Thoughts on Forgiveness
I’ve had some recent breakthroughs with my amazing psychologist and conversations with amazing partners in regards to forgiveness. I’m really understanding that when it comes to forgiving someone who has done something horrible to you, it’s a process and should never be a requirement. Often, when someone has deeply wounded us with their bad behaviour, we need to be allowed to be furious with them, disgusted with them, we need the freedom to never have to forgive them. I have a feeling telling victims that they should forgive those who have hurt them has the real potential of inhibiting their healing process because it is projecting your own morals and ideals onto the ways in which they work through their trauma.
Forgiveness is a deeply personal and internal process, forgiveness may mean never forgiving the adult who left you wounded and scarred, it may only mean forgiving the hurting child in them who left you wounded. I believe that healing requires the freedom to never have to forgive someone when they have done deep and violent damage and then left you to pick up the pieces alone. Forgiveness cannot be demanded of the victim who is left to deal with the aftermath of bad behaviour. Only the victim can feel forgiveness, if and when they are ready. They may never be ready because some hurts go deep and some last a lifetime.
It’s also important to recognise that forgiveness is not about forgetting – some things you will never forget; they leave you with sore spots and triggers that colour the ways you navigate future relationships and so forgetting really isn’t a possibility.
My personal forgiveness has come in waves. In the early days, I felt too much of it and needed to access my rage, my disgust, my loathing. When the trauma I experienced as a result of emotional abuse left me with a complex soup of emotional problems, I needed access to my truth. I’ve been through much of that process and am now at a point in my healing and moving on where I feel forgiveness and sadness for the person who really hurt me coming back into my heart but even this forgiveness comes in waves; some days I still loathe the bastard, others I only wish him well.
Early on, forgiveness was unhealthy for me because it contained the risk of me returning to the person who hurt me and not giving my trauma the safety and space it needed. In love as I was with my ex, I needed hate and rage to keep me safe. Now, having been through that process, I can feel the same love towards him that I feel for all hurting creatures. I never wish to see him again for as long as I live, but I can now access the sorrow I feel for all beautiful things which trauma, pain and anger destroy.
Reflections on Broken Love
The other day, I showed my new Dom a love letter that I had asked my previous Dom to write me towards the end of our relationship. I’d asked for this because after my ex Dom had spent so much time telling me all the reasons he thought I was a piece of shit, I needed to find a way to believe it when he also constantly told me I was the love of his life. He wrote the love letter, as requested, but it didn’t help. In fact, it made me feel worse as I felt it read like a shopping list of things I gave him, rather than a love for who and what I am.
The reason I showed it to my new Dom is that I realised my experiences of emotional abuse with my previous Dom had fundamentally shaken my ability to trust the words “I love you”. When my first Dom said “I love you” I had believed and felt those words with all my heart, and so when he said “you’re just a worthless piece of shit to me right now” I also felt those words as truth. And then when he was absent and distant while I was suicidal and traumatised from the experience in New York, his “I love you” felt empty. The words “I love you” became something I could no longer trust.
When I left my first Dom, people were telling me he didn’t love me and this became the story I told myself for quite some time. The other story I told myself, to protect myself and distance myself, was that he was a hateful, spiteful, cruel and cold bastard who was fundamentally incapable of love. This perception of him helped create enough coldness and distance in my heart for me to connect to the rage and disgust that would protect me long enough to help me heal. I needed, for a long time, to hate him. Truly, deeply, hate him.
But recently that hate has started to feel like a rut I’m trapped in. Recently, writing more publically about my experiences with my emotionally abusive ex Dom has shifted something in me, like clearing out the cobwebs. I’ve felt more space inside myself and a desire to move forward, especially as I fall more deeply in love with my two current partners. I want to move forward into life with my two loves and start to leave my old pains in the past as much as possible (though I never want to entirely let them go as my own experiences have left me with a wisdom and compassion for other people that I would never trade away). So perhaps that’s also why I showed my new Dom my old love letter.
“I can see why this letter left you unhappy,” he said. “It made me feel sad for both of you. I can see that he did really love you.”
I started crying. “Thank you for saying that. I didn’t know how much I needed to hear that. He did love me. We really did love each other. He hated me and he loved me.”
“I can see that. And it makes sense. It must have been so painful when you left him, you must have felt so much grief.”
I started sobbing. “Yes I did. It was the most fucking painful decision I’ve ever made in my life. And everyone around me just hated him and was glad I left him and that’s good because I needed to leave him – his behaviour was dangerous for me. But my heart was completely fucking broken and I never really got sympathy for that.”
I sobbed and was hugged. I felt, for the first time in a long time, the memories of all the good times with my first Dom flooding back into my heart and this time they no longer felt dangerous, like they could hurt me. For the first time in over two years, those memories felt safe. And beautiful. And I felt my heart break in sorrow for my first Dom who truly did love me but who was too hurt and broken inside to love me properly.
The next day, I told my psychologist about my experience. He talked about different types of love, he mentioned infatuation, lust; early stage types of love. But this didn’t connect with me. I told him that I actually felt myself and my Dom had formed a very deeply bonded sort of love. All up, we had spent three years together, slowly revealing our deep traumas, our vulnerabilities, learning to talk, learning to love. I felt we had truly loved one another, and to heal I needed that truth acknowledged.
