Does One Need to Forgive Abusive Parents in Order to Heal?

One of the most frequent questions I get when I start working with patients on altering ongoing dysfunctional family dynamics with previously abusive parents or other primary caretakers is, "Do I have to forgive them?"

"Well, no, you do not have to...," I answer,"...but if this goes well you will probably want to." Forgiveness is not an end in itself but a byproduct of the process of reconciliation.

My patients also tell me, when I am encouraging them to re-establish contact with abusive parents, that they do not want their parents in their lives.  I reply, "That's because of the way that they treat you now. I don't blame you.  However, if they stopped treating you like that, you probably would want them in your life."  Having no loving family to call our own is not a predicament that we are naturally built for.

As I described in my June 11 post, How Can You Be Empathic With a Child Abuser, the most difficult and time-consuming part of doing the type of psychotherapy I do, called Unified Therapy, is convincing my patients that it is in their interest to find a way to metacommunicate with their family of origin members. That means attempting to get past everyone's formidable defensiveness, denial, and resistance and talk about their family dynamics.  This reluctance is especially acute - and understandable - if the parents had been severely abusive to the patient when the patient was a child.

Patients think I am asking them to somehow change the past.  That is obviously impossible.  However, we can change the effect the past has on us. The goal of the process is to change how things are right now, in the present.

The problem is, in fact, not in the past at all.  Dysfunctional family patterns, in modified forms, usually keep going on long after children grow up. Unless something is done, they have a strong tendency to go on and on until the parents die, although the patterns often do mellow somewhat as time goes on.

Although we may not want to or be able to forget past misdeeds, most of us could readily find it in our hearts to forgive family members for bad past behavior if only they would let us.

But if the offending family members are still mistreating you, acting as if the abuse never even happened, or are in some other way invalidating you if you even bring it up, how can you possibly forgive them?  If they blame you for their past misdeeds, how on earth can you possibly forgive them?  If they demand you leave your children in the care of an abuser and act as if you are unreasonable for refusing to do so, ditto.  Again, this is a problem not in the past but in the present.

In order to "get over" the abuse and move forward without passing on negative family interactional patterns and conflicts to future generations, I believe it is extremely important to come to a mutual understanding with major family of origin members.  Whether you want to continue having a relationship with them after metacommunication is successful, or whether or not you decide you want to forgive them, is in a way besides the point. But you probably will.


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