While taking a casual scroll down my Facebook feed the other day, I came across a screenshot of a Reddit conversation where people were discussing forgiveness; more specifically they were speaking about how forgiveness isn’t always the solution to the problem. One of the writers described how it was in fact forgiveness that had allowed her to be abused and hurt over and over and over again, because she was constantly forgiving and trying to forget what the abuser had done to her previously in favor of believing in what he could be instead.
“I’ve earned my right to be angry,” she said. And as I was reading the conversation, I felt her words resonate on a deep level.
I’ve always been an incredibly warm, loving person. Empathy comes naturally to me, almost to the point where I wish I could turn it off once in a while; when I’m around others I can basically feel what they’re feeling – their struggles, their joys, their pains, their fears, their hopes – and while it makes relating to those around me easy and is beneficial for them, it can often be overwhelming and draining for me. Moreover, it’s meant in my life I’ve often been perceived as weak or afraid of conflict, because I’m usually the one advocating forgiveness and second chances when it comes to those who have made mistakes; spouting off about redemption, and about how people can learn and grow and evolve from their mistakes.
In reality the opposite is true; I’ve always been quite a strong person at my core, that strength fueled by an innate stubbornness I inherited from both my father and my grandmother. But when you can feel another’s pain the way I can, and sense their sincerity bleeding off them like an open wound when they are apologetic and ashamed of whatever it is they’ve done, it’s next to impossible for me to rub salt in that wound by being harsh or cruel. Moreover, God knows I’ve taken a few twists and turns in my own life that have required forgiveness and second chances, and so I’m often looking to pay it forward myself by believing in and seeing the best in others.
Normally this would be touted as a good thing, seeing as how almost every religion on the planet tells us to forgive those around us as part of our own healing and growth process. Unfortunately when I think about forgiveness as it relates to my abusive ex, Randall, I have to agree instead with the Reddit writer: it’s absolutely not a good thing.
Generally holding on to anger isn’t something that’s recommended, but when it comes to Randall, only anger seems to be successful at maintaining the firm walls I’ve erected to keep my heart, mind, and soul safe. Without the anger, I become what I used to be; warm and forgiving, seeing the illusion of him rather than the reality and believing that some day the illusion will become reality if I just love him enough. Love him enough to drive out all the scars and the wounds and the damage left by what he described as an abusive childhood and years spent caught up in the criminal justice system (including six years in prison).
Yes, surely if I just loved him enough…surely this time, I’d tell myself…this time he’ll finally make the changes he needs to make and become the man I know he is deep down. That’s always how it would start, after every betrayal, and every cruel word, and every fight, and every uncovered lie or manipulation…he’d smile or give me a glimpse of the illusion I’d originally fallen in love with, and offer his best form of an apology, and I’d start to melt as I looked into his lovely green eyes. Each time I did that, while I saw it as offering forgiveness and a chance for redemption, in actuality it was me giving him permission to act in an increasingly depraved and cruel manner. And that’s precisely what he did.
Abuse is progressive, especially when it concerns Cluster-B personality types (psychopaths/sociopaths/narcissists). It starts out with romance unlike anything you’ve ever seen before, like something out of a fairytale (mental health experts call it ‘love bombing’). But then once you’re hooked, it slowly starts to change, degrading into abuse more and more even as the abuser starts convincing you that in fact all the negative changes are because of you somehow. All your fault. And you start believing it, even as you do everything you can think of to please them, to make them happy and in so doing bring back that original person you fell in love with.
Trouble is that original person isn’t real, and never was. That person was merely an illusion. The abusive, selfish, cruel person they become is in actuality who they really are…and that was the single hardest thing for me to grasp about Randall. Still is on some days, when I have what experts call Cognitive Dissonance; when I remember things through the lens he would give me, instead of remembering things as they actually happened.
It’s part of why having a therapist and trusted friends and family around you as you recover is so vitally important; they become your mirrors to reflect back to you the truth, instead of the lies and distorted version of reality you are immersed in while the abuse is occurring. And it’s also why I have to insist that when it comes to abusers, forgiveness fails miserably every time to improve anything about your situation.
Randall often mocked me toward the latter end of our relationship for being weak or scared of conflict, making sure I understood that it wasn’t just him who thought that way, but also everyone he knew; family, friends, and colleagues. And part of what confirmed that vision of me was my ability to forgive indiscretions over and over again. Ultimately my ability to forgive put me in the position to be abused at ever-increasing levels. That is why forgiveness fails; people like Randall don’t want or need forgiveness, they think they’re just fine as they are, and forgiving them simply says “I’m a pushover, so do what you want with me, I’ll allow it”.
So instead I hold onto the anger. I force myself to review in vivid detail all the cruel things he said and did; all the lies and the manipulations and the cruel words and deeds. I do what my therapist had to do for me in the beginning, as I was unable to do it myself: I spell out in black and white precisely what was done to me, without justifications, rationalizations, or minimization. And any time I do that, the anger comes roaring back…and the protective boundaries and walls are reinforced.
