Forgiveness is often a complex issue for trauma survivors. Many times clients arrive in my office grappling with the belief that they “ought” to forgive those who have abused and betrayed them. Sometimes they even see their difficulty accomplishing this as further proof that something is wrong with them. Or sometimes clients report having already forgiven an abuser, but seem to have perhaps skipped over part of their process in the rush to do so. Our culture is full of messages about the benefits of forgiveness. Religions and pop psychology alike stress its importance, sometimes to the point of threatening dire emotional (or spiritual) consequences unless one forgives.
Forgiveness is universally believed to be good for us, it seems. But it isn’t always clear exactly how it is accomplished. Or if there are exceptions. True to our culture’s love of all or nothing thinking, the alternative to forgiveness is framed as a complete negative. For example, a quick Google search turns up this claim from the Mayo Clinic:
When someone you care about hurts you, you can hold on to anger, resentment and thoughts of revenge or embrace forgiveness and move forward.
Must it be that black or white?
Is healing without forgiveness possible?
Are there some harms that are unforgivable?
In thinking about these questions I consider how forgiveness is or is not the same for survivors of severe trauma. What happens when the very people who are supposed to love, care for, and protect you are the ones who instead abuse you? What happens when this abuse is ongoing or appears to be done with ill intent? If betrayal and violation in the context of our closest connections has a different impact, surely forgiveness may be a different thing in these situations.
In my process of thinking about forgiveness, I suddenly seem to come across discussion of it everywhere! Isn’t it something how that can happen?
I came upon this post at Blooming Lotus (just one of several excellent posts about forgiveness after abuse): How to Forgive an Abuser after Child Abuse. I really liked the expanded concept of what forgiveness can look like, the focus on allowing room for exploration of feelings about the abuse/betrayal and the focus on forgiving oneself. From there I also discovered Heal and Forgive by Nancy Richards. Both sites are incredibly rich and worth exploring in depth.
Reading these sites reminded me of a book I own but have not looked at in quite a while: Forgiving and Not Forgiving: Why Sometimes It’s Better Not To Forgive by Jeanne Safer, Ph.D. I was drawn to this book many years ago while contemplating these same questions. The premise of this exploration of forgiveness in intimate relationships is that it can be equally valid and healthy for some individuals to choose not to forgive.
Forgiving and Not Forgiving proposes a paradigm shift. It challenges the conventional wisdom and offers a new and consoling perspective: that forgiveness as it is commonly understood is only one of many routes to resolution, humanity and peace, and that reengaging with the past is the best way to change to future. It charges that false forgiveness damages self and society, and that not forgiving without vindictiveness can be morally and emotionally right. (p.2)
Reengaging with the past is the best way to change to future- what does this mean? I see this at the root of all trauma therapy. The unexamined and sometimes unremembered past continues to influence us all. It is in fact sometimes most powerfully driving our behavior and choices when we have not examined and come to terms with it. By bringing the past out into the light, especially in the context of a current safe relationship, transformation can happen.
Dr. Safer focuses on “intimate betrayal” vs. damage done by strangers stating:
Intimate betrayal requires a special kind of forgiveness…betrayal destroys faith in love, trust, and honor. Betrayers have no regard for the impact of their actions on victims they know intimately, even those they love. This disregard is especially devastating, because it confronts you with the knowledge that at least for a time, you did not matter at all to someone who mattered deeply to you (p.43)
This is the crux of the matter for trauma survivors. How do you come to terms with abuse and betrayal at the hands of a loved one, a spouse, partner, parent or other trusted figure. Part of the wounding is to your very ability to trust and believe in relationships and safety. How can you forgive someone who has done such profound damage to you and your life?
How do we even define forgiveness? Too often it gets used in ways that seem to mean excusing or forgetting the wrong in order to reconcile with the abuser. For individuals who have already had the experience of putting their needs, feelings, very safety on the back burner in relationships with abusive others this could just feel like more of the same. This version of forgiveness becomes just another way to deny or overlook normal reactions to mistreatment or injustice. Dr. Safer suggests a broader perspective on what forgiveness can entail:
any state of mind that enables a person to reconnect psychically with a betrayer and to change the meaning and impact of the trauma, even if considerable anger remains.
