Everett Worthington.
Photos by Julia Rendleman, University Marketing.

After four decades, Everett Worthington, leading expert on forgiveness, set to retire from VCU’s Department of Psychology

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Taped to the office wall of Everett Worthington, Ph.D., a Virginia Commonwealth University counseling psychology professor and a leading scholar in the field of forgiveness research, is the staggeringly ambitious to-do list for his upcoming retirement.

Among the goals? Influence the way couples, countries, political systems, Christian denominations and cultures practice forgiveness.

“My mission,” the list reads, “is: ‘To do all I can to promote forgiveness in every willing heart, home and homeland.’ That mission MUST govern the content of my decisions.”

To achieve these goals, the list calls for Worthington to conduct at least 10 studies on forgiveness and humility, speak in at least 15 countries and author 10 papers with international scholars, write enough additional articles and book so his lifetime total is at least 500 articles and book chapters, and author enough additional books to reach a lifetime total of 50 books.

He wants to accomplish all this by the time he reaches 80 in 2026.

“I make lists,” Worthington said. “I don’t think retirement will really be that much more [work]. It’s pretty much the same pace I’ve always done.”

Early in the fall semester, Worthington, a beloved faculty member who has greatly influenced the understanding of forgiveness, couples counseling and much more, will retire from the Department of Psychology in the College of Humanities and Sciences after nearly four decades.

Over those years, Worthington developed a couples counseling intervention that has been implemented by marriage counselors around the world, saving numerous relationships; wrote 37 books (a rough estimate, he says); and mentored a generation of graduate students, quite a few of whom have gone on to become famous psychologists.

Yet, in that time, Worthington also suffered unthinkable tragedy.


Tragedy and forgiveness

In 1996, Worthington’s 76-year-old mother was murdered in her Knoxville, Tennessee, home.

“That was Jan. 1, 1996. Actually, the murder probably happened New Year’s Eve night, but the body was discovered Jan. 1,” he said. “So, while that didn’t get me interested in forgiveness — I was already interested — it upped the ante. It made it a lot more relevant. It unsettled me, really. I had done personal forgiving before, but nothing of such a large magnitude. It set me a rocking, personally.”

I had done personal forgiving before, but nothing of such a large magnitude.

As a researcher long focused on forgiveness, Worthington found himself putting his work into practice.

“It gave me a huge, different perspective because I was able to forgive [the murderer] very quickly,” he said. “I tell people, I’m not some super forgiver. A professor gave me a ‘B’ once, and it took me 10 years to forgive him! This, it just kind of happened. It was an experience where I could forgive the young man. My brother also forgave him, and my sister did too. The three of us came to the same conclusion within about a month of the murder.”

Worthington and his siblings were often asked if forgiving the murderer dishonored their mother. Independently, the siblings came to the same answer, he said, which was, “Mama taught us to forgive. It would dishonor her if we didn’t forgive.”

Despite forgiving the murderer, there was devastating emotional fallout. In 2005, Worthington’s brother committed suicide.

“As a result, that [eventually led me to] a new experience of self-forgiveness that I didn’t have before,” he said.


Path to VCU

Worthington’s journey to becoming a prominent professor of psychology and couples counselor was a bit unconventional.

He earned an undergraduate degree in nuclear engineering from the University of Tennessee and a master’s degree in nuclear engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before enrolling at Harvard Business School — the idea being that having a master’s degree from MIT and an MBA from Harvard would set him up for a successful career that could allow him to influence national energy policy.

“I did one accounting course in the summer, and then I was going to be drafted so I dropped out. [Harvard Business School] said I could come back — I was on fellowship — but by the time I got ready to go back, I didn’t want to be a business tycoon wielding unlimited corporate power anymore,” Worthington said in a self-effacing East Tennessee drawl.

Worthington was commissioned as a Naval officer in 1970 — the same year he married his wife, Kirby. He served four years active duty at the nuclear power school in Vallejo, California. In 1974, Worthington entered graduate school for psychology at the University of Missouri. In his second year of graduate school, Kirby was pregnant with their first child, Christen, and Worthington found himself inspired to study pain control and self-control of pain for his dissertation research.

