Forgiveness isn’t something to work towards, rather it is something that happens naturally in the process of healing. Once you are no longer suffering from the effects of what has happened, you find yourself no longer angry at your abuser. You may never want to see or speak to this person, but you do them (and ultimately yourself) the ‘favor’ of no longer seeing them as a monster. Once your rage has gone you find yourself seeing your abuser as a human being, perhaps very flawed, but human none the less. Getting to this point is good for your body and your health. This is no way implies you are condoning what happened to you, but it is forgiveness. If you try to get to the point of forgiveness instead of letting it happen naturally, you can’t help but miss essential stages in your healing.
Let me give you some examples of what I mean: (1) A husband or wife is hurt and hateful after a difficult divorce. Time passes and (s)he has found a new love. Anger at the ex-spouse seems to evaporate. Sometimes the two previously married people become friends. (2) A women discovers she has been sexually abused by her father. In therapy she realizes that her difficulty trusting, fear in new situations, low self esteem, sexual dysfunction, and poor choice of men all go back to what her father did to her. She is initially full of intense black rage. After therapy and a lot of effort on her part, she finds her life different. She chooses a loving partner, she is no longer so fearful, etc. She is clearly no longer suffering from the effects of the abuse. She notices, after a period of grief and change, that she is no longer going about feeling so angry at her father. She is involved in life and living.
It is true that staying angry is staying stuck, but the answer to being stuck in anger is to finish getting over the effects of what was done to you, not to push yourself to an artificial place of forgiveness. Going for forgiveness before it happens naturally has serious drawbacks. It robs you of completing your healing, especially of developing real self esteem.
Let me explain: Feeling the rage about what happened is a powerful validation that you were NOT the problem, you were NOT some how deserving of what happened to you. You were a child, the abuser was responsible and the abuse occurred because of his deficiency, NOT yours. It is all very well to understand this intellectually, but the deep feelings of inferiority will not change until you go through the experience of putting the fault where it belongs. During the healing process the anger will come spontaneously – it does not have to come from suggestion from the therapist, and should not. Experiencing this anger coming up inside yourself is inherently your own,very personal, proof that you were innocent. Abused children, at a different ages and developmental stages, will assume they are the source of the badness in the abuse situation. Now, as an adult, you can know through out your entire being these negative beliefs about your self are not true. This is when self esteem really improves.
As a therapist I have been with people who feel that they should forgive whoever wronged them. Often their religious beliefs, or their family members, have held up forgiveness as a virtue in itself. Since the person in therapy has had their self esteem damaged, they feel unworthy as they are; they want to be a ‘better’ person. They are vulnerable to making themselves second and are exactly the people most in need of experiencing that natural anger and the resulting clarity of their innate goodness.
I have been in a long marriage (22 years) but it only got abusive (verbal, emotional) in the last few years. Guilt for what I did before we were married is the reason why I stay. I am now in therapy and not sure if my spouse will attend. Although my priest has said God has forgiven me, does all the above still apply? In other words how can I naturally get angry when the reason he is abusive is because of what I did long ago?
An angry person and a guilty person can be hooked together in an ugly dynamic – and the hook lasts until one of them changes their position.
I’m questioning if the reason he is abusive now, after over 20 years, is because of something you did over 20 years ago! Perhaps his expression of this anger has been inside him ALL these years? And he never abused you about it until now? That also seems dubious to me. The timing of his abusing you NOW has to do with something inside him.
I wonder if you have been living under this guilt for your whole marriage and that he has somehow used it against you, perhaps subtly, all this time. Perhaps he is using it now to manipulate you somehow?
Another question for you to consider is – how long do you need to be punished? Forever? Another year? Two more months? One more day? — until you put your foot down and say (with self preserving anger) that you don’t deserve any more of this and you won’t let life go on as normal until he stops and looks into why he started this after all this time? ( What I mean by “life going on as normal” is your making dinner, doing his laundry, being nice whenever he decides to be nice to you, etc.)
You can’t change him. You can only change yourself and perhaps then influence him to change. I would hope you and your therapist look into this guilt you are carrying around. There may be a time in your early years that guilt was used against you, or that guilt played a role in your life. If so, you deserve to be healed from this childhood experience. This can be so very freeing for the present. You know now that God forgives you, you also need to forgive yourself.
Look also to your religious beliefs: You say your priest has told you God has forgiven you. God loves you. He really does love you. When you take in the truth that God loves YOU, this can be an important turn around for you. As I understand it, God wants us all to take care of what he has created, and you are his creation. Taking abuse is not taking care of yourself. Sit in a place of worship or if you prefer, by yourself and take in the the truth that He loves you. I have witnessed this simple but profound realization make a tremendous difference for people.
I’ve given you a lot of ideas for your healing, both psychologically and spiritually based. I would suspect it could be overload if you try to consider it all at once. I wish you all the best. Let me know if I can be of further use to you.