By Joshua Downs, LCSW
Hurt, Betrayal, & Forgiveness
Forgiveness is frequently the goal in the work I do with couples dealing with betrayal—as well as in individual counseling with clients who have been hurt by others. And thankfully I can say I have been able to witness the relief and healing that comes from forgiveness. Forgiveness, however, is usually a hard-fought battle that is most likely to be won when the victim and the offender are both involved in the healing process.
But what about when the offender is unavailable, unrepentant, or seemingly incapable of understanding the depth of hurt he or she has caused? This can lead to harboring an often all-encompassing anger and resentment towards the offender, sometimes despite a desire on the part of the victim to move on. In her book How Can I Forgive You?, Janice Abrahms Spring suggests that holding on on to this protective anger and resentment can ultimately be damaging to the person’s well-being. She refers to this as “refusing to forgive.”
Acceptance: Empowerment to Live the Rest of Your Life
Spring, however, proposes that there is at least one more alternative to forgiveness in the event that the offender is not involved in healing, what she calls “acceptance.” The benefits of acceptance are that you can “take control of your pain, make sense of your injury, and carve out a relationship with the offender that works for you.” She adds, “with it comes the power to decide how you’re going to live the rest of your life.”
Honoring the full Sweep of Your Emotions
Although Spring describes multiple steps that lead to acceptance, I will focus briefly on one that is a struggle for many of my clients in couples therapy. Spring identifies Step #1 as “You honor the full sweep of your emotions.” Keeping hold of anger and resentment is a very normal reaction that comes when we experience pain physically or emotionally. Often without any conscious effort on our part, the brain has a way of focusing on what or who caused the pain and immediately sets to protecting the person from getting hurt again. Anger is an empowering emotion, one that speaks to that injured part of the victim that needs to know that she will never again be hurt by that person.
But I have found that anger itself does not help a person fully understand the extent of the injury nor the treatment needed to recover. It shifts the focus to the attacker, who may have long since moved on, and not to the victim who is now responsible for his or her own healing. In my mind I have often pictured an injured person screaming at an attacker who cannot or will not hear. All the while the wound continues to bleed as it is left untreated.
What many do not realize, however, is that relief comes more quickly if you are willing to acknowledge the more vulnerable emotions of pain, sadness, loss, rejection, and inadequacy that are often at the root of the injury. With a clearer picture of the damage, you can begin to focus on what needs to be addressed to heal. For example, when one of my clients was able to see past his anger, he realized that his experience left him with feelings of being small and stupid. Immediately he began to challenge those thoughts with evidence that he was not any of those things and that he refused to feel that way. Another client realized that under her anger was a feeling of not being important enough to have an opinion in important matters. She then committed to challenging that thought by speaking up when she felt strongly about something.
Anger as a Shield: The Pros and Cons
Anger is like a large shield that offers full protection from anything the enemy might throw in your direction. The advantage is that you can be assured that no harm will come upon you, so long as you stay under or behind the shield. The feeling of safety is there, but at what cost? Remember, safety is only guaranteed so long as you stay under the shield. What kind of life is that? Are you protected at the expense of being pinned down? What’s more, constant vigilance demands energy to hold up the heavy burden of this shield, instead of using that strength to heal which is ultimately what is desired.
However, acceptance offers the best of both worlds: protection from further hurt and the freedom that comes from taking control of the healing process instead of putting in the hands of someone who is no longer willing to do their part. The relationship may not be salvaged or be the same, which is sometimes a heavy loss. But the greater loss is your own quality of life that is wasted as you cling to anger and resentment.