“We went to this Lamaze class about having childbirth without pain,” he said. “Funny, when she was having the child naturally, it did not seem that she was having a good time and I was so incensed. I was like, ‘I’m going to uncover what’s behind this.’ So I started to pursue that [research agenda] for about eight years.”

Worthington received his doctorate in 1978 and joined the faculty at VCU that same year. He continued to find his family a source of inspiration for his research. By 1982, he and Kirby had four children, Christen, Jonathan, Becca and Katy Anna.

“I could see my kids starting to age, they were zero, two, four, six,” he said. “I could see adolescence was looming some place off in the distance. I didn’t know anything about adolescence, so I started studying families and couples and adolescents.”

He was also interested in marriage and Christianity, stemming from a marriage enrichment course he and Kirby attended early in their marriage.

“They invited us to this church — I wasn’t a Christian then — I just went for this marriage enrichment group,” he said. “But it was really great for our marriage. I was like, ‘I want to know more about this.’”

Passion, he said, has been the common thread throughout his research career.

“If I had to glue my research story together, it would be passion,” he said. “I think people succeed at research if they’re studying what they’re passionate about.”


Research into forgiveness

Albert Farrell, Ph.D., Commonwealth Professor of clinical psychology and director of the VCU Clark-Hill Institute for Positive Youth Development, joined the Department of Psychology shortly after Worthington.

“When I arrived at VCU in 1980, Ev had been here just two years, but had already become a major influence in the Psychology Department and university,” Farrell said. “He was well known as an outstanding teacher and an amazingly productive researcher. He served as the role model that new assistant professors aspired to, but I do not believe any of us ever achieved his level of productivity.”

At VCU, Worthington began counseling couples as a part-time practice. Helping troubled relationships sparked his interest in forgiveness.

“It was a combination of knowing that forgiveness is a major virtue in all of the major religions, and in Christianity for sure. But in seeing couples who were coming for counseling, the amount of hurt that was unforgiven was huge,” he said. “So I started really trying to help people forgive because of the marriage counseling.”

Don Danser, Ph.D., then a doctoral student who, after graduation, had a successful private practice, alerted Worthington to the possibility of studying forgiveness.

“Don comes in and he goes, ‘We taught these couples all this conflict management, communication and intimacy stuff, but this couple that I’ve got is just not getting any better. What’s wrong with them? They can do all the communication stuff, but they just hate each other because of all these past hurts,’” Worthington said. “And I said, ‘Well Don, we need to design an intervention to help them forgive each other.’

“I remember sitting there and Don’s eyes went wide,” Worthington said. “He was like, ‘Can we do that in a secular university?’ I said, ‘Sure, I’m the supervisor. We just won’t tell anybody.’ So we designed a brief clinical intervention that day, and we spent the ’80s using it with couples.”

As Danser and Worthington sought to develop an intervention to help couples forgive, they enlisted the help of Fred DiBlasio, Ph.D., who was, at that time an assistant professor in the School of Social Work, to apply it in his clinical practice.

The team’s clinical intervention was published in 1990, and it caught the interest of then-doctoral student Mike McCullough, Ph.D., who came to work under Worthington.

“At that time, the only other person doing research on forgiveness was Bob Enright at the University of Wisconsin,” Worthington said. “So Mike and I did a number of studies, and coming immediately after him was Steve Sandage, who was also interested in studying forgiveness. Then came Jen Ripley. She was interested in forgiveness in couples — so that broadened the scope.”

McCullough, now the director of the Evolution and Human Behavior Laboratory and a professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Miami, said there is “no one in this world for whom I have more admiration or gratitude” than Worthington.

“Ev’s impact on psychological science has been enormous,” McCullough said. “He pioneered or transformed entire fields of research, including research on religion and counseling, religion and mental and health, religious values, forgiveness, and humility. It’s hard to imagine what these research areas might have looked like had Ev chosen to stay in the Navy back in the early 1970s.”

By the mid-1990s, Worthington and his colleagues had conducted a number of studies on forgiveness, written about it in clinical and theoretical papers, and done experiments on an intervention to promote forgiveness and basic research on forgiveness.

