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Infidelity: Cognitive Therapy for the Hurt Partner and Unfaithful Partner
Infidelity continuing education MFT CEUs

Section 20
Using Intentional Forgiving in Joint Sessions
with the Hurt and Unfaithful Partner

CEU Question 20 | CEU Test | Table of Contents | Couples
Counselor CEUs, Psychologist CEs, Social Worker CEUs, MFT CEUs

Face-To-Face Interactions With the Offender
When the counselor has deemed it safe and valuable for offended client and offending client to begin working together, a process of intentional forgiveness can be directed by the counselor. Intentional forgiving involves a highly directive counseling style in which counselors encourage appropriate verbal and nonverbal communication between the offended and offending client.

First, evaluate areas of client relationships in which intentional forgiving may prove valuable. Contexts of past abuse (sexual, physical, emotional, or spiritual), present emotional struggle (in relation to self, others, or God), and present relational disharmony (such as extramarital affairs, unresolved family conflict, and emotional cutoff) are examples of good starting points. Donnelley (1982) suggested that acknowledging clients' hurt and affirming their pain are central to beginning the forgiveness process, and Fitzgibbons (1986) encouraged counselors to analyze the origins of clients' pain as an "exercise in which the client makes a decision to forgive" (p. 629).

This first phase of choosing to forgive varies with the severity of the offense. For example, a negative verbal exchange between a couple in session may require little or no preliminary preparation and intentional forgiving may be entered directly. Severe offenses such as sexual abuse may require multiple sessions of preliminary preparation in which the client readies him- or herself to choose forgiveness. Counselors should discern the severity of an offense and the most appropriate pace to advance according to the differing needs of clients.

Second, promote reconciliation when appropriate. Whenever possible (giving client welfare top priority), mediate a process of intentional forgiveness face-to-face between the wounded party and his or her offender (e.g., between spouses, family members, survivors and abusers; McCullough & Worthington, 1994). In many cases, both offending and offended client will already be present in the session (e.g., in cases of couples and family counseling) and intentional forgiving can be a natural outgrowth of therapeutic process. If both parties are not already present, however, the client should be encouraged, after psychoeducation is complete and the client is willing and psychologically ready, to invite the offending party into the counseling process. Counselors will want to direct clients to present the invitation as an opportunity for growth, forgiveness, and reconciliation. A phone call in session or a personal letter is a good way to initiate this part of the process. I have found that directing clients to engage their offender in this way tends to facilitate courage, internal resolution, and empowerment in clients.

If the offender is willing to come into the counseling setting, be prepared to continue psychoeducation on intentional forgiving with the offender present and to process such forgiveness in one or more sessions as needed based on severity of the offense, client readiness, and accessibility of the offender. Do not process intentional forgiving face-to-face with a client and his or her offender if there is risk of reoffense, risk of psychological or physical danger to the client, or if the offender is unwilling to enter into the process of intentional forgiving.

Although the inability of the offender to admit wrong and admit the need for forgiveness has been referred to as an obstacle to forgiveness (Fitzgibbons, 1986), it is more appropriately phrased as an obstacle to reconciliation (Enright, Eastin, et al., 1992). In such cases intentional forgiving remains vital to client growth but must be processed in the context of individual counseling (i.e., without the offender present). For the following steps of the procedure, however, it is assumed intentional forgiving is person-to-person, from offended to offending party, from client to client.

Third, direct both offended client and offending client to look each other in the eyes and face each other with open body posture, voice tone, and facial expression. This communicates openness to the process and willingness to advance. Sometimes a direct question works best: "Are you willing to look directly at him as you speak7" or "Are you willing to unfold your arms and give her an open body posture as you listen?"

