“You don’t have to rebuild a relationship with everyone you have forgiven.” ~Unknown
“Forgive” and “forcefully” are not two words I have ever joined together before.
My idea of forgiveness involved kind and gentle meekness.
But never forcefulness.
Well, not until I waded through the choppy waters of forgiveness after I had the courage to leave my abusive marriage.
Forgive is a Verb
Forgiving isn’t an emotion. It’s an action. It’s a process that has no time limitation or expiration date.
It can’t be ordered, demanded, or rushed.
When I first discovered that my husband had been lying to me, we had been married for thirty years. Out of the blue I discovered he had lost his job…over fifteen years previously.
You read that correctly—fifteen years.
For fifteen years he led me to believe that he was going to work every day. I thought we were saving money for college for our three children, “rainy day” needs, and retirement.
But there was no accumulation of money at all. He didn’t contribute anything to our family. Consequently, his financial betrayal had devastating, long-lasting effects on me.
We didn’t have health insurance. Going to the doctor or dentist was a luxury. We couldn’t afford a lot of the basic necessities for our children and relied on help from our families. He caused all this while criticizing my concerns, saying I was too needy and materialistic, and that I should be grateful for what I had.
Little by little, I discovered that most of our marriage had been built on a mountain of lies. My ex-husband is a pathological liar. He is also a sex addict. He cheated on me routinely and without regret because he felt like life ‘owed’ him whatever he desired.
Looking back, I see how he moved us away from my friends and family, isolating me. He belittled me until I had no self-confidence left. He used me like a worthless piece of trash.
It’s impossible to put into words how it feels to discover that most of my life was completely out of my control.
The story of my life was written by someone else. Someone who is selfish, greedy, and power hungry.
Is forgiveness possible?
Victim Bullying is Real
Our first marriage counselor beamed proudly at my husband (ex-husband now.) She praised him for his willingness to attend counseling with me and for his acceptance of his faults.
I listened to him manipulate the facts of the story to present himself in a better light, and I marveled at how blind I had been for so long.
And then the counselor jumped into the topic of forgiveness, and I felt like my head was spinning.
This man had abused me.
For thirty years I was abused emotionally, sexually, and financially.
Yet now everything was in my hands. He had done his job and apologized, so I needed to meekly accept it. Right?
But I couldn’t.
That first session, our marriage counselor gave me three homework assignments: a book to read, a list to write of things he could do to rebuild my trust, and a letter to write expressing how hurt I felt.
My abuser’s homework?
I felt further victimized. I was trying to uncover and measure the piles of dust that were being swept up. At the same time, he was handing me a can of Pledge to clean up his mess.
We need to stop bullying the victims by pushing them to forgive before they are ready. If the forgiving is completely up to me, then I need to do it my way. Period.
By the way, this same counselor eventually pulled me for a private session one day and encouraged me to have a bag packed and an exit strategy planned. The blindfold eventually was lifted. She was the first person to validate to me that my experience was abusive.
One Right Doesn’t Fix Bunches of Wrongs
Once my husband started admitting to all the wrongs he’d done, he acted as if I should naturally just forgive him right away.
It doesn’t work like that.
“I’m sorry” isn’t the magic eraser of bad deeds.
Three decades of purposeful abuse can’t be wiped away with a simple child-like apology.
I left my husband and began working with a therapist alone. She helped me see what forgiveness really is. It isn’t absolution for the abuser. It isn’t a free pass. It certainly isn’t a reset button to give my abuser a second chance. In fact, it has very little to do with my abuser.
Forgiveness means I am releasing the hurt and anger I feel so that it holds no power over me.
What Needs to Be Forgiven?
To forgive is to let go of the hurt that crushes my heart.
Truthfully, I will probably never know the full extent of what my abuser did to me under the guise of being a ‘loving’ husband.
So forgiveness can’t hinge on knowledge.
Even though I’ve learned that my abuser was himself abused as a child, I can’t accept that as a good reason why he treated me badly.
So forgiveness isn’t understanding or compassion.
What is forgiveness for me?
It’s forceful action to reclaim my life.
Forcefulness Is Real Action
New memories pop up to haunt me all the time.
The time my ex-husband missed my son’s winter concert. I know he wasn’t working, so where was he? Who was he with? Was he using the money I had earned at my job to go to a strip club?
The time he fought against taking me to the hospital because we didn’t have health insurance. I was having a hypertensive crisis, and he tried to get me to somehow ‘fix’ my problem at home. I ended up driving myself to the ER, where I was whisked away for a CT scan immediately because the doctors feared I was having a stroke right then.
My husband put my health in jeopardy by not ‘allowing’ me to go to the hospital, by not having medical insurance, and by not being around to help. Thankfully, I have fully recovered. But it’s something I had to forgive him for, even though he never specifically apologized for that particular instance.
I’ll never know the full story.
I won’t hear apologizes for every single betrayal.
These are the ghosts of my past that linger in the air.
And with each new spotlighted transgression, I must forgive my abuser all over again.
This goes on and on, repeatedly. But I no longer view it as re-victimization. I see it as my empowerment to direct my future.
Forgiving Is Not for The Weak
So, as an abused person, forgiveness is not a single act for me. It is a continuing action.
I can try to give a blanket forgiveness, but when bleak memories attack me in the dark hours of the morning, I find myself needing to release and let go of all that hurt again. If I don’t, I risk being weighed down with anger.
But it’s also empowering because I’ve learned I can’t rely on the gentle meekness displayed during schoolyard apologies. To forgive is hard work.
It takes force, which includes:
No, forgiveness is not for the weak.
Are you struggling with forgiving something that is hard? I understand. Try to take the power into your hands and forgive with forcefulness. You have the strength to do it. And the freedom you uncover is well worth the effort.