Then, Worthington’s mother was killed, and he found himself needing to confront a personal experience with forgiveness. Five months later, he was invited to South Africa as a visiting scholar on behalf of the South African government. His charge was to discuss his forgiveness research at universities and to the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which had just been formed following Nelson Mandela’s election to help the country move past the human rights abuses of the apartheid era.

“The door was opened because of the death of my mom,” Worthington said. “I’d talk to them about all my research, and they were yawning. They were like, ‘What is the relevance of this university research when we’ve got all this suffering going on?’ But when I told them that I had personally lost someone, then they wanted to hear about the research.”


REACH Forgiveness

The forgiveness intervention developed by Worthington and his students over the years is called REACH Forgiveness, an acronym for:

  • Recall the hurt.
  • Empathize or, more broadly, emotionally replace negative emotion with positive emotion. So replace the negative emotion with empathy or compassion or love or sympathy for the person.
  • Altruistic give of forgiveness. This is not a self-interested gift, it’s not a self-enhancing gift. It’s something to bless the other person.
  • Commit to the forgiveness experience.
  • Hold on to the forgiveness experience.

The seed of REACH Forgiveness was a one-hour intervention that served as McCullough’s master’s thesis. It was meant to simply get couples to make a decision to forgive one another.

“[McCullough] had hit on a theory in social psychology called the empathy-altruism hypothesis — and this suggests that the reason people do altruistic acts for someone is because they have a sense of empathy for them,” Worthington said. “We thought it’s kind of an altruistic, self-sacrificial thing to forgive someone who hurt you, so maybe we can think of this empathy-forgiveness model.” That model resulted in expanding the forgiveness intervention to include emotional forgiveness in McCullough’s eight-hour intervention for his dissertation research.

Sandage, now the Albert and Jessie Danielsen Professor of Psychology of Religion and Theology at Boston University, arrived soon after, bringing an interest in humility and the role of humility in promoting empathy, so that added to the intervention. Another graduate student, Wanda Collins, Ph.D., now assistant vice president and director of Counseling & Psychological Services at Emory University, was interested in commitment, which was also soon added to the model.

“So we’d added recalling the hurt and empathy and altruism and commitment, and then I started thinking, you know, you’ve got to pay attention to this [forgiveness in a relationship], so there’s the hold on and the maintenance part of it,” Worthington said. “So from ’95 to 2000, I think the five parts — plus making a decision to forgive — came together into a model that was much more codified.

“I came up with that acrostic — which took forever! I tried everything, a pyramid model, and every other name you can think of — but eventually settled on REACH as the five steps.”


Hope-focused approach to couples counseling

Another major research interest of Worthington’s has been the development of a strategy for couples counseling that emphasizes the importance of hope. He has sought to develop interventions that help couples “make change sensible” — as in, change that is tangible, rather than merely talking about changes.

For example, Worthington said, a marriage counselor using this approach might encourage a couple dealing with intimacy issues to place their chairs in the counselor’s office as far apart as they are feeling toward one another.

“If you’re feeling really emotionally distant, you would place your chairs against the opposite walls. If you feel real close, you’ll be knocking knees right up against each other,” Worthington said. “And so they place their chairs — usually not that close, because they’re in counseling after all — and I say, ‘Now, where would you like to be?’ And they say, ‘We’d like to be much closer together.’ So I tell them to move their chairs to where you’d like to be.”

Usually the couple will move a bit closer, but might fuss with one another and move back farther away as the negative emotions are experienced. When that happens, the counselor might encourage them to reflect on a time in which they felt close, such as the birth of a child.

“When I sense them changing their feelings, I say ‘Stop, move your chairs to where you feel. You seem closer together than you did.’ And they move their chairs,” he said. “So you can see how over the course of an hour, they’re seeing that they actually have control over how close or how distant they feel. If they’re arguing with each other, they’re not going to feel very close. If they’re doing things that are positive together, they’re going to feel closer.

“I could tell them that, and they would be arguing about it by the time that they get to the car and are driving away,” he added. “But having gone through an hour of seeing how much control they have over this situation — watching themselves moving the chairs closer and farther away — it’s hard for them to doubt that they have at least some control.”

