When women are experiencing on-going abuse, forgiveness is not the issue. Safety is. A woman needs to focus on trying to keep herself and her children safe.
Even after separation, forgiveness is not the issue. Typically women continue to experience abuse from an ex-partner. Just because she has left does not mean that the abuse has stopped. He may be trying to alienate the children from her, he may be trying to leave her financially destitute, he may be stalking her. The focus for the woman will be on trying to recover and rebuild her life after the devastation of abuse. Keep in mind that women are at most risk of being killed by their partners when they leave.
It would only ever be up to the woman to decide if she wants to forgive. In my 17 years of working with women impacted by abuse, I have never encouraged a woman to forgive her partner and I never will. What does happen, with some frequency though, is women come to me saying that they feel like they need to forgive but they can’t. When we explore what is going on, it becomes clear that the abuse is on-going and the woman is vulnerable. It is not the “right time” to waste emotional energy on trying to forgive.
Sometimes, a long time down the path to healing and recovering, women do feel they want to forgive their partners. When this happens, typically the man no longer has any hold or power over the woman. He cannot hurt her anymore. Then, sometimes, women want to forgive their partners because they want to move past the abuse and for them forgiving is part of moving on. Women have described it as putting down a heavy burden. They no longer want to carry the pain, hurt or anger of the abuse. Viewed in this way, as letting go, forgiveness is not done out of sentimentality toward the abuser, but as a step toward wholeness for the woman. It is a release of the heavy burden that the abuse has laid on her and a movement towards life in a new light.
In the Bible, there are actually several words that get translated in to our English “forgive”. The word most often used in the New Testament accounts of Jesus’ teachings on forgiveness is aphiemi, which means “to send” or “to send away” or “to let go of”. Nearly all the words for forgiveness in both the Old and New Testaments carry a similar meaning. The major exception in Hebrew is kaphar, which means “to cover”. Only God ever forgives in this way – blots out, or “covers” sins in this sense – it is not required of humans. At certain times, for some survivors, this releasing or letting go becomes possible once the anger, grief and other feelings are truly worked through. It is also really helpful if the woman feels believed and supported by her community and the man is somehow held accountable for his actions. This, in a sense, gives the woman an experience of justice or “making things right”.
(This blog is part of a series on forgiveness. If you appreciate it, you might like to read the rest of the series by searching “forgiveness”.)