversational style. Encourage partners to talk to each other and to you. Remember to change tapes if needed.

    • Introduce yourself
    • Express appreciation
    • Review purposes of the study (including understanding the role of forgiveness)
    • Preview the process

      “For some of these questions we would like to talk with you as a couple. For some of them, we would also like to talk with you individually. We do this because some of these issues might still be sensitive or you might have different individual memories of the event.”

    • Explain tape-recording process; get permission to tape
    • Obtain permission to continue interview
      • state the couple number, date, time
      • explain informed consent and confidentiality
      • explain uses of the data (book)
      • explain how their words will be used and the interpretation-checking process
      • obtain permission to continue and to tape
      • turn on tape recorder!
    Background Questions

    “First, tell me a little bit about yourselves …”

    • How long have you lived here?
    • Where did you live before?
    • Are you retired or employed?
    • Do you have children?
    • What is your religious background?
    General Relationship Questions
    • Is this your first marriage?
    • How long have you been married?
    • What is your anniversary date?
    • How did you meet?
    • How has your marriage changed over the years?
    Forgiveness Event

    “Most couples know how to get along when times are easy. But all couples experience challenges that require understanding and forgiveness.”

    • How is forgiveness important to maintaining your marriage?
    • How important has forgiveness been in keeping your relationship going?
    • Can you describe two or three times when forgiveness was needed in your relationship?

    Note: Prompt couples to come up with some specific times, events, or themes.

    “Specific examples will be most useful to other couples.”

    Note: If multiple themes emerge, ask the couple to focus on the one that had the greatest impact on their relationship.

    Nature of the Event
    • What happened in this situation? Please describe the event that required forgiveness.
    • When did the event happen? How long had you been married?
    Individual Interviews

    Note: Completely separate the partners. Introduce this section, review confidentiality procedures, and emphasize that partners will not see these interview responses without explicit permission.

    Additional Description of the Event
    • Is there anything that you would like to add to the description of the event?

    Probes: Was this a short or long-term event? Explain.

    Had such an event occurred before? Has it occurred since?

    • What were your feelings at this time?

    Probes: How long did they last? Did they change during this time?

    Immediate Impact on the Relationship
    • At the time, what did you expect the impact of the event would be on the relationship?
    • How serious or severe was this event in terms of its immediate impact on your marriage?

    Probe: Did you experience other immediate effects or changes in your relationship?

    Motivations/Reasons for Forgiving

    Note: Pick question A or B as appropriate, then go to C

    • What made you ask for forgiveness in this situation? (Probe for motives)
    • What made you grant forgiveness in this situation? (Probe for motives)
    • Some couples would have chosen not to forgive in this situation. What made you choose to forgive?
    The Forgiveness Process

    Please describe what you actually said or did in the forgiveness process. Consider the beginning, middle, and end of the process.


    What was said or done?

    What was the “key” to successfully completing this part of the process?

    Possible Probes:

    How did you know that it was time to begin the process of forgiveness?

    How long did it take to begin?

    What or who helped you during this time?

    What was said or done to start this process (if anything)?

    Do you recall any critical events or conditions that made it possible to begin forgiving?

    Were there any false starts or difficulties that you recall?


    What was said or done during this time?

    What was the “key” to successfully completing this part of the process?

    Possible Probes:

    How long did the forgiveness process continue?

    Were there any important understandings or insights that were important as the process unfolded?

    What kinds of communication were important at this time?

    What behaviors or words kept the forgiveness process going?


    What was said or done during this time?

    What was the “key” to successfully completing this part of the process?

    Do you feel the forgiveness process was resolved/completed?

    How did you know the forgiveness process was complete?

    Did you do or say anything to indicate that the forgiveness process was complete?

    Probe: Have you completely forgiven? How long did it take (if you have)?

    What do you think the long term effects of this process were on your relationship?

    Probes: Returned “to normal”? Positive effects? Negative effects? Increased understanding? Lingering feelings?

    What would you say or do differently if you could “redo” the forgiveness process?

    What would you keep the same?

    • Do you feel you have reconciled over this event? (Explain the meaning of the term if necessary)

    Couple Is Rejoined for the Conclusion

    Concluding Questions

    What other advice would you give couples facing this kind of situation?

    Describe how your belief system and/or religious faith affect the practice of forgiveness in your marriage (if at all).

    What have you gained in _____ years of marriage that you would have missed if you had only been married 20 years?

    Note: End with thanks and affirmation. Provide counseling contacts. Explain next steps. Provide gift certificates.

    Appendix B: Instructions for Three Types of Forgiveness Narratives

    • Describe a time when you were forgiven by someone else. Please describe the situation in as much detail as possible. What elements stand out as most important in this interaction? For instance: Why did they forgive you? Was the forgiveness requested or offered spontaneously. How was the forgiveness expressed? (What, if anything, did you do or say?) What occurred within the relationship after you were forgiven?
    • Describe a time when you forgave someone else. Please describe the situation in as much detail as possible. What elements stand out as most important in this interaction? For instance: Why did you forgive them? Was the forgiveness requested or offered spontaneously. How was the forgiveness expressed? (What, if anything, did you do or say?) What occurred within the relationship after you forgave them?
    • Describe a time when you believed that you needed forgiveness from someone. Please describe the situation in as much detail as possible. What elements stand out as most important? For instance: Overall, what happened? How did you let the other person know you/needed/wanted forgiveness (or did you let them know of your desire)? How did the other person respond?

