Not a Casserole Widow™: The Betrayed Partner’s Forgiveness?
Updated: Oct 30, 2021
She came back! I see her face perk up behind the screen. There is always a wee side of me that worries if a client doesn’t return, that I have been too direct, pushed too hard or they just don’t like me. I dismissed my insecurities and eagerly waited to find out how her journey has progressed since she missed our last session, choosing silent healing instead of articulating pain.
In spite of my internal joy, I respond with a relaxed, “Good to see you.” Being mellow and subdued is indubitably more professional than doing what I want to do which is to say, “YAY!! How are you?! I missed you!”
She responds with refreshing giddiness. I wonder what inspired this.
“I’m here. Wow! I’m just impressed I am here. It took every ounce of courage and strength for me to come. I’m really proud of myself.” Oh! Me too! I respond again, calm and encouraging, lean into my computer, and allow myself a broad smile. “I am too. What was challenging you to get here?” She takes a monster inhale and I know a diatribe of words are getting ready to erupt. Here we go! I brace myself.
“I don’t want to be angry. I don’t want to be bitter. I don’t want to feel hatred for him. I don’t want to be here. I don’t want these emotions in me. I can’t make them go away. I can’t get rid of them. I can’t forget what I know and pretend like nothing ever happened. There are these yucky feelings runny amuck in my body and I do not know how to manage them- or escape them."
Familiar with this description, I respond, “Yikes! Sounds like you are in quite a tornado!”
She breathes in again, preparing for another entourage of verbiage.
“You know, I think the biggest annoying emotion, if it is an emotion, is forgiveness. What am I supposed to do with that? I know if I don’t forgive, I will get bitter. I don’t feel bitter. I feel like I have forgiven him, sort of. But there is no way I want to be near him- physically.
My stomach churns every time I see him or get a text from him. Does that mean I have not forgiven him?
I feel out of control of me when he is near. Like my body and mind go off-line. My words don’t work… I feel like a 3 year old. My stomach hurts, my hands shake. I’m embarrassed that I can’t speak clearly. That leads me to feeling worse which makes me want to vomit. Which makes me feel more incompetent and completely insane. He’s just a guy! It’s a terrible cycle I can’t get off.”
She inhales. I let her words sit between us.
She exhales more words. “I hate putting up decorations. I remember watching Dr. Phil years ago and he said his wife always decorated for all the holidays. He loved that about her. I thought that was what a wife did for her family. Made the holidays fun. But at Easter, I could not put one Easter decoration up. I just couldn’t get myself to even touch the decorations. Memories from past egg hunts, cute bunny outfits, dressing up for church. It was all a fake experience. Now I really want to throw up. I hate this. Does this make me bitter?”
“Wow. That is a lot. If you were me, what would you encourage you to explore today?”
She leans into the screen and wrinkles her eyebrows, un-wrinkles them, wrinkles them again, un-wrinkles them and sits back.
“Forgiveness. I keep reading about forgiveness. I’m supposed to forgive him. I pretty much think I have. I know guys do stupid stuff. I know he cheated. I forgive him for hurting me and trying to destroy who I was.
Well, actually. I don’t know that I do. He was awful. I mean he did terrible, awful things to me and our children. I seriously don’t actually know who I am today. I feel like he stripped away everything that defined me, left me raw and skinless, and still keeps whipping my sores.
How do you forgive someone who continuously, intentionally wants to hurt you? And not only me but my kids too? I think it might be different if he acted like a guy who wanted to repair himself and stop hurling hate at me.”
There are no tears. I see a squirming, fighting, scared spirit desperate to understand this new world.
I respond, “I don’t know how you forgive either. What if you told yourself you didn’t have to forgive him?”
Her eyebrows raise. “Well then I would become bitter.”
Me, “Says who?”
Her, “The world?”
Me, “Does the world live on your planet?”
Her, “No. No one does.” Her shoulders relax and deflate.
Me, “Then why would you believe the world?”
Her, “I don’t know what else to believe.”
