I recently sat down to dinner with a good friend. She was my college chaplain. She presided over my wedding. We were talking about topics that would be meaningful to share with young women on campus - things that aren't discussed openly enough - and we landed on the subject of abuse. Specifically, verbal and emotional abuse.
These things are insidious - hard to recognize as they happen to people we know . . . hard to recognize as they happen to us. Sometimes they even look socially acceptable from the outside. And even though there have always been avenues leading to help on campus, my alma mater tended to provide open discussion about more visible and immediately impactful kinds of abuse . . . so help for this kind of situation didn't seem as readily available.
Not even a month after having this conversation with her, I found myself sitting in a church service, listening to a good friend and colleague give a sermon about reconciliation as it relates to forgiveness. That, my friends, is a synchronicity, and I'll tell you why. For years I've struggled with this question: Do we have to reconcile with people who are abusive to us? Does our forgiveness fall short if we don't offer our close friendship later?
This topic always makes me nervous, and I avoid talking explicitly about it, but it's important.
It doesn't make me nervous because forgiveness and reconciliation are bad. Who could ever win that argument? They're not bad. They're good for us. They put us in a more peaceful place with ourselves and others. If you are a person of faith, then you (like me) probably believe that these things also put you in a more peaceful place with God.
This topic makes me nervous because I have heard many Christian teachers push this idea of reconciliation too far.
Too far. What is too far when we're talking about reconciliation and abuse?
I'm not a counselor. I'm a writer and a musician. I can't talk to you with any kind of psychological authority about any of these things. I have experience for my teacher, and the advice of people I know to be trustworthy. And, like most of you, I have used these things to do the best I can in my own life.
I think that in cases of abuse it is often not advisable to push for complete reconciliation. Forgiveness was healthy for me, but reconciliation would not have been.
And I was relieved, listening to my friend preach, that he advocated for wisdom as he spoke about these things.
I've linked this song to a couple of blogs and have been careful not to be explicit about its story. All of my songs are personal. This is one of the most deeply personal poems I've ever written. And it's personal for someone else, too, even if they haven't ever heard it. Even if they'll never hear it.
When I was a young adult, I spent a long time deeply entrenched in an emotionally abusive relationship. It was a serious relationship. We had gone to stay with each other's families. We were spending almost all of our free time together. It lasted for a couple of years.
I didn't understand what was going on. I knew that my significant other was struggling and that he was unhappy. I knew that often he was unhappy with me or things that I had done. Sometimes he was unhappy with things that I would not do or could not do. And in the midst of all that, I felt very much alone and unable to do anything quite right. It was difficult to talk with friends about it. Anytime I thought about asking for any kind of help I would find myself unable to verbalize what about the situation was so crushing - because while name calling happens to some people, it doesn't happen to everybody, and it didn't happen to me. Emotional/verbal abuse can be subtle.
What is emotional abuse?
Those are some common examples.
In my case, everything went on very quietly. Often something I did or didn't do was brought up as a trigger for an erratic behavior. Sometimes if I spent too long with my girlfriends or if something unexpectedly went wrong with plans, my significant other would become irate - things got broken, but a hand was never ever laid on me in anger, so for a long time I thought that maybe it was normal behavior for objects to be thrown in anger as long as they weren't thrown at me. I was not encouraged to participate in group activities that he was not a part of - in fact, I was discouraged from it more often than not.
Girls and guys - when you fear spending time away from your partner for normal activities because you think that they will sink without you or will become erratic about it later . . . if you've been told that this is true or threatened with it, you need to look hard at the situation and ask for help. You need help and they need help, too.
I suggested counseling. I suggested it repeatedly. Because after nearly a year and a half it became clear to me that I was being asked to provide more in the way of somebody else's happiness and healthiness than I could possibly be responsible for. And my significant other didn't realize it. I really don't think he knew any better than I did what was developing and how unhealthy it was for both of us.
Walking by myself for a whole summer saved my life and helped me to make a choice that would be healthier for both of us.
Really, walking alone for two summers - because it takes a while for big decisions to make sense to most of us.
I went away to work at summer camp. Twice.
I had no phone and no internet access - just Saturdays off. I spent my time hiking and taking care of kids and getting to know new people who were not not from my college community. I got to be myself and I got to be by myself.
And I realized very slowly that the happy couples I knew were like this even when they were together - they were still individuals and had a great deal of freedom even in each other's presence. And I realized even more slowly that when I was around my significant other, I felt no freedom . . . that I feared it because I believed it would cause him discomfort.
I felt that I was the source of the trouble - the cause of the trouble - and that it was my fault.
My family knew that something was wrong.
They were worried about me. But they didn't know what to ask me and I didn't know what to tell them.
Finally, at the beginning of my third year of school, I felt like I could do what I needed to.
I broke up with him. It shocked my friends. And it was devastating to me - very often, we love people who are hurting us, and we allow it to continue happening because it becomes our version of normal. My mother came up to see me. I sat in the restaurant and cried over my food. She very lovingly told me I was going to have to snap out of it.
Even though I knew it wasn't my fault, I felt like it was.
After a long time, this person apologized to me. And I forgave them. Really and truly forgave them.
When I think about it, even now, I don't have a sense of anger left - mostly a sense of pity for the situation we were stuck in, and the time we spent there. Sometimes I experience a feeling that it was unjust . . . and that almost feels like anger . . . and when that happens, I forgive this person again. Very often in life we have to go on forgiving something that is past over and over just like we start over with Jesus every day.
Over the years I've been contacted several times, and a few of my spiritual mentors have suggested that I allow friendship and reconciliation to take place with this person.
They have meant well in their advice, and perhaps this person has meant well in the extension of friendship, but I know for sure that in this case a complete reconciliation will not ever be the healthy choice.
Hey - this is a grown up person with a family and a baby on the way saying that something which happened in the last bit of what I'd still call childhood is still something that should be left alone. It was for my own health that I made this decision not to provide reconciliation and friendship several years ago . . . and it's still for my own health that I continue to stick by this choice.
Sometimes this idea of having to reconcile with people pushes itself into my mind . . . and I wonder if I'm still the person to blame for somebody else's unhappiness. And I wonder if I'm being cruel by continuing to hold myself apart from that last "step" that comes after forgiveness.
And maybe people who have been involved in abusive situations always have a little tiny residual feeling of responsibility even when the chapter is long since closed.
I know something now that I knew then, but didn't believe all the way - God desires a healthy life for each of us. It's all over the Bible. And I know that God wants a healthy life for the person who hurt me just as much as God wants a healthy life for me.
This experience changed who I was. It changed everything I believed about romantic relationships at the time. And I am wiser from it.
Every single day I look at my husband and every single day I thank God that he's a peaceful man. And I thank God that the movies are not true - girls (and guys), love can be a very practical and peaceful thing. You don't need a great tension to experience the great resolution of the love of your life.
I believe very much that the person who hurt me did not want to hurt me. This person needed help. And the first bit of help came when I removed myself from the situation. And I got help, too. And I have been better ever since.
We are not intended to live in fear of the ones we love. That is not love in its healthiest state. And we are meant to live in a state of health and well being.