Updated: May 26
Forgiveness is something I’ve been grappling with for a long time. I have been told time and time again to forgive the abuse I have experienced, yet it has not been something I have been able to accomplish in a way that I can apply to my daily experience. I can understand I have a soul contract to experience certain things, to enable my soul to grow in love and compassion. But how does forgiveness of abuse help us to heal? How do we eradicate abuse if it becomes a forgivable act? Surely forgiveness allows abuse to be repeated and unpunished?
What I’ve come to understand is that forgiveness is not necessary for healing. In fact, forgiveness is the wrong response to trauma, and trauma has been a long-standing companion in my life.
What has spurred me on in my “Enough with forgiveness” action campaign in my own life has been some compelling research into the subject.
Instead of helping individuals and communities overcome evildoing in the world, uncritical and misplaced forgiveness can perpetuate evils and, arguably, inspire wrongdoers. (DiVietro, S., & Kiper)
I experienced emotional abuse as a child in an environment that was filled with the silence of fear, disapproval and the perpetual reminder that being a disappointment was the best that could be expected of me. I and my brother suffered the same fate that my mother had experienced as a child when following my parents' divorce she returned to her family home. She herself found her emotional abuse continued as an adult woman. Encouraged to return to the fold, yet at the same time shamed for her failure to make a success of her marriage.
The deep psychological harmed caused by living with narcissism and undiagnosed mental illness during this time wreaked havoc in the unconscious decisions I made when it came to choosing my own relationships. I jumped out of the frying pan of one abusive long term relationship with my son’s father, straight into the fires of hell when I married my husband, my daughters' father. For 11 years we were victims of extreme abuse and control. My divorce is nearing its final stages but may well take another 10 months to complete. It has taken the 10 years since we fled to get the case to this stage. 10 long years.
Anyone who has experienced trauma – sexual, emotional, mental, physical, financial abuse for example – knows that these experiences run deep and have a lasting impact. One of the solutions presented to free ourselves of the pain is forgiveness.
Forgiveness. It’s evolved into a modern-day virtue. Even if the individual never had a relationship with the person who caused them harm, forgiveness is considered the high ground. Regardless of the depth of harm or the lack of repentance of the offender, forgiveness is a therapeutic or spiritual objective.
Any discomfort or negative emotions surrounding the inflicted harm is assumed to be related to a metaphysical bond between the offender and the survivor. “Don’t let someone rent space in your head” is the incentive given to forgive.
This response has always irked me, it’s naïve and lacks understanding. "Why should I forgive someone who has caused harm to myself and my children? If we forgive where is the incentive for the perpetrator to mend their ways if there are no sanctions?" I asked.
I was piously informed that forgives would improve my mental health. Utter claptrap. The link between mental health and forgiveness has never been substantiated. Many survivors go on to thrive in the absence of forgiveness.
There are three things that any survivor of trauma needs for healing, and not one of them is forgiveness. The first is a recovery focused on the self, not the perpetrator. To suggest to a survivor that their healing is contingent on resolving a relationship with the person who harmed them is secondary harm. The suggestion can create more profound feelings of victimization.
The second is the understanding that the absence of forgiveness does not mean a desire for revenge. I am happy to go about my daily business, thrive and lovingly support my family. The death of my grandparents and Uncle resolved much of my childhood wounds and this is the common resolve for many victims. We simply wait patiently for our violator to die!
Thirdly is the space to talk about our experiences. Yes, to name and shame. There is a notion that forgiveness equates to silence. “You’ve forgiven, so why are you still talking about it?” In the absence of forgiveness, survivors are more willing to speak their truth and allow natural consequences for the violator. Lack of forgiveness is called into play when the survivor is no longer willing to protect the violator.
When survivors focus on healing instead of avoiding consequences, living in their truth is often interpreted as revenge. Survivors take the blame for disruption in the family, job, or organization. Forgiveness is not always the high road; it is often the back road, merely the path of least resistance.
This is what bothers me the most. Forgiveness, as a virtue, leaves a metaphysical trail of tears and an invitation for intentional wrongdoers to harm. It is another outdated evolutionary script that deteriorates cultures rather than builds them up.
Of course, forgiveness has its place and I’m not saying we should forgive at all. Forgiveness is valuable to a cohesive society or familial setting. Family members and people who share a loving relationship are drawn to share physical and emotional space. Forgiveness allows them to do so in the face of harm.
Misbehaved children, neglectful parents, careless spouses, and demanding grandparents are frequent beneficiaries of forgiveness. Children can be raised in low-conflict environments, weddings can be executed smoothly, and family reunions can be a joyful experience because forgiveness is extended.
However, not everyone harmed benefits from sharing physical and emotional space with the person who harms. Many people are serial offenders who hurt people. They do not abuse because they are thoughtless, instead, they are intentional. Continuing relationships with them cause physical or psychological harm to victims.
This is my families experience of abuse and in this setting forgiveness is not the solution.
I have found my own peace within the status of unforgiveness. The condition of unforgiveness creates enough distance from the violator to process the pain, and this has helped me during the ongoing abuse tactics employed during my divorce.
Now that enough of the pain has been processed, I have returned to a state of homeostasis, from which forgiveness may arise naturally in time. Forgiveness does not cause the pain to stop. Stopping pain causes forgiveness.
On a soul level, I have forgiven. I know that all the souls whom I share space with in a meaningful way incarnated with ‘contracts’ to live out certain experiences. That concept I am in loving understanding with. But the day to day damage, the humiliating, dehumanising and decivilizing abuse heaped upon my children and me, that I cannot forgive. Nor should I be asked to. The development of my soul along my soul's path does not require it.
Many lives could be saved, and less trauma would be endured if we stopped passing down generational trauma through a dangerous culture of forgiveness.