05 May 2009

Forgiveness Education

Over at the Concurring Opinions blog, Solangel Maldonado makes a thought provoking two part argument for forgiveness encouraged by the government in post-divorce group therapy sessions (secular as well as religious). More parts are planned. Maldonado notes that forgiveness can reduce conflict that harms children and stress that harms those who don't forgive and states:

Participants in forgiveness interventions have reported fewer negative feelings toward the injurer than the control group. They have also reported a greater willingness to forgive. One forgiveness intervention, Forgiveness and Divorce: Can Group Interventions Facilitate Forgiveness of a Former Spouse?, assigned 149 divorced individuals to one of three groups (1) a secular forgiveness group, (2) a religiously integrated forgiveness group, or (3) a wait-list control group. The group sessions discussed feelings of betrayal, coping with anger towards the former spouse, forgiveness education, preventing relapse (holding on to forgiveness), and closure. Although there were no differences between the secular and religiously integrated forgiveness groups, participants in these two groups self-reported similarly higher levels of forgiveness and lower depression than the wait-list control group.

Many states require divorcing parents to participate in parenting education and mediation of custody disputes, in part, to reduce inter-parental anger and help parents understand how their anger negatively affects their children. Given the potential benefits of forgiveness, lawmakers should consider requiring, or at least recommending, that angry, divorced parents participate in forgiveness interventions.

The proposal stirs skepticism and distrust in me at a gut level for multiple reasons. Is forgiveness really a secular concept? Are personal feelings that go with forgiveness any of the government's business? Isn't this a matter of freedom of conscience? Do government "suggestions" work? Is lack of forgiveness a root source of conflict between divorced couples, rather than a symptom? Does this approach hurt the victim? Is it forgiveness that matters or is it really a focus on what is possible going forward? How do changes in post-divorce dynamics impact dynamics during marriages? Does allowing oneself to be depressed over the loss of a past marriage impact how seriously one will treat future relationships? How much of high conflict divorce is a product of poor social and parenting skills generally, and how much of high conflict divorce truly is a product of how ex-spouses voluntarily choose to respond to the end of a marriage? Does divorce law expect too much from the co-parenting skills of divorced couples?

I'm not saying that this proposal is wrong. Indeed, it sheds lots of new light on the questions presented. But, neither is it self-evident.

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