    SOURCE: From Kelley, D. (1998). The communication of forgiveness. Communication Studies, 49(3), 255–271. Reprinted with permission of Taylor & Francis.

    Appendix C: Abbreviated Survey Questions and Selected Instructions

    (details available from the authors)

    • Nature of the relationship

    The items below refer to the relationship (described previously) before the offense that required your forgiveness, immediately after the offense, and after you gave them forgiveness. Use the numbers below to indicate how much you agree with each statement. Use 0 if you think the question is not applicable to your situation.

    Sample items:

    • We had an intimate relationship before the offense.
    • We had an intimate relationship immediately after the offense.
    • We had an intimate relationship after I forgave them.
    • Need for forgiveness
      • Please describe the actions performed by you that created a need for forgiveness. What did you say or do? In other words, what did you need to be forgiven for?
    • Motives for seeking forgiveness
      • Please describe in your own words why you sought forgiveness.
    • Forgiveness-seeking strategies (Note: Same structure was used for forgiveness-granting.)
      • Before proceeding, please describe in your own words how you sought/granted forgiveness from the other person. What did you say or do?
      • Below are some things people might say or do when seeking/granting forgiveness. Think about the situation where you sought forgiveness. For each item, give two ratings. First, indicate the extent to which you used the described behavior by writing a number next to the item. Write a zero if you did not use the behavior. If you did use the behavior, pick a number from 1 to 7 (scale was provided) to indicate how extensively you used the behavior during this situation. If you used it extensively, pick a number toward the “7” end of the scale. If you used it only slightly, pick a number toward the “1” end of the scale. (Note: Effectiveness ratings were requested using similar instructions.)
    • Relational consequences
      • Did the other person forgive you? (Yes/No)
      • To what extent did you feel forgiven? (1–7 scale)
      • Are you still in the process of seeking forgiveness form this person? (Yes/No)
      • Indicate your agreement (1–7 scale) with these items.

    After the forgiveness process …

    I felt the situation was resolved

    Our relationship was strengthened

    Our relationship ended

    Our relationship was weakened

    Things went back to normal in our relationship

    • Please describe any changes in the roles played by you and the other person in the six months after you sought forgiveness. For example, from boyfriend to friend; from friend to enemy.
    • Please consider how your relationship changed as a result of the situation you have been describing. A “0” (scale was presented visually) means no change, –1 means a small amount negative change, +1 means a small amount of positive change, and so on. Circle the appropriate number for each item (selected items presented here).
    • Trust
    • Emotional closeness
    • Amount of time spent together
    • Sharing information about our day


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    About the Authors

    Vincent R. Waldron received his PhD in 1989 from Ohio State University. After several years at the University of Kentucky, he became a founding member of the new Communication Studies department at Arizona State University's west campus in Phoenix. He teaches courses in interpersonal and organizational communication, communication and aging, and research methods.

    Dr. Waldron researches the communication practices that shape personal and work relationships. His early work focused on such cognitive processes as conversational planning. Later studies focused on communication tactics used in “problematic” communication situations, such as discussing safe sex, persuading reluctant supervisors, expressing strong emotion, obtaining sensitive information, and requesting social support. With Douglas Kelley, Vince studies how forgiveness is negotiated in various relationship types, including long-term marriages. His work has appeared recently in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, Communication Yearbook, and the Journal of Applied Gerontology.

    Dr. Waldron takes pride in his teaching and leadership accomplishments. At ASU, he implemented a learning communities program for first-year students, co-founded a public-speaking laboratory, and serves as faculty director of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, which provides educational experiences for roughly 1,000 older learners. Vince is a past recipient of the Arizona Professor of the Year award from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. He serves on the editorial boards of several journals, including Human Communication Research and Communication Monographs.

    An avid backpacker, Vince lives in the Phoenix area with his wife Kathleen, their two teenaged daughters Emily and Laura, and their golden retrievers, Zella and Zoe.

    Douglas L. Kelley received his PhD in 1988 from the University of Arizona. He spent five years at Seattle Pacific University before settling in at the west campus of Arizona State University. Doug teaches relationship-based courses such as Family Communication, Conflict and Negotiation, Relational Communication, and Inner-City Families.

    Dr. Kelley studies interpersonal communication processes. Most of this research has focused on marital communication, including how couples negotiate privacy and relational expectations. His 1998 study on The Communication of Forgiveness launched a decade's worth of work with his colleague, Vince Waldron, focusing on various forgiveness processes.

    Dr. Kelley considers teaching a primary focus of his work at ASU. He has been nominated for various teaching awards and takes great pride in the creation of a service-learning course in which students work with children and youth in inner-city contexts. In addition, he puts in numerous hours each week as faculty advisor to the college Young Life club on campus. He has served on the editorial boards of various journals including, most currently, the Journal of Family Communication.

    Doug loves to spend time with his wife, Ann, and sons, Jonathan and Daniel. He enjoys kayaking and swimming, and running with his beagle/lab, Allen.

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