Friday, June 14, 2013

You Don't Get to Tell Me How to Forgive an Abuser

Emily's Note: The topic of abuse and forgiveness is a sensitive one for me, and it's a topic that recently arose in my personal life when a member of my extended family attempted to publicly shame me (and others in my family) for not maintaining contact with someone who abused us in the past. When I privately asked that individual not to make such statements, their response was that I was obligated as a Christian to forgive. And so, with this topic once again at the forefront of my mind, I decided it was time to explain why such advice is in fact damaging to victims and survivors.

For a victim or survivor of abuse, one of the most damaging things a person can say is, "You have to forgive your abuser."

If you're religious (as I am), my statement might sound sacrilegious. Even if you're not religious, you may want to encourage a survivor to forgive those who hurt them so that they can move on with their life and let go of that pain. And I don't disagree with you that letting go of that anger is one essential part of the healing process. But I'm not concerned with the message you're trying to share - I'm concerned about the way you're sharing it and the unintended consequences your statement may carry.

1 - Telling someone to forgive assumes that they are doing something wrong, and a survivor of abuse has been hearing that message for years.

For the context of what I'm going to discuss here, suffice it to say that I grew up in a home with an abusive father, and some (but not all) of his siblings reinforced the abuse by accusing me of causing it. I once came home to find one of his siblings in the kitchen, waiting for me, in order to lecture me on being a better daughter. When I went to the police in order to get a restraining order so that my family and I would be safe from him, his mother and some of his siblings accused me of lying, despite those individuals possessing knowledge of similar abuse which he perpetrated against others when he was younger. To put it lightly, my relationship with those particular family members has been strained ever since.

Research and anecdotal evidence suggest my experience is not at all unusual. I've heard first-hand and second-hand accounts of mothers who accused children of lying when they came forward about abuse or who even accused preteen daughters of seducing their stepfather after he sexually assaulted them. And I've read studies where alarmingly high percentages of survivors reported that the initial adults they   confided in blamed them. I've posted about victim-blaming before, but I cannot over emphasize the damage that a culture of victim-blaming enacts on those who are abused. Victim-blaming leads to victims feeling so much shame that they hide what is happening, and it helps abusers evade prosecution. As a result, the abuser is likely to continue abusing.

2 -  Telling someone to forgive faster interferes with their healing process.

Most survivors spend years sorting through their experience. For many survivors, even reaching a point where they can openly express anger toward those who hurt them is in fact a step in their recovery. They may have spent years convincing themselves that what an abuser did was okay, or even pretending it never happened. Acknowledging anger is essential in working through the repercussions of abuse. And acknowledging the abuser is necessary to eventually forgive. After all, how can you forgive someone if you never come to terms with the fact that they did, in fact, hurt you?

3 - Forgiveness is a process that is different for everyone.

Perhaps you were abused, and you forgave that person by restoring a close relationship. Perhaps you never stopped loving that person or considering them your father, your mother, your brother or sister. Perhaps you forgave them and let them back into your life, after they had stopped abusing you.

But it doesn't work that way for all of us. For some of us, no longer praying for an abuser to die in their sleep is forgiveness.

For many survivors, it is unsafe to maintain any sort of contact with an abuser. And I don't just mean physical safety - yes, that's a major concern. But if you think that's the only issue at stake, you won't understand when another survivor refuses to even be in the same room with their former abuser. For some of us, hearing an abuser's voice or seeing a photo of them alone is enough to give us nightmares for two weeks straight. Enough to trigger old fears and leave us vulnerable in ways to hurt our efforts to simply live our life.

4 - Forgiving does not require staying, and yet many victims convince themselves that it does.

For those victims, being told that they have to forgive just reinforces the old belief that they are obligated to accept the abuse, never fight back, and not try to leave. A victim who holds that belief is likely to feel guilty for resenting the abuse. And even if a survivor overcame that belief in order to leave, hearing you tell them that they have to forgive is likely to dredge up the shame they felt when they were abused.

Again, not helpful in their recovery process.

5 - It's simply not your place to say, and you may be saying it for the wrong reasons.

Forgiveness is a complicated process, and no other person has the right to look at a victim of abuse and assume that their approach to forgiveness is wrong. You may be telling your friend to forgive because you're worried about how their anger seems to eat them up, but you simply can't know enough about their situation to know that for a fact.

If you've given this advice to someone, you may also need to reevaluate your motives. You may have had nothing but good intentions, but you also may have been looking for a way to stop them from sharing an experience you were uncomfortable hearing. Perhaps you have been abused yourself, and hearing their experiences leaves you feeling raw about your own pain.

Perhaps you care about the abuser so much that you're afraid to admit the severity of what they did, so you're treating it like something minor enough that it could be forgiven quickly. Or perhaps you witnessed abuse and you feel guilty that you didn't protect the survivor. If any of these motives ring true for you, please do whatever it takes to work through it. Confide in friends, write in a journal, go to a counselor, pick up a hobby that helps channel that energy.

But please, don't try to tell other survivors how to forgive. Because it's probably hurting you as much as it's hurting them.


  1. Thank you for writing this brave post.

  2. So beautifully said---and so important to say. Loved this. (Made an extensive comment on your Facebook post.)