Should You Forgive Your Unloving Mother?
"Forgiveness is not the goal. Healing is the goal."
Posted December 6, 2016
"I think forgiveness is a personal choice, and there is no yes or no answer. I think that no matter how I or anyone else defines the word forgiveness, to me, it feels like it excuses what was done, and I just can't use that word."
There’s probably no subject more fraught than the question of forgiveness in a situation where you feel deeply wronged or betrayed. It’s especially true when the question is asked in regard to a mother whose cardinal responsibility was to love and take care of you, and who failed you in ways that matter, the effects of which stay with you from childhood into adulthood. “To err is human, to forgive divine,” wrote Alexander Pope, and that's essentially a cultural trope: The ability to forgive, particularly in the wake of egregious hurt or violation, is usually understood as a marker of moral and spiritual evolution, endowed with specific authority by its inclusion in the Judeo-Christian tradition, specifically in the Lord’s Prayer.
Recognizing cultural bias is important because an unloved daughter will feel pressured to forgive her mother. That pressure can come from close friends, acquaintances, relatives, strangers, and even a therapist; her efforts to forgive may be fueled by her need to show herself as morally superior to her mother as well.
But even though there seems to be a consensus that forgiveness constitutes the high road, there’s also a fair amount of confusion about what forgiveness is and isn’t. Does it absolve a person of wrongdoing or excuse him or her? Or is it about something else? Is forgiveness about the other person or is it about the person professing it? Is It about letting go of anger? Does forgiving give you an advantage that vengefulness doesn’t? Or does it turn you into a patsy or an enabler? These are questions we have tried to answer for years.
[The quotations in this post are from readers on my Facebook page to whom I posed the question: “Should you forgive your mother?”]
The Psychology of Forgiveness
"I'm getting to the point of genuine forgiveness because I can't hang on to my abusive past if I want a better future. It doesn't excuse the things she did to me, but I deserve the freedom to have peace and love in my heart that I never learned from her."
At the beginning of their history, humans were more likely to survive in groups than as singletons or couples, so it’s theorized that forgiveness emerged as a prosocial behavior; revenge or retribution doesn’t just separate you from the transgressor and his allies but might, in fact, run counter to the communal interests of the tribe. In an article by Jeni L. Burnette and colleagues, the researchers hypothesize that forgiveness as a strategy might have evolved as a function of calculating the risks of revenge against the possible benefits of the relationship. The thinking goes like this: The younger guy has poached your mate from your tribe of hunters and gatherers, but it occurs to you that he is also one of the strongest men in the tribe and very useful in flood season. What should you do? Use revenge as a deterrent against future encroachments or bet on the value of his future cooperation and go with forgiveness? In a series of experiments, the team found that, among college students, there was a calculation of exploitation risk and relationship vale which fostered considering forgiveness.
"Almost always, when someone wants you to forgive them their mistreatment of you, they really mean, 'Stay in the relationship with me so you can continue to fill my ego needs.' Walk away, or run from them and do not look back. Burn bridges and boats if you must, but do not let them back into your life. You do not owe them forgiveness, redemption, atonement, or enlightenment at your expense."
Other studies show that certain personality traits actually make some people more likely to forgive—or, more precisely, more prone to believe in forgiveness as a helpful and useful strategy after they've been wronged. An article by Michael McCullough suggests that people who thrive in the realm of relationships are more forgiving, as are people who are emotionally stable and those who are more religious and spiritual. The researchers also assert that specific psychological processes are at play when people forgive: Empathy for the transgressor, the ability to give the transgressor the benefit of the doubt (being generous in both the appraisal of the wrongdoer’s behavior and the severity of the wrong itself), and the tendency not to ruminate about the betrayal or wrong. Although the article doesn’t mention attachment, it’s worth noting that the insecurely attached woman—a common byproduct of a childhood in which your emotional needs weren’t met—isn’t likely to be able to process events in these ways.
A meta-analytic review suggests that there’s a connection between self-control and forgiveness, the thinking being that since the impulse to be vengeful is more “primitive,” being constructive instead is a sign of self-control. (Frankly, this sounds like the cultural bias at work but more on that anon.)
