Dear Neil: I was surprised to read that you advised a woman who said that her husband had sexually assaulted her once, years ago, to work on forgiving her husband and losing her resentment. Like all the responsibility is hers. How about advising her to call the police?
Wellington, New Zealand
Dear Neil: I am a psychotherapist who reads your column and often agrees with you. Today, however, you seem to have contradicted yourself. Forgiveness is not a two-way street. Building upon a damaged relationship and asking the other party to contribute toward wholeness is reconciliation, not forgiveness. Forgiveness is the gift we give to ourselves. If we wait to forgive until the wrong has been made right, we risk condemning ourselves to lives of unresolved bitterness.
Dear Neil: I was sexually abused by a grandfather and an uncle (one from each side of the family) as a child. I just recently finished counseling regarding all of this. Forgiveness is releasing the hurt, the ambivalence and the powerlessness that one experiences as a result of the abuse. I am in no way obligated to discuss this with either of them (besides my grandfather is dead). Genuine forgiveness cannot be earned. It is something that is given. The woman from London is right to feel the way she feels.
Dear Neil: Advise the woman in London to get counseling. She still sounds traumatized. She doesn’t need to work on forgiving first. She needs to see a sexual assault counselor about her assault and the fact that she did nothing about it.
Dear Readers: There are different ways of making peace with the past and healing trauma. It is indeed true that forgiveness and peace come from within, not from someone else. However, don’t discount that it can be profoundly helpful to hear someone who has wronged you to genuinely apologize, and attempt to offer some form of amends and/or penitence. It would be healing for many to hear “I’m sorry I hurt you. I was wrong, and you didn’t deserve what I did. Please accept my apology and tell me how I can make things up to you.”
Author Janice Abrahams Spring, in the book How Can I Forgive You? (Perennial Currants) lists several tasks someone may attempt to do in order to earn forgiveness: Among those tasks are, 1) being willing to bear witness to the pain you caused; 2) apologize genuinely, non-defensively, responsibly; 3) seek to understand your behavior and reveal the inglorious truth about yourself to the person you harmed; 4) work to earn trust back.
Terry Hargrave, in the book Families and Forgiveness (Brunner Mazel) says, “Forgiveness is accomplished when the victimized person no longer has to hold the wrongdoer responsible for the injustice; the wrongdoer holds himself or herself responsible.”
All this being said, there seems to be an aspect of sexual assault that is so violating that a mere apology just won’t suffice. Perhaps seeing a sexual assault counselor and attempting to work through the myriad of harsh emotions is indeed a wise idea.