My psychologist said he didn’t like to diagnose people he’s never met but we both had independently come to suspect that my ex might have narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). He said that when he saw clients with NPD, his heart broke for them because it is such a profoundly difficult disorder for people to have. Now please take everything I am about to say with a grain of salt as I am not a trained psychologist, only a regular person with an interest in how people work. Disclaimer aside, here are my thoughts on trauma, schemas and NPD. As far as I understand, NPD stems from childhood traumas and dysfunctional schemas that cause them to have a deep belief in their own fundamental unlovableness. They compensate for this by becoming self-aggrandising, ego-centric and superficial with their relationships. Intimacy is profoundly difficult because when someone loves them, it confronts their deeply held belief that they are worthless.
When we are children, we are creatures of ego. When children are traumatised and abused, they feel it must be because of something about them. If a child is neglected and deprived of love, they may come to believe that this is because they are fundamentally unlovable. People with narcissistic personality traits were often deprived of love in their childhood and so they had to be self-sufficient from the start. They may come to view their self-sufficiency as a sign of their superiority to others. I suspect this may in fact be the reason that so many men seem to have traits of NPD and go on to become abusive – because we, as a culture, tend far too often to deprive young boys of their need for love, safety and a place to be vulnerable. A culture that doesn’t let boys be soft and loved is like a factory that produces narcissistic, abusive men.
The view we have of ourselves is largely formed in our childhood, and if our childhood didn’t contain the love, consistency, validation and safety we needed, we form faulty views about ourselves, or “schemas”. These schemas are powerful; they are deeply held and are very difficult to challenge or shift. They are not impossible to work on but it requires a lot of work, a lot of therapy, a lot of patience and a lot of mistakes.
If your childhood schemas include the idea that you are worthless and unlovable, then when somebody loves you it puts these schemas into a profound state of shock and confusion. Schemas will try anything to maintain their “truth” and so they will tell you that the person who loves you must have something wrong with them. And when that person doesn’t behave the way you think they should, this will put you into a critic mode; a horrible, judgemental, cruel critic mode. You will start to find all the things “wrong” with the person who loves you. And then, if you feel the person who loves you is seeing the real you, the worthless and unlovable you, this will put you into attack mode.
A person with narcissistic traits in attack mode is not a pretty thing. My memories of the man who had held me and whispered “I love you babe” contrast so deeply with my memory of the same person looking at me with pure disgust in his eyes and saying “you’re a worthless piece of shit”. For so long it was impossible for me to understand. Had he tricked me? Was he a sociopath who was incapable of love? Was I insane? Was I a fool for believing him when he said “you’re the love of my life”?
I wasn’t. He did love me. The healthy, evolving, adult in him loved me. The child in him who needs love, like we all do, loved me.
And then… he didn’t love me. When his schemas were triggered, he reverted to a childlike ego state and in that state, he despised me as much as he despised himself. In attack mode, he wanted to destroy me and he used all my vulnerabilities as weapons against me.
So the truth, as I now believe it, is that he loved me and then he didn’t. And then he loved me again but he couldn’t face the consequences of his actions so instead he started to shut down and push me from his heart.
How heartbreaking for both of us. How deeply, fundamentally tragic that his childhood traumas destroyed the beautiful, precious, irreplaceable thing that we had together.
Because it was beautiful. It was imperfect and there were many unhealthy aspects to it which I was not experienced or wise enough to see. But there were so many truly beautiful, profound, bonding moments that we had together. That those beautiful times have forever had a shadow cast upon them is… devastating. It still breaks my heart.
About a year ago while I was intoxicated, I sent my ex Dom, who I no longer speak to, a sloppy email telling him that I would never forgive him but that he should forgive himself. However, I said that first he needed to look in the mirror and face the fact of how appalling his behaviour was. I also said a lot of stupid shit about how I was going to become a feminist porn star – ha! I never got a response and to be honest, I would never have sent that email sober.
I never saw him take accountability for his actions and perhaps he never will. This is the reason I had to remove him from my life and this is the reason I needed to connect to my rage and disgust, because he wounded me and then I had to do all the recovery work by myself. Yes, while we were together he had suggested that we get couples therapy, but he expected me to do all the work to find a therapist, and underlying this was his belief that I was overreacting; that dealing with it was my responsibility, not his.
I will never forgive that. I forgive the child he once was who never received the love he needed. I forgive the adult he is who still needs love but may never be capable of holding onto it. I forgive the person who held me in his arms and whispered “babe, I need you.” But I will never forgive the adult who shrugged when I was suicidal, who abandoned me to the trauma he caused me, who said “sorry” but had no idea how little that meant when he continued to justify his behaviour and attack me. The pain of his attacks was tremendous and traumatic but his indifference to my pain in the following months was the most wounding thing of all. That was the biggest betrayal of our love.
This made his words “babe, I’ve got you” hollow and painful.
Now that I can sit with some of the beautiful memories we once shared I can see the complexity of the truth. None of this could come from trying to force myself into a narrative that others felt about how I should relate to my experience, though of course their thoughts, emotions and opinions helped me gain better clarity on my own. Ultimately, I needed ownership over the specificities of my story and the complexities of my truth. None of this can be simplified or put into trite statements about forgiveness.
He loved me, he didn’t love me. I forgive him, I don’t forgive him.
That’s how I feel today. All of this may be different tomorrow.