What is all the Emphasis on Forgiveness?

Have you been told you need to forgive, or worse, accused of not being forgiving enough? It is almost as if there is a demanded expectation for wives to forgive abusive husbands of their egregious behaviors. 

Where does all of this come from? It isn’t just from the men who have a faith tradition. Nearly every man I have worked with over the years is looking for forgiveness. While this may be an option for some future point, the expectation of it is out of line. 

The problem with line of thinking is that it negates the need for the abuser to do the work, part of which is to address his discomfort with his own emotional dysregulation. It completely disregards the fact that forgiveness and trust are completely separate. He may receive the one and never the other.

Another common theme is that if the wife forgives, the abuser can “move on” and “get back to normal.”  What a horrible mindset. What on earth is normal once his wife has information of his egregious sexual treason? How can there be a normal when there has been deliberate abusive behavior like gaslighting, manipulations of power and control and all other verbal, psychological and emotional harm inflicted?

None of this is normal!

The 1828 Definition of Forgiveness

Noah Webster’s 1828 definition states, “The act of forgiving; the pardon of an offender, by which he is considered and treated as not guilty. The forgiveness of enemies is a christian duty.”

If this definition or anything close to it lingers still today, it is no wonder we are having trouble with this forgiveness and the expectations that appear to be the narrative of almost every abuser, “addict” and the church.

We need to be very clear on this point – the pardon of any abuse is the singular right of the individual who is/has been abused and never at any time should the perpetrator be given a voice in that process. Additionally, there should never be a demand, request, plea, etc. from the abuser to his victim. An expectation that she must forgive is reprehensible. Anything of this type should be seen as a clear indication of a lack of true recovery.

It should also go without saying that no ecclesiastical leader of any faith tradition should ever suggest that a wife is/has not been forgiving. This is spiritual abuse and evidence of colluding with an abuser. 

*Note: if you are in a position of ecclesiastical stewardship for a congregant, please reach out to Center for Peace for training on this topic or any topic relative to abuse in marriage. This is, and never was a two-party problem. It is the unilateral act against the will and well-being of another. Period!!

Forgiveness is NOT Self-Acquittal

Whether the offender is forgiven or not – forgiveness is not a free pass on egregious behavior. It will never erase the harm, whether it was discovered early on in the relationship or when it has been decades in the making. Abusive behavior requires an appropriate recompense commensurate to the acts of harm caused. 

Forgiveness is not permission to be let off the hook for abusive behavior. Forgiveness does not mean she will never bring it up again, or never be angry or hurt by the behavior — no matter how far in the past it happened. The demand for forgiveness should be viewed as a lack of true remorse – remorse offered to and felt by – the victim. 

What to Expect from a Remorseful and Corrected Abuser

If your offending husband has worked to address his behavior through the correction of his misaligned character, lack of conscientiousness to regard you as his life-partner, and disrespect for values of the marriage agreement, you should see the following changes. 

Total and complete ownership of his choices to act in abusive ways: This is not a one-off statement (as in a disclosure). It is an on-going, lifelong willingness to address the radiating effects of abusive behavior, the trauma, and the affront to your dignity. Ownership is more than admitting. When one owns behavioral choices, they take responsibility for the harm their actions caused another person(s).

Expression of remorse: Webster’s definition of forgiveness is problematic in the mind of an abuser, however his definition of remorse is spot on. “The keen pain or anguish excited by a sense of guilt; compunction of conscience for a crime committed.”

Remorse is a character attribute often missing in abusive men. They have years of deflecting the internal voice all humans hear when they have harmed someone. This remorse is necessary for the offender to appropriately address the impact of harm. When an abuser is more concerned about himself than the injury he inflicted, his value system and character are disordered. A lack of being ashamed to the point that the abuser makes statements such as, “don’t shame me” is indicative of serious character issues within that human being.

Similarly to ownership – remorse is an attribute of a strongly corrected character. It should be stated as often as necessary. It is not painful to continue to express remorse unless he’s wanting to protect himself instead of doing the necessary reparative work needed for the victim he abused.

Reparative work for the victim: The responsibility of an abuser to diligently and intently restore as much of the safety, trust, and relational goodwill as humanly possible is not optional for the offender. He should view this as a human obligation. This has nothing to do with one’s faith tradition. It is the obligation of every human being to right the wrongs committed against another. It should be incumbent upon him to complete this work to the degree that it affords the victim the restoration of her lost dignity. 

In no way can the abusive choices be wiped clean. There isn’t a re-wind, or do-over button for abuse. Once it is committed, the consequences of harm will be inextricable. His wife’s pain may potentially radiate for years. If he refuses to complete these steps, and/or continues to repeats the abuse, this pain exacerbates exponentially. There isn’t an eraser for her memory. A refusal to see to this step, or worse treating her with additional abuse for the need she has to see this repair is inhumane.

Corrective work for the offender: In connection to the reparation for the victim, it goes without saying that the offender must correct his problematic thought patterns, selfishness, and abusive choices to ensure he will not repeat the behavior. Should he choose that his behaviors are preferable to his marriage/relational agreements, he should come forward with this so that his wife/partner can choose to consent or not to that relationship.

Mixing of Terminology – Forgiveness, Trust, Reconciliation

The phrase “forgiveness doesn’t equal trust” almost always comes up in a conversation about forgiveness. While factual, all of these terms are different, requiring different decisions.

Trust is destroyed by the unilateral actions of one party – the abuser. The restoration of trust is at the discretion of the victim. This restorative act has little likelihood of occurrence without a serious correction of the offender’s words and actions – indicating their depth and degree of understanding of the serious harm cause.

Forgiveness on the other hand may or may not occur and is the sole right of the victim. It is owed to no one. As stated above, forgiveness should never be a required by the perpetrator, clergy, family or friends. It should never be viewed as a problem the victim creates. She had nothing to do with the perpetration of abuse. She is under no obligation to forgive. She should be afforded the time and space to address the impact in a healthy way for her. 

Reconciliation, likewise, also bears no guaranteed outcome, even if the abusive husband has completed countless programs and attended therapy and groups. None of that matters if he is still unkind and abusive. It is up to the victim whether or not she chooses to reconcile. After all of the abuse and intimate treason, the perpetrator should do all he can to provide a way for reconciliation to happen – and then respectfully get out of the way, giving his wife time to think through the decision as he shows her his extreme remorse for his choices.

If you are having trouble with this issue here’s a list for you

  1. Schedule a session with one of the coaches. Talking it out helps you make sure you have considered all of the options available, addressed your needs/concerns/expectations for the relationship and cared for your injuries.
  2. Take your time. There is no rush to make a decision. Many times we go back and forth trying to make sense of what happened. During those days you’ll need space for your thoughts to settle enough for the decision to be the right one for you. 
  3. Don’t let anyone pressure you. Feeling pressed by others can lead to emotionally made decisions as opposed to well thought out choices that will be stable a month, a year, ten years from the decision day. 
  4. Be careful with all of the mis-assigned blame. It isn’t uncommon for women to feel blamed by all accusations that you are not a forgiving person. Those judgmental statements are made to assuage the speaker’s discomfort.

Forgiveness Does Not Remove Guilt

Bottom line – regardless of whether you choose to forgive the abuse/abuser or not – he is still guilty of those acts. It is not your job to make it easier for him to do the necessary soul reparative work he needs to do.

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