Again, severity of offense must be taken into account throughout the procedure. Ideally, even in cases of severe abuse, client and offender are able through counselor direction to maintain consistent eye contact and communicate good will both verbally and nonverbally. This requires a delicate balance of coaching, encouragement, challenge, and even confrontation when necessary. If a client becomes timid or fearful in the presence of his or her offender, the counselor may want to sit next to the client, engage the client's courage and strength, and join the client in open body posture and eye contact with statements such as "Will you unfold your arms with me? .... Will you face this person with me?" Will you look this person in the eyes with me?" "I believe you can do it. I will wait until you are ready, then we will face the other person together and make eye contact with them." Conversely, an offender may glare at the client, show a rigid body posture, or refuse to make eye contact. In such cases, the counselor may have to be very direct and position him- or herself beside the offender and make statements such as, "Are you willing to soften your eyes?" "Are you willing to soften your tone of voice?" "Are you willing to relax your face and communicate openness and care to the other person? .... Please face the other person, uncross your arms, and communicate kindness with your eyes."

In each case of intentional forgiving the context differs: husband to wife, mother to son, father to daughter, friend to friend, and so forth. Counselor directives and discernment are crucial. More severe offenses tend to demand a more active approach to reduce tension and ensure a nonthreatening environment in which intentional forgiving can transpire.

Fourth, direct the offended client to name the impact of the offender's behavior. The client is to name feelings, thoughts, pain, losses, and so forth that the client has associated with the offense. Direct the offending party to listen with an open body posture and a caring facial expression. Do not allow the offending party to make excuses or to blame others for harmful behavior (e.g., "I didn't mean to"; "It wasn't my intention"; "I wouldn't have done this if you hadn't done such and such to me"). Frame intention as secondary (a content component of the act, often equal to a smoke screen) and impact as primary (a process component of the act, equal to the heart or core of the matter).A person's good intentions are not communicated unless the impact of their intentions is felt in positive behavior. No matter how right or good an offender's intention, the wounded client has been the recipient of negative, harmful behavior. For the offender, taking responsibility for harmful behavior without making excuses, is essential if reconciliation is to be attained.

The counselor may need to continually reinforce the concept that reconciliation is not the same as forgiveness; a client can forgive without the offender's participation in the process, but reconciliation cannot occur without the offender's willingness to first take responsibility for, then change harmful behavior (Enright, Eastin et al., 1992).

Fifth, direct the offender to repeat (to the offended client's satisfaction) the impact of the harmful behavior. In my experience, by this point the offender is generally willing to lovingly enter into the process (perhaps based on the hope that forgiveness and possibly reconciliation may be within reach). On occasion, the offender may try to derail the process through excuse making, incomplete responses, or nonverbal communication that indicates lack of care, lack of motivation, or even outright anger. The task of the counselor is to be directive enough to engage the offender's care, motivation, and loving expression toward the client. This involves appropriately encouraging, challenging, or confronting the offender who resists the intentional forgiveness process.

Sixth, direct the offender to ask forgiveness (with no excuse-making words, tones, or body postures, for this impact). This should be a direct question, such as "Will you forgive me for (offender names the behavior and the impacts previously described by the offended person)?"A statement such as "I'm sorry," or "I apologize," is not adequate. Will you forgive me for (names the behavior and its impacts on the offended client)?" implies that the offender is willing to discontinue hurtful behavior and work to restore relationship. Do not proceed if the offender is unwilling or seems to lack motivation. In such cases, the counselor appropriately challenges the offender to engage the offender's integrity to the process of forgiveness and renewed relationship. Here, the counselor "must discern between a true request for forgiveness and a disguised blaming accusation" (Worthington & DiBlasio, 1990, p. 222). In the end, if an offender is unwilling to approach the process with respect and good will, the counselor may have to ask the offender to leave until he or she is ready to commit to the process involved in intentional forgiving.

The direct question "Will you forgive me?" involves greater risk than statements of apology and engages the mutuality of relationship by requiring an answer. Statements of apology tend to imply forgiveness has taken place, foregoing the difficult interaction necessary for forgiveness to surface. Having been asked directly, without excuses or justification, "Will you forgive me?" the offended client is respected and given opportunity to respond to deep wounds in a dignified manner.