Me, “What would it feel like if you believed yourself?”
Me, “What do you know about yourself to be true today?”
Her, “I don’t even know.”
Me, “Let’s think.”
I see her eyes soften, and she sighs. “I want to believe I am loving, fun, trustworthy, joyful, empathetic… but I don’t feel that way most of the time. Most of the time I feel scared and worried. I doubt every decision I make. I just want to wake up in the morning and not have this mess running through my head. You know, this is my first thought when I wake up. It’s this horror. It’s a nightmare I cannot wake up from because when I do wake up, it is still here. But that isn’t what you asked me, is it?”
I smile. “It is exactly what I asked you. This is your truth today. If I might summarize, I see you are conflicted between what you know your core to be and what your current reality is. It’s hard to laugh in the middle of a tornado.
You said you believe you are fun, trustworthy, joyful, and empathetic. You did not list bitter. I’m going to ask again, what happens if you give yourself permission to not forgive him?”
She looks at me and says, “Then I won’t have hope.”
That was not what I expected her to say. I ask her to explain. Now the tears arrive. They just sit on her eyelashes. “I want to hope to get past this. I want to hope for freedom. I want to just live a normal life but I’m not the me I was. I don’t know who I am anymore. I HOPE that normal life happens but if I don’t forgive him, won’t I get stuck somewhere in my healing? What if I never heal?”
“Would you mind if I reframe forgiveness for you?
You are in a situation that is re-victimizing you intentionally. What if you thought about it this way:
You just bought an ice cream cone. Picture your favorite flavor, how it tastes, how it feels on your tongue, how the cone feels as you wrap your fingers around it. It’s warm out so you are trying to make sure it doesn’t melt on your fingers.
Suddenly, someone bumps you, knocks your arm, and you drop your ice cream. Ice cream oozes on the ground, melting, Disappointment replaces the joy you were just experiencing. As your eyes move from the mess on the ground, the person who bumped you flashes a wonderfully apologetic smile. You accept the apology. He continues on his way and you see him bump another person, causing them to stumble. He turns to them and smiles. You see him continue and knock another person to the ground. He turns to them and smiles. You are just standing, watching him hurt others as your ice cream melts on the sidewalk.
Do you still forgive him for knocking your ice cream to the ground? Or do you forgive yourself for not realizing you needed to warn others about him?
The next day, you decide to try getting ice cream again. While you are enjoying it, you feel an elbow in your back, and a force bumps you hard enough to again make you drop your ice cream. Again. Same guy, same smile. And you smile back. You watch him aggressively march down the sidewalk. Do you forgive him even as he continues his same behavior? Or do you forgive yourself for choosing the same path today?”
I stop talking. Afraid I have spoken too long.
She stares at me.
“It’s me. I want to forgive me for staying and watching the abuse. I want to forgive myself for not even knowing how bad my life was. I want to turn away from him. And see my future. My hope is not contingent on his remorse. I’ll never know if he will change. And it doesn’t matter, does it? I want to learn to trust and hope in myself again.”
What if forgiveness was for the partner, not the betrayer?
Are there extreme situations where we aren’t required to forgive the unforgivable?
What if we weren’t expected to continually forgive someone who was abusing the concept of forgiveness?
I’ve seen abusers quote Matthew 6:15 (But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.) in an attempt to prevent their partners from leaving.
And wives, wanting to be honorable, faithful, dedicated wives, stay in marriages abusers create to systematically and covertly destroy them.
I don’t believe God demands we accept abuse. Ever.
So, what if we chose to focus on self-forgiveness instead of forgiving the abuser?
I believe self-forgiveness encourages the betrayed partner to realize:
“I have been wounded. I did the best I could in an impossible situation. I need to heal. How I heal is about me and I prefer to move in a direction of restoration, not bitterness.”
Self-forgiveness realizes someone has done something very wrong to you, understanding why you remained present, and choosing how you are going to allow that wrong into your life so it does not impede you from becoming the masterpiece you are meant to be.