Question: I was sexually abused as a child. I don’t think I can ever forgive the man who abused me. My husband berates me because he says I don’t give him enough affection. He says I am angry. I think he’s angry. My world is falling apart. Is there any hope for me?
There is hope, and the hope is in something called forgiveness. That may sound more theological than psychological, but it is a topic of research in psychology that has been studied for more than thirty-five years by Dr. Robert Enright and the Human Development Study Group at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Results from many peer-reviewed studies indicate that Forgiveness Therapy is more efficacious than alternative therapies in addressing issues related to sexual, physical, and emotional abuse. Also, injuries and injustices that have occurred in marital relationships can be addressed through the same process, using the same model.
Before you stop reading this article and write forgiveness off as quackery, let me explain; Forgiveness Therapy is significantly more than simply saying, “I forgive you.” Forgiveness Therapy entails four phases: Uncovering, Decision, Work, and Deepening. I will attempt to provide an overview of each phase, but I must caution, it is not a matter of step 1, 2, 3, 4, and then you are well. Therapy takes time, it is hard work and often painful, but worthwhile.
Instead of using the word “Abuse” as the precipitating event, I am choosing to use words like “Injury,” or “Injustice,” which may broaden the usefulness of the model. Also, for ease in reading, I am using the term client as the one in therapy who experienced an injury or injustice.
During the Uncovering Phase, the client gains insight into whether and how the injustice experienced has compromised his or her life. As a result of the trauma, the injured person may have begun to rely on unhealthy defense mechanisms to cope. During the Uncovering Phase, it is necessary to discover and examine those psychological defenses and the issues involved in the client’s current cognitive and emotional state. The goal will be to confront and release the anger, rather than harboring it.
When appropriate, the client may need to admit shame that was experienced as a result of the injustice. At some point, the client will likely become aware of his or her depleted state of emotional energy and the time spent mentally rehearsing the injustice. It is possible that because of the trauma, the client may feel the world is unsafe, and therefore, be unable to trust anyone. During this phase the client may discover that even though he or she was hurt, it doesn’t mean that everyone is untrustworthy.
Moving on to the Decision phase, the client recognizes that old strategies have not worked. During this phase, the client considers forgiveness as an option, and makes a decision to commit to forgiving on the basis of this newly acquired understanding. Again, I emphasize that this is not a matter of casually saying, “I forgive you,” and sweeping the injustice under the rug. Forgiveness becomes a conscious choice from a position of empowerment.
During the Work phase the client gains a mental understanding of the offender. In other words, the wrongdoer is viewed in context. For example, maybe the perpetrator was also a victim. This can result in a positive change in affect toward the offender, toward self, and about the relationship. Because of being able to view the event in context, it may be possible to experience empathy and compassion toward the offender. The client eventually reaches a point of accepting and bearing the pain of the offense. At that point the moral gift of forgiveness can be given to the offender. That does not mean that contact has to be made with the offender. In some instances, the offender may no longer be living, or it may not be in the best interest of anyone to make the contact. But forgiveness can be offered as a gift.
Finally, during the Deepening phase, the client discovers meaning in the suffering, feels more connected with others, experiences decreased negative affect, and may experience a renewed purpose in life. During this phase, the client comes to accept that he or she also has needed forgiveness from others in the past. The person gains insight that he or she is not the only one who has experienced similar pain or suffering. Also, there may come a realization that a new purpose in life may develop as a result of the injury. During this phase, a reduction in negative affect and an increase in positive affect toward the offender may occur. If this happens the client is likely to experience an awareness of an internal emotional release.
Unfortunately, there is not an organized Forgiveness Therapy group in Bethel. But, I would encourage anyone who has an interest in this topic to purchase one of Dr. Enright’s books on the topic. I would suggest beginning with Forgiveness Is a Choice: A Step-By-Step Process for Resolving Anger and Restoring Hope, published by the American Psychological Association, and can be purchased at most bookstores or at Amazon.com.
Lorin L. Bradbury, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Bethel, Alaska. If you have questions that you would like Dr. Bradbury to answer in the Delta Discovery, please send them to The Delta Discovery, P.O. Box 1028, Bethel, AK 99559, or e-mail them to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also access the Ask Dr. Forgiveness feature on this website with your forgiveness-related questions.