Some approaches to forgiveness seem to lump all wrongs into the same category. For example, I found yet another forgiveness article: Four Elements of Forgiveness by Ryan Howes, Ph.D. In it he breaks forgiveness into the following steps:
- A. Express the emotion
- B. Understand why
- C. Rebuild safety
- 4. Let go
I like the steps. It reminds me very much of the process Dr. Safer describes as the sort of therapeutic work that is necessary to achieve genuine forgiveness rather than the forced, automatic forgiving because you have to variety. This is the “reconnecting psychically with a betrayer” work. “Let go” or letting go is often used as synonymous with forgiveness. I resonate with it as it seems much less value-laden, less loaded.
However, this article loses me with its example of a nearly unforgivable offense (although I imagine this was meant in jest). Returning someone’s car in bad condition is light years away from the types of violations and betrayals clients of mine struggle to forgive. I also very much believe forgiveness is a process you can accomplish yourself, it does not necessitate any interaction with the abuser. Perhaps that is an example of why so many mainstream approaches to and discussions of forgiveness fall short of the mark to me.
Like every therapeutic issue, I believe that forgiveness is highly personal and individual. I fully support clients in coming to terms with what makes sense in their lives. I think it is important to ask yourself why you feel the need to forgive? Is your motivation external? Is it a “should” coming at you from others or something that is important to your internal process? Is it a part of making meaning from the abuse or an attempt to side step delving into it more fully? Dr. Safe identifies a type of “false forgiveness” that can be damaging rather than healing.
Sometimes the right option for you as an individual may be to choose to not forgive. This may be temporary. Perhaps you will not forgive while your healing is still in progress, while you have yet to fully explore all feelings and the meaning associated with the abuse, or when your personal safety has not yer been re-established. If you have a dissociative disorder, parts of you may differ greatly on whether to forgive an abuser or not. Gathering and assessing the reasons behind the different views is a crucial part of the decision making process.
Not forgiving can be the outcome of deep emotional work and careful consideration. It can be the right outcome for some to further their healing and make sense of the world. Not forgiving can be an act of opposing injustice: a way of taking a stand even within yourself and saying this occurred and it was wrong. Period.
It can also be an acknowledgement that there is no way, for you, to reconnect positively, even within your mind with your abuser. For some the damage is too pervasive. The toxicity too great. There is not always something positive to reclaim and reconcile with. There can be a peace in even this devastating realization. It can be freeing. The abuse and hatred of abuser no longer dominate your life. You do not hold yourself accountable or buy into illusion that if you were different/did something different you could change the other or the relationship.
Forgiveness or unforgiveness can also be partial. This can come in the form of the painful realization that the type of connection you wish for is not possible or that your self or life is not fully accepted (so often the case for LGBT individuals). Holding onto this complexity and ambivalence, that the people we love and choose to continue to relate to have and continue to wound us, is painful but real. Many parent are loving and flawed. Some people find a resolution that allows for connecting to the good and letting go of the toxic.
However this is not always the case. What about children who experience severe and comprehensive emotional, physical and sexual abuse? Sometimes there is not a positive side to a relationship. Sometimes the level of betrayal and damage is so severe there is nothing positive left. This can be true in adult intimate relationships as well, but is especially devastating in childhood when the need to love, connect with and depend upon a caretaker is paramount. To find a way to heal, forgive oneself and let go of what is toxic may be the optimal tasks.
Any of the following may be a valid and healing approach for you in coming to terms with the aftermath of abuse and betrayal:
- Partial forgiveness
- Understanding but not forgiving
- Letting go of bitterness and hatred
- Active unforgiveness
Making peace with yourself, your past and creating the type of life you desire in the future can occur whether you forgive your abusers or not. That you reach a resolution that makes sense for you matter more than the form it takes. Perhaps this is the most important thing to take away: focus on your healing first. Reconnect with the past, forgive and learn how to provide safety for yourself. Once you have healed sufficiently I trust you will know what needs to happen next in terms of forgiving others or not.