Is Forgiveness Necessary for Healing?
Is it really a prerequisite to healing from abuse?
Posted January 26, 2021
Nowadays, it is not unusual for religious leaders, psychological scholars, politicians, and men and women on the street to tout the notion that only by granting forgiveness can one move beyond the abuses and injustices that have been heaped upon someone.
"Don’t forgive, and you will be forever be cast to a life of bitterness."
It seems to me that the principle of universal forgiveness is quite a harsh edict to bestow upon someone, especially someone who has already experienced abuse and trauma. Isn’t it ludicrous that punishment in perpetuity is heaped upon someone who is already a victim? I find it disconcerting, that in the name of spirituality and moral virtue, one must forgive all inequities, in order to heal from the evil or harm that has been received.
It also defies logic. Alice MacLachan, in The Nature and Limits of Forgiveness, states that “the very act of forgiving, however it is expressed, makes a number of claims: that something wrongful was done, that the wrong has caused harm and you (the forgiven) are responsible, even culpable, for this harm” (MacLachlan 2008).
I would add another. Forgiveness is a relational concept and has been throughout the ages. It implies that the forgiver and the forgiven take a journey together to reach conciliation. Throughout time, this transactional process has been a means to resolve debt and other interpersonal injuries. Whatever the injury, genuine forgiveness involves more than just one person. Therefore, it makes no logical sense to consider forgiveness unless both parties are involved in the “transaction.”
Forgiveness comes when the person who has wronged another can acknowledge the wrongdoing and is willing to make amends. The individuals involved can talk about what happened with each other and are willing to listen to one another — it is not easy work, it is a relational process. Forgiveness comes when one is willing to understand the other’s point of view.
To be clear, I believe that the capacity for genuine forgiveness is important, even necessary, for ourselves and our children, especially in these times of societal and interpersonal turmoil. Nevertheless, I question whether it is always warranted as a universal principle. Are there times when it is counter-productive to forgive? Are there times when it lessens the meaning behind the act? And more importantly, is forgiving a perpetrator the only way that one can move forward? Does universal forgiveness, the belief that the only way to heal is to bestow this gift, leave the victim in a position of “double-victimhood.” If one doesn’t forgive, is one truly “condemned to never move beyond anger and pain.” I don't believe this to be so.
The "therapeutic suggestion" of forget, forgive and move on, is given to the victim of the wrongdoing, the victim of the abuse. With that, the act of forgiveness has lost the most important moral dimension of both remorse and repentance for the wrongdoer — the one who needs to accept responsibility for the abusive acts — the very acts which the Bible teaches leads to personal transformation. The cyclical nature of abuse behaviors has long been both clinically and empirically accepted. For the cycle to be broken, the wrongdoer must develop the capacity for genuine remorse. And the victim? The victim of the abuse is left confused, not knowing whether they have been violated, always feeling it is their job to be the peacemaker with no rights to set limits or boundaries.
Forgiveness is not right nor wrong. It is not a panacea. As Maria Mayo writes in The Limits of Forgiveness (2015): ". . . forgiveness has limits . . .and victims may be morally and religiously correct in refusing to embrace forgiveness in some cases. Properly questioned and carefully negotiated, forgiveness stands to resolve differences and secure a better future than what came before. Imposed on victims who already suffer, however, it becomes but another burden with its emotional demands and promise to restore toxic — or even dangerous — relationships."
Having been in an abusive marriage and as a psychologist, I have worked with countless victims of trauma and abuse. It is a fallacy, perpetuated in our world where there is a need for immediate gratification and quick-fix solutions, which one needs to forgive to heal. Healing does not happen quickly, and there is no magic involved. It takes hard work and introspection. One must get to a place of understanding. Then can come acceptance of what was and what is; one does not have to be condemned to continue self-defeating choices and a life of bitterness. For the victim, the victim must come to an understanding of why she made the choices she made, why she did not set limits, use her own voice. It is not the act of "therapeutically" forgiving that will set one free, it is understanding and self-reflection of one's own self and one's own vulnerabilities that allows for future better choices.
For myself, writing my memoir was an integral part of how I have processed my own traumatic experiences. At first, the writing was cathartic; it was the raw expression of the pain and anguish that was my life. In time, though, my writing became more focused and became a way to give meaning to my story. With increased understanding came increased distance from the pain, and the narrative of my life began to unfold, become more integrated, and change.
I have moved on and am no longer angry. But forgiveness is not a word I would use to speak of how I moved through my experience. It was through understanding and acceptance. My memoir, Lost in the Reflecting Pool, is a story of transformation. The pain was something I processed; forgiveness was not involved.
Mayo, M. (2015). The Limits of Forgiveness. Case Studies in the Distortion of a Biblical Ideal. Minneapolis, MO: Fortris Press
MacLachlan, A. (2008) The Nature and Limits of Forgiveness. Toronto: York University