Forgiveness in Couple Therapy
For individuals in the U.S. & U.S. territories
Helping one person to forgive another is among the biggest challenges in therapy, one that may be affected positively or negatively by client religious beliefs or spirituality.
In this video, Drs. Everett Worthington and Steven Sandage discuss how to effectively manage forgiveness within the context of couple therapy. Their evidence-based, spiritually oriented relational approach helps clients collaborate, connect, and work through conflict by analyzing emotional responses across three phases of therapy: uncovering personal resentment, understanding its development, and processing emotional regulation.
This process can lead to a fourth phase where the hurt partner recognizes his or her own need to be forgiven. This model may be integrated into any therapeutic approach, making it useful to students and practitioners of any theoretical orientation.
In this program, Dr. Sandage demonstrates this approach with a couple coping with forgiveness issues, and he and Dr. Worthington discuss the approach and analyze the demonstration session.
Forgiveness is a complicated topic but also deeply relevant to couple therapy. The relational approach to forgiveness in couple therapy in this video builds on an integration of attachment theory, family systems theories, and the large body of scientific research on interpersonal forgiveness. Drs. Worthington and Sandage suggest forgiveness can be a healthy coping response to stressful hurts and resentments in relationships, and struggles with forgiveness are typically rooted in attachment-based neurobiological templates about relationships.
For some people, practices of forgiveness are also shaped by spiritual, religious, and cultural traditions, and Drs. Worthington and Sandage think it is important that clinicians assess these dynamics and consider ways they may be integrated into treatment. They frame this integration using an empirically-supported relational spirituality model which conceptualizes spirituality as "ways of relating with the sacred" and uses developmental themes of spiritual dwelling and seeking. This model helps illuminate ways clients' relational spirituality might facilitate or hinder their process of forgiveness.
Their relational treatment strategy seeks to balance several dialectics: attachment and differentiation, emotion processing and emotion regulation, spiritual dwelling and seeking, hope and humility, and forgiveness and justice. They view the therapeutic alliance as a key source of gain in positive change and use a clinical assessment of clients' relational development to inform how issues of forgiveness are addressed.
Their approach to forgiveness in couple therapy involves moving through four interrelated phases:
- forming an attachment
- co-constructing a developmental crucible
- processing disappointment and grief
- cultivating and extending differentiation
They consider the roles of trauma and other forms of psychopathology in clinical difficulties with forgiveness.
Everett Worthington, PhD, is Commonwealth Professor in the Department of Psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University. He is a licensed clinical psychologist in Virginia. He has published more than 35 books and 400 articles and scholarly chapters, mostly on forgiveness, positive psychology, marriage, and family topics and religion and spirituality.
Steven J. Sandage, PhD, LP, is Albert and Jessie Danielsen Professor of Psychology of Religion and Theology at Boston University where he holds appointments in the School of Theology and the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences. He is also research director and senior staff psychologist at the Danielsen Institute.
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