The Kiss of the Porcupine and Other Insights
"How can you forgive a mother who not only refuses to acknowledge the hurt you suffered by her actions, but is shocked that you think your childhood was painful and she was cruel to you? I refuse to validate her treatment of me. I choose to self-parent and love the child within. I love her and care for her the way she deserves, with kindness and time and care. This takes so much energy and thought and is, at times, difficult. If only I was parented well to begin with. How can I possibly let go of myself and prove her right with my forgiveness? I do not hang on to a bucket of burden and hate, I have worked through and processed my emotions around my childhood and will continue to do so by keeping the little me close but I cannot offer forgiveness to her while she is in denial of her mean cruel treatment of me."
Frank Fincham, an expert on forgiveness, offers up the image of two kissing porcupines as emblematic of the human conundrum. Imagine the two on a frigid night, snuggling to stay warm, enjoying the closeness, until someone’s quill pierces the other’s skin. Ouch! Because humans are social creatures, we make ourselves vulnerable to ouch moments in our quest for intimacy. Fincham carefully parses what forgiveness is and isn’t, and his definitions are worth keeping in mind.
Forgiveness isn’t denial or pretending that the hurt didn’t happen. In fact, it confirms the hurt because forgiveness wouldn’t otherwise be warranted. Additionally, forgiveness confirms the act or transgression as intentional since unintentional acts don’t require forgiveness. For example, when a limb from your neighbor’s tree smashes your car’s windshield, no forgiveness is required. But when your neighbor takes a limb and smashes your windshield out of anger, you’re in different territory.
Forgiveness, Fincham argues, doesn’t imply reconciliation or reunion; while it’s true that reconciliation requires forgiveness, you can forgive someone and still have nothing to do with them in the future. Finally—and this seems especially important—forgiveness isn’t a single act, but a process. It requires managing the negative emotions that are a consequence of the act and substituting goodwill for the impulse to strike back. It’s a process that involves a considerable amount of emotional and cognitive work and so, as Fincham notes, the statement, “I am trying to forgive you,” is particularly true and meaningful.
Does Forgiveness Always Work?
"I have forgiven my mother time and time again. I went back hoping for a different outcome but, alas, it never happened. I understand she wasn't born this person—that things happened, choices were made, something is broken inside her. I feel she's too far gone in this persona of me, me, me. It was a revolving door for me. I tried to get away but then some crisis would arise and of course I was right there to save the day because that's who I am and she was my mom. Then the crisis would pass and things went back to 'normal.' I lived this way for way too long. I have finally cut ties and phone numbers."
I think you already know the answer to the question of whether forgiveness always works, either from personal experience or anecdote: The short answer is it does not. Let’s turn to research to understand the downside to forgiveness; an article appropriately titled “The Doormat Effect” can be considered a cautionary tale for daughters considering both forgiving their mothers and remaining in the relationship.
In a bit of contrarian research—the vast majority of studies look at the benefits of forgiveness—Laura Luchies, Eli Finkel, and others looked at whether forgiveness was as universal a panacea as it appeared. Not altogether surprisingly, they found that forgiveness is only beneficial when certain conditions are met—that is, when the transgressor has made amends and worked to change his or her behavior. If that happens, then the self-concept and self-respect of the forgiving person remain intact. But when the offender doesn’t—or, even worse, sees forgiveness as an open invitation to keep breaching the trust in the relationship—the person’s self-concept is understandably eroded and he or she will feel used and stupid. Despite the body of research seeming to recommend forgiveness as a panacea, they wrote:
"[T]he responses of both victims and perpetrators are influential following a betrayal. Victims’ self-respect and self-concept clarity are determined not only by their own decision whether to forgive or not but also by their perpetrators’ decision whether to act in a manner that signals that the victim will be safe or valued or not.”
Unless your mother has come to the table, openly acknowledged her treatment of you, and vowed to work with you to change her ways, it may well be that forgiving is just a way of re-establishing your status as a doormat.
Daughters, the Dance of Denial, and Forgiveness
"Yes! You've expressed well what I have experienced. Part of this forgiveness is the recognition that I am not going to get the love I want from my mother and I STOP WORKING FOR IT. Then I allow myself to find love where it truly is instead of where it isn't. Then there is peace in my own heart!"
Clinicians and researchers agree that forgiveness of transgressions is a cornerstone of maintaining intimate relationships, especially marriage, but that certain caveats do apply: The relationship must be one of equals, without an imbalance of power, and with equal investment and recognition of the benefits of the connection. By definition, the relationship between the mother and the unloved child isn’t one of equals, not even if the daughter is an adult. She still wants and needs the maternal love and support she didn’t get.
