Volume 10, Number 11 February 7, 2003

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Constructive role of forgiveness is studied

Martin Rempel

Martin Rempel

Photo by Trevor Pritchard

By Trevor Pritchard

If you're still holding a grudge against that professor who gave you an unfair mark years ago, or feeling guilty about the time you accidentally spilled coffee on your colleague's groundbreaking research paper, you might be interested in hearing what psychology PhD student Martin Rempel has to say.

Rempel's thesis, entitled "Forgiving Others and Self-Forgiveness in the Context of Interpersonal Conflict," looks at the processes that family members and friends undertake to deal with conflict and personal injury. His ultimate goal, Rempel explains, is to characterize the role that forgiveness plays in the achievement of what he terms "personal resolution" - the abandonment of feelings of resentment, guilt, and righteous anger towards the offending party.

"When employees find themselves in conflict with other employees, the conundrum is how to get them out of the rut that they've dug for themselves," remarks Rempel, who also serves as Co-ordinator of the University of Saskatchewan's Conflict Management Team. "The more I read, the more it made sense to me that forgiving others and forgiving one's self would help people to let go."

Relying heavily upon the work of Robert Enright, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin, Rempel established a theoretical model exploring the connections between forgiveness, personal resolution, and the eventual outcome of the relationship. He canvassed first-year psychology classes to find participants willing to answer questions about how and why they forgive others.

Three types of forgiveness

Rempel's research explores the nature of three categories of forgiveness - other-forgiveness, self-forgiveness, and false forgiveness - and how they impact upon the personal resolution the involved parties ultimately achieve.

Other-forgiveness and self-forgiveness, according to Rempel, both have "at their core releasing the urge to retaliate, and movement towards the re-acceptance of the offender." This may occur "with or without the restoration of the relationship," Rempel says, as reconciliation is a separate process that is not a requirement for the act of forgiveness to take place.

False forgiveness, however, does not lead to the abandonment of resentment or guilt. "My choosing to forgive you is for me. I'm able to find some degree of personal resolution through forgiving you," says Rempel. On the other hand, false forgiveness avoids dealing with the underlying issues, which ultimately is harmful to any sort of permanent relationship.

Another important variable playing a role in the achievement of personal resolution is the amount of "personal energy" invested in the dispute, which Rempel terms "conflict intensity." A parent arriving 10 minutes late for their child's dance recital, for example, would typify an interpersonal conflict of low intensity; however, a spouse's extramarital affair would likely result in a high level of conflict intensity.

Relationship has impact

Rempel's examination of the conflict intensity variable led to an intriguing finding. The impact of conflict intensity upon personal resolution depended, to a large degree, upon the nature of the relationship between the two parties. Families were more likely than friends to forgive each other, irrespective of the level of intensity.

Rempel doesn't have a clear explanation for this discovery, although he suggests that because family relationships are more difficult to sever than relationships with friends, family members might forgive more readily in order to preserve that relationship.

Working for the Conflict Management Team, Rempel has found that his research has a direct practical application to everyday life. He has incorporated the interrelated concepts of personal resolution and forgiveness into his dealings with U of S employees and professors in conflict.

"Getting [people in conflict] to see what they're doing to themselves" is the most important aspect of his job as co-ordinator, and his research has aided him in offering viable solutions for resolving feelings of resentment and frustration between co-workers.

Yet the path towards attaining this peace of mind requires a great deal of effort and introspection, Rempel points out. "Forgiveness is an intensive process that one goes through. It's not a yes/no, black and white process."

As for future applications of his work, Rempel suggests that eventually the concepts of forgiveness and personal resolution could be applied on a global scale as well. "Nations or people that have seen themselves as victimized for many years - there may some applications there."

For more information, contact communications.office@usask.ca

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