Forgiving our abusers is a strong subject of debate. On-line recovery forums buzz with exchanges about whether an abuser should be forgiven or not. One side argues that forgiving is akin to forgetting, and they want no part of that. Another side argues that we forgive for our own well being, so we must forgive our abusers.
In my search for recovery from abuse, I hoped there was something like a 12-step program. If it existed, I assumed one of the steps required forgiving the abuser. Now I’m pretty sure there is no formula, and forgiveness is not necessarily required.
Me readiness to forgive is a little comical. Only a few months after my fourth escape from a living situation where I regularly feared death at his hands, I was ready to forgive him. I was living apart from him and enrolled in a personal effectiveness workshop. The workshop included an opportunity to forgive those who have wronged us, where I bravely announced that I was hereby forgiving my abuser. Oh, if only words made it so. I’m now amused that my drive to find peace compelled me to forgive my abuser of 30 years within only a few months and without his contrition. The need to suppress anger at our abusers is ingrained, which probably drove me to premature forgiveness. I really needed to forgive myself, but out of habit, I forgave him instead.
Some targets of abuse state that they will never forget or they want revenge. Their rejection of forgiveness is the fuel they need for recovery. While different from my approach, it works for many people. Forgiveness is a personal decision since no one else knows the damage done or your perspective on the role of forgiveness in your life.
In my search to define forgiveness, I encountered one of the most helpful pieces of writing I’ve ever read: a philosophical treatise entitled Reconciling with Harm: An Alternative to Forgiveness and Revenge by Nancy A. Stanlick.
Tears welled from my eyes when I read this piece. Someone was offering an alternative to my confusing relationship with forgiveness. Reconciling with harm is a mind-expanding concept that differently frames forgiveness, revenge, and reconciliation. Here’s how the author describes it:
To reconcile with harm, on the contrary, is to recognize oneself as harmed, and in the most serious cases, to recognize harm as part of who one is; but it is also to aspire to a vision of oneself as a person who is much more than simply harmed.
My take from the article was that since we have no control over others, we have no way to enter into the bargain of forgiveness. Usually forgiveness involves some sort of contrition from the offender. When the person who violated us has no intention of being contrite, how do we forgive? Giving our forgiveness without receiving contrition feels like being abused all over again. Reconciling with harm makes the abuser’s reaction irrelevant in our recovery.
I still believe that the abuser was hateful and manipulative, but I reconcile with the harm he did to me by looking at it as a dark force rather than a personal affront. I don’t absolve him of responsibility, but I believe that I was a convenient target, a widget on the assembly line of people he encountered and found useful. The harm was real, and traumatic to me, but at the same time it wasn’t necessarily personal. He would have done the same to anyone with my tendencies. His need for control was so powerful, that he was willing to destroy the person closest to him to gain it.
In the storm of darkness, I attempted to regain control by being nice: by loving him to better behavior. For that, I forgive myself. Walking away from the battle was the only viable option to end our struggle for control. I forgive myself for my misguided relentlessness. It’s a very human characteristic to want to change others, and it is also pointless.
Reconciling with the harm I suffered while in an abusive relationship led me to self-forgiveness. I highly recommend giving it a try.