Does forgiveness really help domestic abuse healing?

Domestic abuse survivors hear about forgiveness a lot. Here’s why it really matters – not for the perpetrator, but for those seeking to heal.

Forgiveness.

Three syllables, but rammed with meaning.

For the religious among us, forgiving is a sacred act. We’re extolled to forgive the sinner:

  • Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. (Holy Bible, Luke 6:37 NIV)
  • Let them pardon and overlook. Would you not love for Allah to forgive you? (Holy Qur’an, 24:22)
  • I extend complete forgiveness to everyone who has sinned against me (traditional Yom Kippur prayer)

The theme is that God forgives, and so we should seek to follow that example.

For those of us that aren’t religious, society itself extends an influence in favour of forgiveness. ‘Forgive and forget’ is a concept so old it’s rooted into our societal consciousness.

Forgiveness and domestic abuse

But for those of us who’ve endured domestic abuse (a staggering one in four women), forgiveness is something with which we grapple, continually, guiltily.

Sure, it’s fairly easy to forgive someone who accidentally spilled their drink on you. But when that person causes grievous pain, forgiveness is seen as almost superhuman generosity of spirit. Hearing of a grieving parent forgiving their child’s murderer, most of us think, ‘Wow, how could they do that?’

Because we see forgiveness as letting someone off the hook.

And that’s hard to bear when we’ve:

  • battled (usually fruitlessly) to have our abuser accept responsibility for their actions
  • faced down a victim-blaming world in which we need #WhyIStayed hashtags and awareness campaigns to challenge paradigms that we brought the abuse on ourselves
  • seen the person who tried so hard to destroy us simply pick up the pieces and stalk off, seemingly unscathed, only to repeat the cycle with a new partner.

Why on Earth should we nobly forgive when we’ve fought so hard for our soul-shattering experiences to be heard and recognised and blame justly apportioned?

So we struggle on, often feeling that there’s something lacking in us because we can’t. (Just another inadequacy to blame ourselves for, right?)

What forgiveness is really about

Here’s a secret that I’ve learned in the years since leaving my violent ex.

Forgiveness isn’t something I should do for him. It’s something I need to do for me. It’s not about absolving him of blame, not one little bit.

Forgiving means giving up on the righteous anger I used to propel me to get out of the relationship, and to stay out. I needed that anger then. It saved my life. It got me through some indescribably tough times as he hoovered, harassed and stalked me.

But it also kept me tethered to him, however unwillingly. My anger at him for robbing me of the life he’d promised me (you know, the one where it’s all sunsets and flowers and ‘just the two of us against the world’), my rage at the pain he caused and everything that he just used up and spat out, the boiling sense of injustice that he never once apologised and actually meant it.

My anger forced me to re-live the abuse, each time seeking a different outcome – one in which he saw the error of his ways and morphed back into the gentle person I first fell in love with.

Or, you know, where he fell into a stupor of despair after I left and spent the rest of his days pining in misery thinking of all the could have and should have dones. Impossible.

forgive2

Anger was a sword I wielded, cutting only myself. I saw that my anger was also directed at myself: for the bad choices I made – letting him into my heart, staying when I should have left, leaving when I could have given him one last chance to change.

But now, I’m in a good place. I’ve accepted that he is what he is and will (likely) never change. I know that nothing I could have done would have made this happen. I can’t re-write history, even in my head.

He has no place in my life. There was just one last thread to cut: and again, the change that I needed was within me all along. I needed to stub out my own anger with him.

Through forgiveness.

I had no ‘Eureka!’ moment. I didn’t wake up one morning and find my pain had crept off into the night and suddenly all was right with the world. Forgiving him was a process, just like healing – in fact, it came hand in hand with my recovery.

As I increased my understanding of domestic abuse and its dynamics, my anger slowly simmered and then burned out. I found I actually pitied him.

I hope one day he is able to make a positive change, to become a better person – but this time, that hope isn’t fuelled by a desperate need for this to happen in order to make *me* feel better.

Because actually, my forgiving him isn’t about *him* at all. It’s about me. It’s about letting go of those negative emotions that were holding me back.

Into the sack goes my anger, weighed down by the boulders of grief, injustice, self-pity and loss. And straight to the bottom of the ocean goes the sack, with all its burdens.

And, riding the foamy crest of the wave, there’s me.

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Forgiving doesn’t erase our past. It doesn’t lessen the enormity of what happened to you. And it certainly doesn’t mean forgetting.

There are no ‘shoulds’ here. Your experience and your healing journey are yours alone. If forgiveness works for you, fantastic. If you’re not there, you’re not there – no pressure.

But if you want to forgive, don’t do it for the person who hurt you, or the external pressures that are on you. Do it for you. You. You’re so worth it, and more.

Have you forgiven your abusive ex? How do you reach that place in which forgiveness is possible? Do you even want to? Be heard, SHARE in the comments.

*Cover image by Jessica Key*

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8 responses to “Does forgiveness really help domestic abuse healing?

  1. My ex abuser told me he would make my life a living hell…4 years later it still is…I’ve progressed but there are moments when I feel like a complete failure and then I hate him all over again. Leaving my children behind to live, burning down my home along with all of my photographs, journals, memories, everything I worked hard for. I hate him to the core of my soul. I try to forgive him even feel sorry for him for being such a miserable human being and wonder what I ever saw. I am torn between forgiving and confronting him to say go to hell. I can’t find joy. My scars show – I haven’t dated in years. Men see my scars in my eyes and all they want is sex. His words – tie you to a mattress and rot like the slut you are. It rips into my soul and it is killing me.

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  2. I’m so sorry that you went through all that trauma, and that you’re still suffering. I know what you mean, exactly, when you describe the need to confront him. I felt that way too – but I know it wouldn’t change a thing other than to let him know he was still able to hurt me. Forgiveness, I think is a deliberate choice in front of all survivors: and while it worked for me, it is not for everyone. I truly hope you find your peace – four years is still early days in the healing journey, and it sounds like you’re on the right track.

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    • Thank you. The sheer acknowledgement and validation of my feelings helps me push through. thank you sharing your story.

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  3. I have had not only to forgive my ex for the (30) years of abuses, but the 3 sons we made, who have estranged themselves from me, and blame me for the whole thing. And forgive myself for throwing over a decent, caring boyfriend for this. It still hurts, but I keep on forgiving. Someday, maybe, maybe not, it will feel like I have accomplished forgiving and feel like it. I haven’t dated either, in the years since the divorce. I am at peace with being single. (Valentines Day can go to the devil, though).

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  4. Try as hard as I might, I can’t forgive my ex for hurting our daughter, first for using her as a pawn to get at me and then by negating her. He has literally destroyed her.

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    • I don’t tell anyone to forgive; its easier for me to say ‘to let go’ and everyone has to do this their own way. I fiercely resent people who say ‘ you HAVE to forgive’ to heal and move on. Every person is different, so are the abusers. No contact or less contact is how I dealt with this. Our sons chose their father over me, and I live with this. Cant fix people (this I had to learn the hard way). As a counselor told me, years ago, “do what you need to do, to take care of YOU”.

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  5. I don’t really know if I have forgiven, I have gotten to a point where I am not very emotional when I see his face in my mind’s eye. I got kids out of the deal, and that is everything. But having to hide for the rest of my life is frustrating and if I dwell on it, makes me angry. I don’t want to forgive for fear I will forget on the witness stand.

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