I never questioned whether I would forgive my ex. I didn’t want to live bitter or drag along baggage from the relationship for the rest of my life. As a child I was influenced by the story of Corrie ten Boom and by Jesus’s forgiveness of me in the midst of his suffering. Having previously experienced the benefits of forgiving someone a grave wrong and knowing it shortened my journey to healing I agree with Terrie Savelle Foy: “Forgiveness doesn’t make it right, it makes you free.”
I forgave my ex many times during an abusive relationship. However, I didn’t acknowledge or recognise it as abusive until after I’d left. As I researched and understood the nature of domestic violence, things I had forgiven had new implications, and many of the things I had accepted as normal were revealed as tools of his manipulation and control of me, so that things I had not seen as offensive became so. I also had to deal with things I had forgotten, perhaps as a coping mechanism, rising to my consciousness. I had to forgive him for the implications of his treatment of me as they manifested in my present, or as things I’d have to deal with in the future, such as one day answering the ‘where’s my dad?’ question from an innocent child abandoned just to get at me. Unfortunately abusive men make bad fathers.
I was surprised by how difficult I found it to forgive his family and friends, particularly his mother, who ignored the abuse despite me asking or screaming for help. I suppose it’s because I just couldn’t understand it – doesn’t a mother’s love require confronting a child’s faults? But then which of us loves perfectly?
It’s easier to forgive once understanding brings peace (which can come without condoning). Without understanding there’s more risk of it bobbing up to the surface, but the choice is still mine, and I’ve decided to keep at it. While understanding matters, I expect my personal understanding of forgiveness built up over the years has been the understanding that has mattered the most.
I bump into his mother occasionally, and since chance encounters are the only type of contact his family chooses to have with us, we’ve had some difficult exchanges. However, I know my choices have paid off because when it happened most recently it wasn’t thrilling, but it also didn’t bother me, which makes me smile.
It is a long, often challenging, process that sometimes feels stupid or impossible, but being aware that forgiving is both a decision and a journey stop me feeling discouraged. It’s also been a way to take back stolen power.
For me, forgiveness doesn’t happen with time and no effort. It’s a lifestyle and a discipline and works best when practiced with the little things before the big ones come. No one has the right to insist on it or condemn someone for choosing not to or being unable to. Forgiveness can cost the giver a great deal. It can not be extracted by coercion.