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Should You Forgive If You Can't Forget?

Advocates would argue that the act of forgiveness gives power back to the person doing the forgiving. But even if this was the case, it also reallocates responsibility. The onus is now on the victim, not the perpetrator.
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Rear view of woman sitting on bed
Jutta Klee via Getty Images
Rear view of woman sitting on bed

Margaret* struggled in the wake of her abusive relationship. Feelings of inadequacy, self-disgust and bitterness cast a murky pall over any attempts to move forward. Forgiveness, urged her pastor, was the answer. So Margaret wrote a letter to her abuser, offering just that.

Ten years later it is not the abuse that she resents as much as the letter itself. The idea that she granted forgiveness for the unforgiveable, to a man who not only showed no remorse but who, armed with absolution, then went on to abuse others.

But forgiveness is not only a faith-based obligation. Psychologists define forgiveness as a deliberate decision to purge feelings of resentment or vengeance, while some recovery theorists name forgiveness as an actual therapeutic stage, bringing transformation to those who are able to achieve it.

Even in lay-terms, the doctrine has never been more popular. Every day brings yet another Facebook meme postulating the benefits, or an inspirational quote, or a glistening pearl of wisdom from the lips of Oprah and the like. Forgiveness, we are told ad infinitum, is a gift to ourselves. It has little to do with those we are forgiving, but fuels our journey. A release from bitterness, umbrage and bile.

Yet the definition of forgiveness also includes the granting of a pardon towards those that have done harm. This action exists outside the seriousness of the offence, or remorse, or even whether this forgiveness is deserved. Recidivism is not a factor. As such, ironically, forgiveness can slip neatly into the cycle of violence that plays out in the majority of abusive relationships. The slow build towards violence, followed by the explosion, followed by remorse, forgiveness and the honeymoon period, before beginning the relentless build once more.

Most women in violent relationships attempt to leave many times before permanently breaking free. Forgiveness can play a large part in this destructive merry-go-round. It offers absolution, renewal, a clean slate. The fertilisation of a well-worn path. For the victim, it can even seem like a seductive form of power, albeit temporary. Fuelled by wary optimism and generosity, forgiveness is often the only tool brought to bear. No counselling, or anger-management, or even an acknowledgement of the patterns of power and control.

Advocates would argue that the act of forgiveness gives power back to the person doing the forgiving. But, even if this was the case in a cohesive, longitudinal sense, it also reallocates responsibility. The onus is now on the victim, not the perpetrator. For Margaret, this pressure to forgive added to her emotive burden and emphasised feelings of guilt. Similarly, Helen* found her religious community placed pressure on her to pardon the perpetrator, with the the survival of the marital unit taking precedence over her own personal wellbeing.

Other survivors have spoken of resenting the implication that forgiveness absolves the perpetrator. In many cases, this absolution was required even as the abuse was ongoing. For 60 percent of separated parents, spousal violence and conflict continues long after the relationship itself has ended. Not only is there little remorse or regret shown by the perpetrator, there remains an active continuation of the abuse. A Japanese proverb holds that forgiving the unrepentant is like drawing pictures in water -- the reward is fleeting at best.

Friedrich Nietzsche called forgiveness 'sublimated resentment', claiming that sublimation was a dubious achievement and resentment even worse. Similarly, other philosophers have pointed out that to forgive too easily can actually show a basic lack of self-respect, and that those who do not resent the violation of their rights do not, in fact, take their rights very seriously at all.

Requiring a survivor of domestic violence to forgive once she has left the relationship can therefore actually locate her ongoing journey within an abusive context. In addition, it reinforces the perpetrator's tendency to continue his behaviour (whether with his ex-partner or in a new relationship) and downplays the harm that has been done to the survivor herself. Forgiveness, in this regard, is not only unfair and burdensome, it can actually be dangerous.

This does not negate the need for a survivor to release anger and displace the centrality of the past violence within her life. For many, this is a vital and empowering stage of the recovery process. It simply means that framing this accomplishment within the doctrine of forgiveness can add an unnecessary layer of vulnerability.

Perhaps the biggest question, however, is why forgiveness and recovery are even treated as mutually inclusive. Many of the interpretations are based on the dubious assumption that it is impossible to truly heal from trauma without forgiving those who caused it. These interpretations, just like the memes that flit across our Facebook feeds, treat forgiveness as something to be ticked off a to-do list. They also cloak themselves with the pretentious assumption that there is far greater strength involved in forgiving than not. Yet I would argue that, in some cases, the reverse is true. Forgiveness can be lazy and self-indulgent -- even a form of self-harm.

It takes a particular form of strength to reject forgiveness also. This does not mean that justifiable resentment cannot be compartmentalised as those affected move forward with their lives. Chris* used this method in her journey after abuse, describing her life now as the happiest and most content she has ever been. She said: "I will never forgive him but nor will I reward him by having any influence over my life. He doesn't deserve either."

Similarly, Dawn* explained: "From time to time I recognise, in me, feelings of discontent... and I am able to deal with the issues quickly. Meanwhile I am channeling my anger into constructive outlets. My anger is an important reminder that action, not complacency, will best serve others who follow. [Meanwhile] I rebuild my life with so much love around me and confirmation of my place... it fulfils each of my dreams and wildest (impossible) desires."

Forgiveness is a choice, not a stage. It is a complex methodology that works for some but not for others. The priority should be recovery and growth, not a doctrine that can, potentially, devalue a survivor's past and derail her future. And if we are going to treat domestic violence with the seriousness it demands, then that involves an acknowledgement that some slates should never be wiped clean. And some things are unforgiveable.

*Names have been changed

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