Seventh, once the offended client is satisfied that the offender has appropriately named the harmful behavior and impacts and clearly asked forgiveness, direct the offended party to say, "Yes, I forgive you." Again, in cases of severe psychological injury, conduct sessions of precounseling in which the client is given time without the offender present to work through the process of intentional forgiving. The client's goal is to prepare him- or herself to respond in a forgiving manner with the offender present. Again, the response"I forgive you" is deliberately chosen by the offended party with an understanding that this response is the first step of a journey in which healing and justice are intertwined, trust is slowly rebuilt by new and positive action, and debilitating emotions are painstakingly overcome. In concurrence with Enright, Eastin, et al. (1992), I want clients to understand that "the forgiveness journey is complex, filled with a number of progressions before the cessation of resentment" (p. 96). When the client is prepared and willing, intentional forgiving with the offender present can begin. "A client should never be cajoled into forgiving" (Enright, Eastin, et al., 1992, p. 98). Allowing clients to advance at their own pace can lead clients to intentionally forgive in a setting in which safety is assured and autonomous identity and connections of mutual respect can be realized.

Eighth, coaching on each aspect of intentional forgiving begins in a highly structured manner as directed by the counselor. Expect clients to feel awkward and defensive at times when they engage in the procedure. Such awkwardness and defensiveness can usually be overcome when the counselor maintains a firm but supportive presence. Counselors may want to alternate sitting directly beside or behind each client during the separate steps of the procedure, suggesting ways to phrase feelings, encouraging open body posture and facial expression, and requesting adjustment of inappropriate tone of voice. Counselors can help clients communicate in less defensive ways by coaching them to make 'T' statements rather than "you" statements, actively asking clients to rephrase when necessary (e.g., "I feel angry when such and such happens," rather than "You make me angry"). Statements of encouragement such as "Excellent phrasing," "Good eye contact, .... Good posture, .... Clear statement of impact, .... Nice change of voice tone, well done," tend to reduce defensiveness and help clients believe that they are mastering the process.

Intentional forgiving begins as highly structured by the counselor and continues to be structured until the behaviors of intentional forgiving have been learned. The counselor should become less directive when clients become better able to address relational hurts through intentional forgiveness both in and out of session.

Ninth, allow clients the opportunity to establish and master this process of healing in relationships. Ideally, clients will, through consistent implementation of this intervention in counseling, be able to maintain relationships that deal with and heal relational wounds without counselor mediation. When clients are able to live consistently free of resentment and other potentially crippling emotions, this is a good indication that intentional forgiving is consistently effective in their relationships.
- Ferch, Shann R.; Intentional Forgiving as a Counseling Intervention; Journal of Counseling & Development; Summer98; Vol. 76 Issue 3

Personal Reflection Exercise #6
The preceding section contained information about using intentional forgiving in joint sessions with the hurt and unfaithful partner.  Write three case study examples regarding how you might use the content of this section in your practice.

Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Alexopoulos, C., & Taylor, L. D. (2020). If your girl only knew: The effects of infidelity-themed song lyrics on cognitions related to infidelity. Psychology of Popular Media. Advance online publication.

McNulty, J. K., Meltzer, A. L., Makhanova, A., & Maner, J. K. (2018). Attentional and evaluative biases help people maintain relationships by avoiding infidelity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 115(1), 76–95.

Negash, S., Carlson, S. H., & Linder, J. N. (2018). Emotionally focused therapy and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing: An integrated treatment to heal the trauma of infidelity. Couple and Family Psychology: Research and Practice, 7(3-4), 143–157.

Online Continuing Education QUESTION 20
In therapy involving intentional forgiving, when should the counselor become less directive? Record the letter of the correct answer the CEU Test.

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