“Why does he deserve forgiveness, Meghann?” My therapist asked me once in the early days. “And why is it that while you give it to him, he seems to never extend the same courtesy to you?”
Because that was also true; while he’d commit absolutely atrocious sins on an almost daily basis, with the unspoken understanding that I was not to share most of it with anyone because to do so would get him into legal trouble, he had no problem taking anything I did – whether it was actually ‘wrong’ or not – and broadcasting it to the whole world. Shaming me for it. Throwing it in my face any chance he got; any time I ‘got out of line’.
Last time I checked, that is not what forgiveness looks like. But it IS what manipulation looks like; by broadcasting my failures at every turn, he ensured that when I finally ended the relationship all mutual acquaintances had a horrible view of me and an almost saintly view of him. I was thankfully surrounded by my own support group; my therapist, who my parents had initially forced me to see somewhat against my will but ultimately who became my strongest advocate, and my family and core group of friends. They saw the truth for what it was, and had been seeing the truth long before I was ready or able to see it.
I was lucky; some people trying to escape abuse don’t have any supporters. They are completely alone. And I can’t even begin to imagine what that must be like. How difficult that would be.
Point is, I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older that forgiveness isn’t necessarily a blank slate that you need to offer to everyone around you. People do in fact have to prove themselves worthy of that forgiveness, and if they don’t, well…you are not obligated to give it. Moreover, you’re not “a bad person” for denying said forgiveness. That was one of Randall’s little magic tricks too: if I didn’t recover or get over his latest indiscretion fast enough – if I dared to be hurt longer than he was comfortable with, or needed to talk things through a second or third time – he was quick to accuse me of being shallow or petty or unevolved and small minded. Shaming me into silent compliance.
I know better now. There is nothing shameful about standing up and acknowledging you’ve been hurt or victimized. And there is nothing petty about refusing to forgive the one who did you harm; they do not deserve your forgiveness or your understanding, unless and until they take tangible steps toward earning it.
Earned forgiveness. Not just something that’s expected. That was another new concept for me; originally prompted by another question the therapist asked: “What has he done to deserve your forgiveness? Has he apologized sincerely for everything he did to hurt you? Did he stop the hurtful behavior patterns after you told him it was hurtful and he made his apologies? Did he ever act in ways that were for your own good? Or was it always all about him?”
Surprised by the questions, I was forced to sit back and give an answer that made me cringe as I thought back on everything I’d been through. Yes, he’d apologized many times; he was always quick to offer ‘sorry’ when it was clear that I was upset and that it wasn’t easily going away. Sometimes he’d even pull me into his arms and hold me, or do something special for me as a way to make amends. And that’s what would always lull me and lure me back in. But in truth, those apologies were empty…because he always ended up doing the same thing again, often in even worse ways with far worse consequences the next time.
He cheated on me with Blanche to end the first round of our relationship; and he acted genuinely remorseful, swearing it had been totally out of character for him and that he’d never do it again. Except he did. In the second round of our relationship, he lied and hid from me the fact that he’d slept with an almost nauseatingly high number of women; some of them without even using protection. He lied, shamed me when I’d get suspicious, and then ultimately also gave me STDs because of that unprotected sex he was having. He was again profoundly sorry…until the behavior patterns started up again. The flirting with other women. The feeling in my gut that I was being lied to; that he was keeping something from me, which as it turns out always meant he was carrying on at least one affair behind my back.
He could be incredibly mean and cruel when he was angry; and he’d always be apologetic after the fact when it was clear I had been legitimately and understandably hurt by what he said. Except within an hour of issuing such an apology, he might be back to yelling at me or barking at me again; calling me stupid and incompetent and any other number of put downs to make himself feel better.
He continued talking to Blanche, even though maintaining that contact always made me (understandably) insecure and upset. And even though I approached him about it time and time again, he never stopped, and instead would often shame me for having what any expert says were absolutely normal and expected feelings given the history I shared with that woman. If he backed off at all, it was always only temporary.
And the examples continued. I listed them off for my therapist, feeling increasingly numb, and when I was finished she just gave me a sad little smile as I answered her original question: “No, he didn’t do anything to deserve forgiveness.”
Believe it or not, saying that I still felt somehow like I was a bad person. I felt like it was small of me to not be able to forgive someone. But I understand things differently at this point; forgiveness isn’t necessary to move on with my life. I can put him in a box in the back of my mind and move forward into a bright future, but forgiveness isn’t required to make that possible. Moreover, if I forgave him I’d be more vulnerable to him again in the future of he ever found a way to strike up communication with me again. So at this point I’ve instead embraced my lack of forgiveness where he is concerned; it’s my armor should he ever try to come back.
Forgiveness, like trust, is a gift to give to those who deserve it in your life; it’s not a right for everyone you meet. Both must be earned. And there’s no shame in deciding certain people are in fact unworthy.
Meghann Andreassen is a businesswoman, author, and personal success coach who contributes to this and other blogs on a regular basis. For singles, visit Lasting Connections. To work with Meghann personally, contact her through her website for a free consultation.
**Names and other personal identifying information of some individuals referenced throughout this blog have been changed to protect their identities