[October 6, 2022: There have been some changes made to this post. For more information, read the Editors’ notes at the bottom of the post. Editors.]
I learned a tough lesson as I went through my divorce: “Don’t make your healing dependent on the one who hurt you”. Even after I “learned” this truth, unwittingly I fell into the trap over and over again. We can all easily fall prey to this mindset, but as long as we are there we will not heal.
So to be clear, what am I talking about? I once witnessed a very bold therapist stand up in front of a room full of people and tell them that the responsibility for healing lay with themselves. This was no ordinary gathering — all in attendance were either those suffering from emotional trauma or were family members there for support. Some were suicidal, some suffered from sexual abuse in their childhood, some had issues from drug abuse — the list went on. It was not an “easy” group in which to get. You were only there if you were touched by emotional problems in a big way. It was bold of him to stand up and say to a group like this “You will not heal unless you take responsibility for your healing.”
To get an idea of how bold this was, note that the program these folks are in (and many other similar programs across the country) uses the 12 Steps as a foundational tool for healing. If you are unfamiliar with 12 Steps, the first step is: “We admitted we were powerless over our emotions — that our lives had become unmanageable.” As I was becoming familiar with the 12 Steps, I wasn’t surprised that someone in attendance challenged the therapist that his point contradicted the first step. The therapist pointed out the difference: he did NOT say “You caused your trauma.”, nor did he say “You have the responsibility to fix your trauma.” He, like the 12 Steps, acknowledged that the problems for the folks in the room were bigger than they were. No one was going to administer a little self-help and move on.
His point was that before we can even GET to the first step of admitting powerlessness, all hurting people must take healing seriously enough to seek help — and that’s a step no one can take for us. He then addressed the hypothetical case (though I doubt it was hypothetical for some in the room) of a woman sexually abused as a child by her father. He said, “If you are waiting for him to make it right, you will wait forever. It’s terrible that this burden has fallen to you and it isn’t fair, but it is reality. Your abuser will not fix you.” His meaning was that before anyone can admit to the powerlessness over his or her problems that 12 Step programs demand, the individual must be the one seeking help, going to meetings, and turning him or herself over to a “higher power” (he is not a Christian so that’s the best he could do).
While I appreciated that he pointed out the importance of taking responsibility in order to be healed, his example of the abused woman really stood out to me: I think many people DO wait for their abusers to make things right. The abusers are the transgressors and they are at fault, so it’s only fair they would have to do the work of healing. But they won’t — it isn’t fair, but in this broken world they are not going to make good the majority of the time. I’ve had to say to myself over and over against, “Jeff, if you are waiting for her to heal you, you are going to wait forever.” Unfortunately, I understood this intellectually WAY before my heart absorbed it.
There was an incident of clear and extreme emotional abuse near the end of my marriage. It was so clear that I couldn’t ignore it as I had many previous incidents I had reasoned away or “forgiven” into oblivion. It hurt BADLY….and it just really gutted me that she didn’t see it. So even though I was on the path to divorce, I really, really pushed for my ex to show me that she understood what she did. I wanted to hear her say “Jeff, that was abusive. I am so sorry that I hurt you that way.” We actually had several arguments over this: I would push and push just to get those words. A few times I DID get them, but then they’d be qualified with some reason that I shouldn’t have really been hurt. It became standard that every conversation ended with both of us angry and in a lot of pain. We had conversations we shouldn’t have had just because I wanted this resolution from her. I felt it should be easy to understand and it was such a little thing: I just wanted her to have enough empathy to “get it”.
I remember talking to her sister to coordinate travel plans and I mentioned there had just been another argument. Her sister rebuked me (which she has done often, but this time she was right) and said “Why do you keep bringing it up? Let it go and divorce her already!” This took me aback and I had to ask myself what I was really trying to accomplish. If my ex understood her abuse and acknowledged it, how would that help me? Why was I waiting on it? Why did I make every conversation about that? I resolved that something needed to change: I needed to not be looking for her acknowledgment so I could heal.
Soon after that, my ex and I had a phone conversation in order to coordinate her visitation for our son. Tension rose as we once again started talking about what had happened….and I stopped myself. I said a quick and graceful goodbye and hung up without even trying. It was hard to do because I really wanted her to tell me she’d realized what she’d done and was sorry she hurt me, but I had to stop making it my life goal to hear those words. Hanging up the phone that night was the beginning of a discipline — a beginning of healing. I did not need her to change. I could move on no matter what words she did or didn’t say.
Our healing is in the grace of God, not the repentance of our enemies. Easier said than done, but I still remember the words I told myself: “If you wait on her for your healing, you may wait forever. She is not your healer.” I don’t have to tell myself this 50 times a day anymore, so I think I am finally learning!
[October 6, 2022: Editors’ notes:
—For some comments made prior to October 6, 2022 that quoted from the post, the text in the comment that was quoted from the post might no longer be an exact match.
—For some comments made prior to October 6, 2022 that quoted from the post, the text in the comment that was quoted from the post might no longer be found in the post.
If you would like to compare the text in the comments made prior to October 6, 2022 that quoted from the post to the post as it is now (October 6, 2022), click here [Internet Archive link] for the most recent Internet Archive copy of the post.]
