Doctoral Dissertations

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



Major Professor

Kristina C. Gordon

Committee Members

Deborah Welsh, Warren Jones, Gilya Schmidt


The two studies included in this project were aimed at understanding the effect that relational closeness has on perceived ease of forgiveness and betrayal severity and, in turn, how betrayal severity and relational closeness influence people’s conceptualization of forgiveness. Study 1 addressed the fact that although past studies have shown that relational closeness predicts one’s willingness to forgive and researchers have posited that betrayals that are committed by those closest are the most severe, it is still unclear whether these trends are due to the characteristics of close relationships or to the characteristics of the types of betrayals that are committed within close relationships.

Two randomized groups of college undergraduates imagined the same betrayal narratives being committed by either someone relationally close or someone relationally distant. As was expected, imagining someone close led to participants viewing the betrayals as easier to forgive. However, contrary to what was expected, participants who imagined the betrayals being committed by someone close viewed the betrayals as less severe.

Together, these findings suggest that it is not the characteristics of the betrayals being committed in close relationships, but the qualities of the relationship that affect the perceived severity of betrayals as well as how easy they are to forgive. Study 2 addressed the notion that people’s conceptualization of forgiveness may vary as a function of the closeness of the betrayer and the severity of the offense. College undergraduates read one of six betrayal narratives taken from the first study that varied in both severity and the relational closeness of the imagined betrayer. Results indicated that participants expected a more positive outcome from the forgiveness of less severe betrayals as well as betrayals that were committed by someone relationally close. The interaction of these two constructs demonstrated that relational closeness has less influence on one’s conceptualization of forgiveness of less severe betrayals. The results of this second study suggest that forgiveness is not a completely static construct and that its conceptualization is dependent upon both who committed the betrayal as well as the severity of the betrayal in question. Implications, limitations, and future directions are discussed.

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