Forgiveness may actually get in the way of the daughter’s appreciation of how she’s been wounded and her healing. It can become part of what I call the dance of denial—the explanations that rationalize and normalize her mother’s words and actions: “She doesn’t know she’s hurting me,” “Her own childhood was lousy so she doesn’t know any better,” “I’m probably too sensitive like she says.” Because the ability to forgive is considered a sign of moral worthiness—setting you apart from the grudge-holders of the world—a daughter may unconsciously believe that showing herself worthy in this way will finally get her what she wants: Her mother’s love.
So it might not be about whether you forgive your mother, but when you do and your deepest motivation for doing so.
Forgiveness After Going No Contact
"Forgiveness comes with healing, and healing begins with honesty and self-love. And by forgiveness, I don't mean saying, 'It's OK what you did because I see you just made a mistake and you had no bad intentions.' That's the 'normal' kind of forgiveness that we exercise every day, because we as humans are flawed and we do make mistakes. But this kind of forgiveness is different. This forgiveness is saying, 'I see the truth of what you did, it was horrible and unacceptable, and has caused me irreparable harm; but I am moving on with my healing in life and letting you go.' That is the forgiveness I am working toward as I heal from severe traumas. But again, forgiveness is not the goal. Healing is the goal. Forgiveness comes as a result of healing."
Many unloved daughters speak of forgiveness as a final step in letting go; it seems less about forgiving their mothers than choosing to no longer focus on them. It’s true that continuing to feel anger—feeling the active sting of how miserably your mother treated you, the ongoing appreciation of how terribly unfair it was that she was your mother in the first place—keeps you emotionally in the relationship even if you’ve abandoned it. In this scenario, forgiveness becomes the ultimate act of disengagement.
One daughter, though, was careful to draw a distinction between forgiveness and disengagement, a point of view worth considering:
"Here's the thing: I'm not turning the other cheek and offering the olive branch (ever again). The closest I can get to forgiveness is 'let go of the story' in the Buddhist sense. Ruminating about it builds a rut in the brain, so I stay in the moment. When I catch myself thinking about it, I come back to the present moment, perhaps by focusing on my breath. Again and again and again. As many times as it takes. Depression is thinking about the past and anxiety is thinking about the future. Mindfulness has been the answer. Compassion also stops the rut-building process in the brain, so I think about what must have happened to my mother. But I do that for the benefit of my brain. Forgiveness? No."
The decision to forgive your mother is complex, and depends on motivations and intentions perhaps more than not. I’m often asked if I’ve forgiven my own mother; the truth is that I haven’t. I find intentional cruelty toward children an unforgivable act, and she certainly was guilty of that, so no forgiveness there. But if one component of forgiveness is letting go, that’s another matter. The truth is that I never, ever think about my mother unless I am writing about her. In a sense, that’s the ultimate disengagement.
Many thanks to my readers on Facebook who contributed their words and thoughts.
Copyright © 2016 Peg Streep
Visit me on Facebook. These ideas are fully explained in my book, Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life. You may also want to read Mean Mothers: Overcoming the Legacy of Hurt.
Burnette, Jeni L., Michael E. McCullough, Daryl R, Van Tongeren, and Don E. Davis “Forgiveness Results from integrating Information about Relationship Value and Exploitation Risk,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (2012), 38 (3), 345-356.
McCulllough, Michael E. “Forgiveness: Who Does It and How Do They Do It?,”Current Directions in Psychological Science, (December, 2001) vol. 10, no. 6, 194-197.
Burnette, Jeni L, Erin K. Davisson, Eli J. Finkel et al. “Self Control and Forgiveness: A Meta-Analytic Review, “Social Psychology and Personality Science (2014), vol. 5 (4), 443-450.
Fincham, Frank,” The Kiss of the Porcupines: From Attributing Responsibility to Forgiving,” Personal Relationships (2000), 7, 1-23.
Luchies, Laura B. and Eli J. Finkel, James K. McNulty and Madoka Kumashiro, "The Doormat Effect: When Forgiveness Erodes Self-Respect and Self-Concept Clarity," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2010), vol.98, no. 5, 734-749.
Fincham, Frank D., Julie Hall and Steven R.H. Beach, “Forgiveness in Marriage:Current Status and Future Directions,” Family Relations, 55 (October 2006), 415-427.