For all the psycho-talk about trauma and abuse, little attention has been paid to the question of forgiveness.
By implication this suggests that abusers are implicitly taken to be beyond forgiveness.
If you see the world in terms of crime and punishment, all abusers are near-criminals and none should be forgiven.
In truth, Elizabeth Bernstein reports in her column this morning, people who forgive tend to do better than those who don’t. Yet, in some cases it is not good to forgive.
Happily, that renders the complexity of a difficult question.
When someone has abused you or even traumatized you, ought you or ought you not to forgive and forget?
Which approach will help you to get over the trauma; which one will reinforce it?
Studying forgiveness contributes to our understanding of how people should process trauma. It shifts the focus away from the mental images of trauma toward the question of how they should deal with those who perpetrate the traumas.
The classical psychoanalytic approach to trauma is purely introspective. Freud and Co. wanted to help patients to process trauma internally, first, by remembering it, and second, by integrating it into a new personal narrative.
When forgiveness is at issue the victim is in contact with his abuser and asks himself what he should do.
Strangely, Bernstein’s experts overlook a fundamental aspect of the question. They do not ask whether the abuser has asked for forgiveness. Has the person who perpetrated the trauma apologized sincerely and vowed never to do it again?
Without putting the question of forgiveness in context one risks getting lost in the theoretical weeds.
When someone offends you or insults you, you will feel anger toward him. Too many therapists recommend that you express the anger, though they must know by now that most intemperate expressions of anger are unhelpful.
If the person who has offended you does not know that he has offended you, the right expression of anger might bring it to his attention. But, a histrionic outburst will merely draw attention to your own intemperance, thereby making your abuser believe that he did nothing wrong.
When it comes to dissipating anger, you know from personal experience that if you are angry at someone and if the person apologizes sincerely for the offense, your anger will dissipate.
At that point, you are obliged to forgive and forget.
When your abuser does not apologize you need not and should not forgive. His failure to apologize means that he meant what he did and will be more than willing to do it again.
If you forgive him, you will be relieving your abuser of responsibility and punishing yourself for his offense.
He might consider you a better friend, but you will be acting like a patsy. Your self-esteem will surely suffer.
In extreme cases, cases that involve criminal abuse, one might say that an apology does not suffice.
Generally, we believe that criminals ought to be remanded to the police and the courts.
And yet, if a criminal shows contrition, a judge will often soften his punishment.
If you are the victim of a crime and the criminal apologizes openly and sincerely, you would probably do well to forgive him.
In most cases, you would also not want to continue to associate with him.
Apologizing is a step toward regaining trust. When someone is on his way to prison he will have few opportunities to rebuild trust.
Psychologists are correct to note that the question of whether or not to forgive depends on whether or not you will continue to have a relationship with the person.
If your abuser is someone you never knew before and with whom you are unlikely to have any future contact, then forgiveness does not have the same value as it would have if the abuser was someone near and dear.
If the person is someone you know well you will need to be able to tell whether the apology is sincere.
Here is one rule: if the apology tries to shift the blame, to you or to some force of nature, then it lacks sincerity.
A sincere apology involves taking full responsibility for the offense, no ifs, ands or buts.
When in doubt, give the benefit of the doubt to the person who is apologizing.
Psychologists believe that you should only forgive someone who you believe will not repeat the offense or the abuse.
Again, they would have done better to state that when someone apologizes he is stating that his act has no relation to his character. He is pledging, implicitly or explicitly never to do it again.
To forgive someone on the basis of a future probability feels difficult and complicated. Yet, there is an easy way to put him to the test.
If you forgive someone who has apologized for offending you and he repeats the same offense, his apology has been rendered null and void.
By his actions he has shown that he is not a man of his word. If he repeats his offense and offers to apologize again, you do better to take his apology as insincere, even when that entails ceasing to associate with him.