by Aris, a Hotline advocate
Forgiveness can be difficult, and yet many people manage to do this every day with friends, family and coworkers. The path to forgiveness typically involves a wrongdoing, perhaps an apology, and some form of accountability or behavioral change. After this, the person who has been wronged decides that moving forward and “letting it go” is in everyone’s best interest, thereby forgiving the initial transgression.
Well, what about forgiving abuse? Usually the script sounds nothing like what is described above, so those same steps cannot be followed. When abuse takes place, the abusive person steps outside of the rules of civility in order to coerce, humiliate, physically harm, and sometimes even kill a victim. This level of wrongdoing can be so damaging and life-altering that abuse can seem unforgivable. While it is true that abuse is never okay or justifiable, it is possible to forgive abuse.
With all of that said, a survivor is not going to be in a place to forgive abuse if they are still in danger. If the risk of harm is a concern for you or your family, consider making a safety plan first; once you’re safe and ready to work on healing, you can explore forgiveness. If you need help or support while developing a safety plan, reach out to one of our advocates via phone or online chat.
Ok, you’re safe… now what?
The idea of forgiving someone who has abused you might seem daunting at first. While many people who have been in an abusive relationship are not ready to work on forgiving, learning about what forgiveness means and laying some groundwork could still be helpful and perhaps eventually lead to it feeling more doable. Try not to pressure yourself to hurrying this process; finding your own authentic pace with this is what will lead you there.
Why should I consider forgiveness?
That’s a valid question, and the answer lies in the research. Studies have shown that forgiveness can result in huge health benefits like reducing the risk of heart attack, improving cholesterol levels, increasing quality of sleep, reducing pain, lowering blood pressure, and reducing levels of anxiety, depression and stress. With that in mind, even if you aren’t ready for this yet, the mental and physical health benefits alone make forgiveness worth considering.
Won’t forgiveness let the abuser off the hook?
The short answer is, no. An abuser will have to deal with the ramifications of their actions whether you forgive them or not. Forgiveness is not declaring that what has happened to you is ok, nor does it mean that the abuse was your fault. It is also doesn’t involve an apology from the abuser that you can then forgive. Forgiveness is the personal process of deciding to not continue to hold on to your anger, resentment, and thoughts of revenge. Letting go of the anger does not change the fact that the abusive behaviors were wrong, but rather, it can create an enormous positive shift for you, mentally and emotionally. Consider allowing these two concepts to exist at the same time: the abuse was wrong, unfair, and not something you deserved, AND you have the power to forgive, allowing yourself to prioritize your healing. As you’ll read below, it is not recommended that you discuss or confront your ex abusive partner with your decision to forgive, which means that they will not know that you’re forgiving them; this leaves them largely unaffected by the forgiveness.
Does forgiveness mean I have to see the abuser or reconcile with them?
No, it does not. Since forgiveness is a personal journey, it does not involve showing up at someone’s doorstep and letting them know they are forgiven. In situations that do not involve abuse, it’s totally reasonable and safe to discuss forgiveness in person. When abuse is involved, though, a face-to-face reconciliation is likely NOT safe, would very likely provide no benefit, and may result in the abuser trying to manipulate the situation for their gain. This process is done on your own (or perhaps with help from your counselor) and does not require a conversation with the person who abused you. Forgiveness is a situation in which you release the abuser’s control by yourself.
In a non-abusive situation, the hope is that the person who wronged you sees the error of their ways, apologizes, and changes for the better. Many healthy people can do this. However, an abusive person is unhealthy and uninterested in fairness or equality. This means that your abusive ex-partner is completely broke of the currency that you would like to be paid back in. They are, in a sense, morally bankrupt and unable to refund you. An abusive person is not someone who accesses empathy in their relationship, and due to this lack of empathy, it is unrealistic to expect that they can “pay you back” in a way that would be meaningful to you. Part of the journey towards forgiveness is facing what is realistic and accepting that reality, which then allows you to move forward.
What does the forgiveness process look like?
The first steps in this process involve finding a safe place and some time to process anger and blame. These crucial steps are necessary for healing after abuse. Some abuse survivors find safety, do some processing, and never move on much after that. However, others may find a turning point after this processing period and begin seeking the next positive outcome. If you have reached these milestones and have begun seeking understanding, you might be ready to start the forgiveness process. Below is a loose framework that you might use. Find where you currently are in this sequence, then take a look at the steps that come afterward.
- Procure safety (or return later if not safe)
- Process acute emotional and physical pain
- If necessary, process anger
- Process blame (pro-tip: abuse is the abuser’s fault)
- Seek understanding
- Become realistic
- Ask yourself what it would take
- Open yourself up to the idea
- Consider seeking ritual
- Invite forgiveness
- Stay open
- Let it visit you
- If it doesn’t, seek further ritual
- Accept forgiveness when it becomes real to you
Wherever you are at in this process, know that our advocates are available 24/7 to support you. Our advocates are able to help you create a safety plan, locate a local counselor, or just provide a listening ear via phone (1-800-799-7233) and online chat.