Sunday, 20 March 2016

Do You HAVE To Forgive In Order To Move On?!

Giles, I love you, but I'm about to pick apart this argument in spectacular fashion.

Sooooo...  I've talked quite a lot on this blog about some pretty personal stuff that's happened to me in my 33 years on this planet.  I've discussed the abusive relationship I was in and the recovery process I underwent whilst piecing my life back together, afterwards.  I've talked about bullying and the frankly horrific experiences of it I had at school.  But in all that conversation, there's something I've never really touched on and the reason for that is because I'm well aware that in doing so, I'm going to be positioning myself directly opposite a lot of other people and potentially opening myself up to a whole heap of "OMG EMMA, YOU ARE SO WRONG," which I simply don't have time for, in amongst the serious business of my day to day life (dossing about on YouTube counts as serious business and don't tell me otherwise).  The trouble is, I'm one of those people who can only keep things inside for so long, before they burst forth anyway.  So, rather than end up having some kind of weird brain explosion, I figured it would probably make more sense to say this as rationally as I can, at a time of my choice.  And that time, ladies and gentlemen, is now.

Brain explosion narrowly avoided, but here are some of the contents, anyway.

Let me preface literally everything I'm about to say here, by highlighting the fact that I am a very forgiving person.  There are people in my life that my closest friends and family members can't forgive because they've hurt me badly in the past, but I'm not someone who believes in holding a grudge, so I tend to think "well, okay, I'll give this person another chance" more often than not.  That's not to say that I'm a total pushover, but I also don't believe in giving up on people too easily.  We're all human and we all make mistakes and besides, I'm not blameless; I'm certain people have had to forgive me for things, too.  In the matter of small arguments, little problems and everyday mistakes, then sure, we should be forgiving and forgetting, because the alternative is to let the really silly little things people do that we perceive as "wrong" build up in our heads until we start getting enraged about it all and that's clearly not good.  So, for the most part, I'm pretty forgiving and I hope the people in my life will forgive me when I do or say something a bit stupid, too.

Can't resist a big but...

BUT there is one thing that drives me battier than a bell tower in a Dracula story and that is the idea that you can't truly move on from a seriously traumatic experience until you've managed to forgive the person who caused it.  

Nope, no, non, nein.  I'd type "no" in the Greek language of my forefathers, but I think you've got the point.  

The suggestion that we have to forgive someone who's caused us enormous pain in order to be able to move forwards with our lives is just ludicrous and wrong.  Like I said, I don't believe in holding onto a grudge and I don't think it's necessarily healthy to go through life hanging on to hate or anything like that, but forgiveness is categorically not something that has to go hand in hand with successfully moving on from a dreadful experience.  

Take me, for example.  The very last time I saw my abusive ex face to face, he looked me straight in the eye and told me: "I know exactly how I've treated you and I'm not sorry, because you were weak enough to let me do it."  

In the four and a half years since I left his house that day, I have done everything I can to move forwards with my life.  I've had support from an abuse charity, I've tried online dating (epic fail), I've gotten myself to an emotional place in my life where I no longer blame myself for what happened to me and I like who I am.  I've written a book that's very loosely based on my experiences and it's getting 4 and 5* reviews on Amazon.  I've succeeded in putting myself back together again and whilst what I went through changed me and will always be a part of me, I consider myself to have moved on.  

Do I forgive my abuser?

People choose their behaviour.  All that "but I had a sad childhood and I don't know any better way to behave" rubbish that people like EL James like to pump into fictional characters, in order to explain away their horrendously douchey behaviour is just a flimsy excuse that has no place being passed around as truth.  Once again, for those at the back: PEOPLE CHOOSE THEIR BEHAVIOUR.

Remember the last thing that my abuser said to my face?  "I know exactly how I've treated you and I'm not sorry."  Well, that became even clearer two months later, when he angrily texted me out of the blue, after thinking that I had attempted to warn off his next victim (I hadn't).  Somehow, probably because I was still very raw, confused and messed up about the whole thing, we ended up in a text conversation, in which I apologised for my behaviour in the relationship.  Like I said, I was messed up and I'd been massively manipulated by him for almost two years, so I wasn't thinking straight.  His response to my apology was to agree that I was to blame for everything, but to tell me that he wasn't going to have any hard feelings about it.  


And yet there are people out there who truly believe that despite all the work I've done to move forwards with my life and all the positive changes I've made since I walked away from him - dedicating myself to raising awareness of abuse, writing about it, speaking to the press etc and just generally becoming a more confident person - that I can never truly be thought to have moved on, because I don't - can't - forgive him for choosing to abuse me and for acknowledging that choice and yet blaming me for it.

No, no, no, no, no, no, nooooooooooooooo.

I live my life positively.  I love my friends and family wholeheartedly.  I follow my dreams, however unattainable they sometimes seem.  I am not sitting in my room at night, rocking back forth, eaten up with disgust and hatred over this person who caused the worst trauma of my life.  I've moved on.  I'm okay.  I just don't forgive him, that's all.  It's not a big deal; I'm not going to try to track him down and firebomb his house or anything.  Unless a memory is triggered, or I'm actually talking about abuse specifically, I don't even think of him that often, anymore.  That's just part of the whole "I've moved on" thing.  Forgiving him has just never been necessary in the recovery process.  Acknowledging what he did was pivotal. Learning where the red flags were was incredibly important.  But forgiving him?  Not so much.

