By Sybil Cummin, MA, LPC, ACS
(If you are in an unsafe relationship, please take caution in where you keep this article or any of the activities completed based on this article. Please reach out to your local advocacy center if you need help with safety).
There are many beliefs about the power of forgiveness and the necessity to do so if you want to heal. You might receive the advice that if you do not forgive your abuser, then it will forever eat you up inside. The thought of forgiving the person that tore you down, gave you bruises, made you doubt your own reality, threatened to take away your children (or maybe even succeeded) and did so willfully is sickening to you. If you are still experiencing forms of abuse even after separation, how do you forgive someone of past hurts, when they are not in the past at all? The abuse is current. So, is forgiveness of your abuser a mandatory part of healing?
In my work with victims and survivors of Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) and survivors of sexual abuse, forgiveness as it is typically defined does not seem to be a necessary step of the healing process. There are two processes on your healing journey that relate to forgiveness that are truly helpful, and for the clients I have worked with an integral part of the healing process. The first is an understanding of the abuse and your abuser. Second, and probably holds the most power in your healing journey, is forgiveness of yourself.
Understanding the Abuse and Your Abuser
How could this happen to me? How could someone be so cruel and abusive? Why did I remain stuck for so long? These questions, along with many others, are common among women (and men) after leaving an abusive relationship. You are separated from your partner and feel lost and broken. Educating yourself on the ways in which you became trapped in your relationship and unable to break free, as well as educating yourself on why and how abusers do what they do, is one of the first steps in your healing journey. There is too much information on the hows and whys for this short article. There are many resources to truly educate yourself on the nuances of coercive control and IPV (some links will be provided at the end of this article), and I highly recommend that you work with a mental health clinician that is well educated in IPV to help you through this process.
If we look at a definition of IPV or domestic violence (DV), several things stand out that can help you gain a better sense of your abuser.
Domestic Violence (also known as Intimate Partner Violence) is a systematic and willful pattern of power and control perpetrated by one intimate partner against another and includes, but is not limited to, intimidation, physical assault, sexual assault, psychological and/or emotional abuse, and economic coercion.
One, that there are many tactics and forms of abuse used to take and maintain power and control of one partner. The other part of the definition that is important to understand is this is a systematic process that is willful. Yes, it is purposeful. IPV does not just happen coincidentally; it is a process that is many times very well thought out.
To understand the ways in which you became trapped, you will need to identify all the tactics used by your abusive partner. When and how were they used? Which ones hooked you in the beginning and which ones were the most successful in preventing you from leaving? Some of the most common ones are isolation from family and friends, economic or financial abuse, threatening to take children from you, physical threats and following through with physical harm, and the psychological and emotional abuse that tore you down enough to believe you are worthless and led to you doubting your own reality of your situation.
Understanding your abuser can be amazingly helpful in your healing process. I highly recommend the book Why Does He Do That? Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men written by Lundy Bancroft. He does a wonderful job of explaining the mindset of abusive and controlling men. Many people believe that abusive partners feel badly about themselves and so they hurt others to make themselves feel better. This is not the case. “Abuse grows from attitudes and values, not feelings" (Bancroft, 2002). His behaviors are a direct result of his views on the world and how he has learned to work in his world. Your abusive partner has had role models (if I can call them that) that have taught him to use manipulation and control to get what he wants and have upheld the belief that they are entitled to anything they want.
I should have seen the signs. I should have left sooner. I should have called the police. I can’t believe that I allowed my children to hear him talk to me this way. These thoughts or statements run through the heads of victims and survivors of DV on a constant basis. One of the main reasons these women do not leave is for safety (which might seem completely backwards to those that do not understand). All the "shoulds" are indicators of the significant embarrassment and shame that these women carry. Victims and survivors also carry shame for the behaviors that before their abusive relationship would have been unthinkable to them. Apologizing for provoking their partners for hitting them. Using sex to maintain safety in the home. Changing their appearance to hopefully prevent a fight. Once you have left your abusive relationship, the shame does not go away, sometimes it grows bigger.
1. Honoring what you did to survive. After you have done the work of understanding how you remained trapped in your relationship, it is important to look at your behaviors in a new perspective. You did all of the “shameful” behaviors to survive and keep your children safe. Honor the skill of being so observant that you knew exactly how to act by how your partner threw the mail on the table after he came home from work. Honor the steps you took to leave. Did you have to secretly speak with an advocate? Did you leave everything you owned to go to a shelter, knowing you would not get any of your possessions back? Did you leave knowing that the standard of living you have been accustomed to might never be within your reach?
2. Becoming at peace with your decisions. It is true that we cannot change the past. You can, however, take control of your future. How can you let go of or become at peace with some of your most shameful secrets? Do not allow them to be secrets any longer. Secrets allow DV to live and thrive. Secrets also allow shame to live on. Find a place to share your secrets and most “shameful” experiences. This can be in a group for victims of DV at your local advocacy center. You can start to journal (if you are currently in a safe place to do so). I recommend finding a mental health clinician to help you on this journey. You may need an objective and non-judgmental person to help you change your perspective on these secrets.
3. Start to acknowledge and embrace your strengths. You have the strength to survive. These strengths may be hard to remember after being torn down so many times. You have them. Learn to use them. Learn to see them every time you look in the mirror.
Do you have to forgive your abuser? I do not have the definitive answer on that, however I have seen healing without forgiveness. A thorough understanding of the abuse you have endured and self-forgiveness seem to be the most integral parts of the healing journeys I am honored to have been a part of.
Resources for increased understanding
Why Does He Do That?: Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men by Lundy Bancroft
Healing from Hidden Abuse: A Journey Through the Stages of Recovery from Psychological Abuse by Shannon Thomas, LCSW
The Power to Break Free: Surviving Domestic Violence, with a Special Reference to Abuse in Indian Marriages by Anisha Durve