By 2005, Worthington revised the strategy to reflect a seismic shift in modern couples counseling research: that a strong emotional bond between partners is more important as a cause of a good relationship than good communication is.

“The problem is not that couples [in counseling] do not know how to communicate, the problem is that they’re not doing it,” he said. “A good marriage is one where they can form a strong bond, maintain a strong bond and repair the bond if it gets damaged. Well, forgiveness is right in the center of that. So forgiveness became a large part of my current couples counseling.”

In 2014, Worthington and Ripley co-authored a new book about hope-focused couples counseling, outlining more than 80 interventions that counselors can implement to help troubled relationships. Those interventions are now being put into practice around the world.

A good marriage is one where they can form a strong bond, maintain a strong bond and repair the bond if it gets damaged.


‘Truly awe-inspiring’ career at VCU

Teaching has been yet another passion of Worthington’s.

“I taught Psych 101 for 36 straight years … and I just loved to watch the new undergraduate students come and I taught them usually in their first or second semester,” he said. “The nature of the students has changed, and that’s been really exciting to see. I went to school in the ’60s and the Vietnam protest-era of the ’70s up in Boston in a hotbed of discontent. In the last seven or eight years, the students have gotten so socially conscious — just as much as it was back in the Vietnam era. That’s been a real amazement to me.”

Farrell said Worthington has been inspiring undergraduates and graduate students since he arrived at VCU.

“Unlike many faculty members who focus the bulk of their efforts on research, Ev has been consistently devoted to inspiring undergraduates in his large enrollment classes and to mentoring his graduate students,” he said. “It is notable that many of his graduate students have gone on to have highly influential careers that build upon the foundation he provided. Ev has also not pursued research solely out of an academic interest, but out of a sincere interest in addressing human suffering.”

Over the years, Worthington served as chair of the Psychology Department, director of the counseling program, director of undergraduate studies, and led a number of faculty hiring searches. The Psychology Department has transformed a lot over the years, he said, moving from a faculty of “a bunch of lone rangers who mostly taught and didn’t publish much in the late 1970s, to a department that is moving in a very similar direction — toward health psychology and community psychology.”

“We’re still cats, and a few big cats — that’s been a change,” he said. “But I don’t think we’ve ever lost our quality of teaching. Even though VCU was really a teaching university 30 or 40 years ago and didn’t do much research, I think we’re still a very good teaching institution and still give a lot of attention to it.”

In 2015, Worthington was promoted to Commonwealth Professor, one of the highest distinctions the Board of Visitors can bestow upon a VCU faculty member. In December 2015, he was named a recipient of the prestigious Outstanding Faculty Award, awarded to a handful of Virginia faculty members each year by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia and Dominion Resources.

Wendy Kliewer, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Psychology, called Worthington’s scholarly productivity and influence “truly awe-inspiring.”

“Dr. Worthington’s contributions as a scholar have been amply recognized locally, by our profession, and around the world,” she said. “He has delivered addresses on every continent except Antarctica. Academics whose scholarly career has been as productive as Dr. Worthington’s generally achieve their productivity at the expense of full engagement in teaching and service. This is not the case where Dr. Worthington is concerned. He has served the VCU community, the state of Virginia and the wider international community in important ways.”

But when Kliewer reflects on Worthington’s impact, her thoughts turn to something more personal.

“Ev was on the search committee that hired me here 25 years ago into my first academic job, and he has been a tremendous source of support over the years,” she said. “He has offered career advice, been a sounding board, provided opportunities for collaboration and been a cheerleader. I know that many faculty — and many of his former students — would say the same.”

Despite all of his awards and research success, Worthington is quick to credit the contributions of others.

“When it comes to research, I couldn’t have accomplished a 50th, a 100th as much as I have without the graduate students I’ve had. I don’t want to make other people feel bad, but I’ve had the best graduate students — and I mean that, objectively speaking,” he said. “I’ve just been blessed with these dynamos. My secret to great mentorship is aim them, get out of their way and don’t interfere with their progress — and hold on tight to their coattails.”