I mean, think about what we're saying when we tell people to forgive in order to move on.  Are we seriously suggesting that the woman who's been raped should be able to forgive her rapist, or she'll never move forwards with her life?  Or that the parents of a teenager driven to suicide by bullying should forgive the bullies, or forever be seen as living in the past?!

There is nothing wrong with forgiving someone.  If you're able to forgive those who caused you serious emotional distress or physical harm, then more power to you.  But we should never be suggesting that all people who experience the worst kinds of trauma must forgive those responsible.  That's dangerously close to victim-blaming for my liking ("hey, put yourself in their shoes; your feelings aren't valid").  And in cases where someone has shown utterly no remorse for their actions, it seems pretty disgusting to be telling the survivor of a traumatic event: "Remember, you're not moving forwards if you haven't forgiven the person."

Just don't say anything even close to that.  Ever.

As long as a person isn't living with an unhealthy level of anger that eats them up and causes them additional emotional harm, it is perfectly possible for them to move forwards without being forced into forgiving someone who's traumatised them.  It's holding onto the pain and not finding a suitable outlet that keeps someone from getting on with their life.  It's being stuck in the anger/sadness phase that will hold a person back.  But those phases are passable and once you get them out of the way, you're back on track towards becoming you again.  People talk about forgiveness as though it's a magical cure-all that will make you some kind of shining beacon of survival.  It's not.  

The only person you have to forgive, post-abuse, is yourself.  Because you weren't to blame.  Whether or not you choose to - or are able to - forgive your abuser is another thing entirely, but not doing so doesn't mean you get stuck in a trauma cycle forever, or that you somehow didn't survive and are now incapable of ever putting yourself back together again.

Someone once even told me that I had to forgive my abuser, in order to "prove" that I'm "the bigger person."

NEWSFLASH:  I'm a better person, because I'm not the one who chose to abuse someone else.  Additional newsflash: I'm literally five foot nothing.  I will never be the "bigger" person, unless I wear massive heels and everyone else is sitting down.

To summarise, Giles is right to a point: forgiveness is a compassionate act and people do need to be forgiven when they've done something stupid and you don't want to destroy your relationship - in whatever capacity it exists - with them as a result.  So, if you and I have an argument and you say something really hurtful in the heat of the moment, the chances are that I'll forgive and forget in time.  I would want the same understanding shown to me, after all.  But if you choose to abuse another person in any form, they don't owe you forgiveness.  They don't have to forgive you in order to move on.  To suggest that they do is to overlook the massive effort it takes to get over something traumatic and life-changing.  It's akin to saying "you're not really over those third degree burns you suffered that time, because you haven't taken to lying in a vat of hot oil every night."  It's absurd.

Every day, I make an effort to be proud of who I am.  To be kind and considerate of other people.  I don't feel any overwhelming bitterness about what I experienced.  In fact, in a weird way, I try to take positives from it and see that it showed me how strong I'm capable of being and taught me to recognise abusive traits in other people I meet.  I live my life as best as I possibly can.  I've moved on and I've managed to do that, despite living with the knowledge that my ex was well aware of what he did to me and felt no remorse for it, whatsoever.  That took effort.  But I did it.  I did it because it was more important to forgive myself than it could ever be to forgive him.

So, let's stop telling people who've experienced trauma that forgiveness is the only way to move on.  Being happy, learning to have faith in yourself and not holding on to bitterness or rage: THAT'S how we show we've moved forwards. 

No "F-word" required.

And I don't have to forgive you.


  1. This is an important post, Em. It is absolutely dangerous to consider telling anyone in an abusive relationship that they have to forgive someone who has abused them to "move forward" in their life. Wrong. Very wrong. It can get in the way of the vital step of ejecting them from your life, from your mind, from your feelings, from everything. And getting in touch with how angry you are for what was done to you. This anger is a very very healthy response. (I speak as having helped people who have been abused for 4 years as a therapist in a mental health clinic assigned to work with abused women (and a few men), after 16 more years there as a therapist.)..........A person needs to realize one clear thing: all abuse is due to a single reason---that the abuser was unable to control his acting out physically, sexually, emotionally or verbally. That's it. Nothing else. The victim has no responsibility for this. None. She was dealing with a man/boy who went out of control, perhaps repeatedly, and nothing---I repeat---nothing----can be responsible for HIS actions. Nothing you did. You cannot provoke the abuse. No. It is each of our responsibilities to be safe in our interactions with people and not hurt them so directly. It should be easy to recognize this if you think it over a bit.------So to get over it, get over forgiving as soon as you can------unless you have already accepted the above, felt the angry feelings determined his sole responsibility and, then, feel the need to put it behind you by "forgiving" him.-------for some moral or religious or "how you were raised" way.--------You can never forgive the abuse. Shouldn't. Can't.
    ..................Sorry to be so absolutely definite here, but this is very important. And you are to be commended for writing up your clear position on this and encouraging others to help themselves in this way.

    1. I'm so glad to hear your opinion on this, because I know of the help you've given to people who've experienced abuse and it really does mean a lot to hear your take on it. I think I annoyed a couple of friends with this post, so it's especially nice to have someone understand my viewpoint. I think too many people believe that we MUST forgive (often for religious reasons) and in some cases, it's just not possible, but that doesn't mean we can't move forwards in positivity.


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