My client believes they should forgive their abuser. Should I encourage them to?
The client in question has religious beliefs which value forgiveness and has been advised by a faith leader that she should try to forgive her ex-husband who abused her over many years. However, she reports struggling to do so and continues to feel angry and betrayed by her ex. She believes that forgiving him will help her ‘move forward’ from the trauma.
Forgiveness is a complex psychological and philosophical concept. Like the client described here, forgiveness may fit with their personal and/or cultural values. Similarly culturally-situated is the concept of what is forgivable. Are some crimes beyond forgiveness? Should we forgive murderers? Or does it depend on circumstances? Would we forgive someone who murdered their abusive partner after years of torture but not someone who murdered for financial gain or for pleasure? The truth is, we all have ideas about what is forgivable and when. This makes it a potentially complicated therapy focus – we as therapists, for example, may consider a perpetrator unforgivable, while our client seeks to forgive them or vice versa.
In our opinion, forgiveness is not necessary to recover from PTSD, nor should a client feel obligated to forgive someone who has harmed them. However, research suggests that forgiveness may be healthy and is linked to lower PTSD symptoms (Cerci & Calucci, 2018). Anger and shame are both strongly linked to PTSD, so being able to forgive others or ourselves can be a big part of recovery. Furthermore, if it is a client’s stated goal, we can discuss how this might be achieved, while reminding them it is entirely their decision whether and how they wish to forgive.
It can help to talk to our clients about what forgiveness is and what it is not. Forgiving someone is not the same as excusing what they have done, forgetting, condoning or pardoning it (McCullough et al., 2000). Instead, it the choice by an individual to let go of resentment and show generosity to the perpetrator, even if undeserved. An outcome of this conversation may be a decision not to forgive. One of our clients, who believed she ‘should’ forgive her abusive father, decided instead that she would focus on accepting what he did and that he was a flawed person, but did not ultimately decide to forgive him. Her focus shifting to how she could let go of the power he still held over (from her PTSD memories, which we processed; their ongoing relationship, which she decided to create stronger boundaries within; and reclaiming her life and values).
For those who have religious beliefs, consulting one or more relevant faith leaders and/or religious texts can sometimes be helpful. We also use a technique taken from ‘adaptive disclosure’ therapy for moral injury (Litz et al., 2017) where a ‘moral authority’ is consulted via an imagery exercise. The client identifies a person whose opinion they trust and who ‘has always had their back’, imagines meeting them in a place they have often talked, explains the situation to them and asks their advice about what to do e.g. ‘should I forgive them? If so, how?’. This often generates a useful alternative perspective from a trusted source if one cannot be consulted in real life.
We have also found a charity called the ‘Forgiveness Project’ to be a useful resource. It offers various online resources, including case studies of people who have chosen to forgive people who have harmed them. These stories can form a useful part of helping the client consider forgiveness, supported by Socratic questions from the therapist (e.g. "how did that person manage to forgive?", "do you think that situation/person was forgivable?", "how is their story the same or different from yours?", "what can we learn from them about moving forward?" etc). If the client decides they do wish to forgive a perpetrator, these stories can also give ideas about how.
Some of our clients who choose to forgive may wish to express it by making a gesture, whether in reality, symbolically or through imagery. For example, they may choose to write a letter to a perpetrator (which does not need to be sent), expressing their feelings, say a prayer of forgiveness (if appropriate to their belief system), design a ritual such as writing down their grievances and then burning them or imagining them being attached to a balloon and floating away. These actions are ways to help forgiveness resonate emotionally. Attention in therapy can then move to how the client can reclaim their life and move forward, focusing on their own recovery, no longer held back by the perpetrator.
In summary, although we as therapists may have our own beliefs about what could or should be forgiven, our role here is to help the client to think through their options, never giving the message that forgiveness is necessary, but supporting clients and helping them find their own personal way to forgive if this is their choice.
In this blog, we have focused on forgiving others. Forgiving oneself can also be an important challenge after traumatic events. See these blogs on trauma-related guilt and moral injury for more ideas.
· Forgiveness may be personally important to a client, depending on their belief system
· What is forgivable may be different for each of us, and our opinion may differ from our clients’
· Forgiveness is not necessary to recover from PTSD, but is associated with fewer PTSD symptoms in some studies
· Discussing the concept of forgiveness and what it is and isn’t can be helpful
· If forgiveness relates to religious beliefs, faith leaders and texts can be consulted
· An imagery conversation with a moral authority also allows access to other perspectives
· The Forgiveness Project has some useful resources, including case studies to stimulate conversations
· Those who wish to forgive may wish to make a gesture to reinforce the emotional impact of the experience
Cerci, D., & Colucci, E. (2018). Forgiveness in PTSD after man-made traumatic events: A systematic review. Traumatology, 24(1), 47.
Litz, B. T., Lebowitz, L., Gray, M. J., & Nash, W. P. (2017). Adaptive disclosure: A new treatment for military trauma, loss, and moral injury. Guilford Publications.
McCullough, M. E., Pargament, K. I., & Thoresen, C. E. (2000b). The Psychology of Forgiveness: History, Conceptual Issues, and Overview. In M. E. McCullough, K. I. Pargament, & C. E. Thoresen (Eds.), Forgiveness: theory, research, and practice. New York: Guilford