28 thoughts on “The Fallacy of Making Our Healing Dependent On Those Who Hurt Us”
Really good! One can only change those things that are WITHIN HIS / HER POWER TO CHANGE. The abuser is NOT one of those things.
This really opened my eyes. I unwittingly did just what you describe up there, Jeff, for various reasons (distance, “releasing” him, etc.) but you have solidified the value of not looking to the abuser to heal and….put it into words for me. This is SUCH an important understanding / tool for healing!
Jeff, I love how you can remember and articulate each micro-step of fog-clearing so well.
When I made the transition you talked about, I suddenly found I was not one-down any more. I was one-up in relation to the abuser, at least in that little area. I don’t mean being one-up as in supercilious and haughty, I just mean one-up as in the abuser could pull as much as he liked but I’d unhooked myself from the other end of that particular string. I was moving on to healing but he was remaining stuck. I was one-up because I was moving on with my new life.
Thank you for this, Jeff.
My journey to healing began the day a counselor looked at me and said, “Ella, what are you going to do if he never changes?” I think I sputtered something like, “but….but….but he has to change! He answered me, “he may not. What then?” I walked away angry, but the question still stuck in my mind in the following weeks and I began to realize that the choice was mine. I had to choose what I was going to do with my pain and my anger, what I was going to do with my life and my future, and none of it was dependent on what my abuser said or did. It was still a long hard road to recovery with thoughts of “it’s not fair” dogging every step to freedom. But it is so worth it to have kept persevering and to keep telling myself, “I am free. Free to choose. I will not remain a victim.” No one can take that away from me no matter how hard they try.
Way to go, Ella! A real awakening moment for sure. Christ just has a way of turning on the lights for us, doesn’t He?
I think that my problem has been that I feared if he actually repented, it would mean that I would have to heal, forget about it all and take him back. I think that has delayed my healing in some sense, but now I know that is a lie and that God will not or does not force or require me to reconcile, even if he repents. That has freed me to just allow God to heal me.
I went through this same process, Anonymous! Time after time! It was such a release to realize that forgiveness did not mean placing myself in the path of destruction 70 x 7….so grateful for you healing. 🙂
Forgiveness can occur in a different zip code.
Regarding abuse situations, repentance is part of the hearts and flowers phase, and is so nicely displayed in front of others it just adds to the pressure of taking him back.
He can also repent from a different zip code.
Memphis, you’ve made my day; that’s going in my sound-bites file for future use!
—-I know what you mean, but I call that phoney repentance. You might be interested in this post of mine, Checklist for Repentance.
Hearts and flowers, done at home. Phony repentance done at church. Same fake tears just different buildings. He even went as far as to bring communion home, so right after he abused us, he could repent in the next room and continue on. Saved him alot of gas and pesky travel time! Phony baloney!!!
Thanks. I discovered God hears me just as well from the “Motel 8”.
Even with “Looney Tunes” blaring in the background!!
Yes when you love somebody you anticipate they WILL be sorry for the pain they have caused you, and when they realize your pain….all will be fixed!!! Unfortunately with abuse, most abusers do not have any empathy, they do not feel the effects of their behavior. The residual effects of their abuse will remain because THEY are unchanged. I am referring to if you are still stuck in that relationship. When your in that relationship it’s true you wait on their acknowledgement of the damage they cause to fix the problem. But that will never come. Abusers do not have empathy. Even they do not want to feel what they put upon their families.
Yes indeed, Memphis. I have heard from a Christian therapist who runs behavior change programs for abusive men, and she says that the primary thing they work on is getting the men to develop empathy. The men have little or no empathy, and unless they can develop empathy they will go on being abusive. Having cognitive change is necessary, but only part of it. Empathy is also vital. The abusers need to see how their victims feel when they are subjecting them to the abuse. This therapist is in Oregon, in case anyone is wondering.
This therapist has solid job security.
My opinion means little, my experience means a little more, how does one acquire empathy? If it’s so deeply entrenched in the process of denial that empathy cannot exist?
How do you teach somebody to feel?
They can produce the appearance so neatly, but it’s empty behind the tears.
All I can say is, good luck with that!!
Yes, those who work in men’s behaviour change say it is not easy work, and many abusers don’t make ‘second order change’ (the kind that really counts).
You might like to read this older post I wrote about Men’s Behavior Change work.
Yes they do NEED to feel their victim’s pain, if they are void of the ability to FEEL, I just cannot grasp how somebody learns FEELINGS….
Other than I have learned when I grab a brownie pan out of the oven without a towel….I have learned that hurts REALLY bad!!!
Put them in the same situation as they put us, and they STILL would not feel that kind of fear, desperation, distress!! Short of beating them, burning them….that is the only kind of pain I think they would get?
I agree with you, Memphis. I don’t know how one could help a person “find” or “create” empathy….or conscience. That would definitely be a work of God — a regenerative miracle. And the abuser would have to want it. And that would be another miracle….
Yes. I mean I believe God can do anything. But not if they do not want it. Therefore I do not see there being much hope for change. My mom was / is the same way. She cannot see past her own needs and comfort. For years I was emotionally abused by her, not understanding she did not possess the ability to feel empathy for anybody. I see her emulate feelings by rephrasing statements as her own, I see her cry ONLY when she has hurt somebody with careless words and THEY get upset with her….her tears are for herself, a way to deflect responsibility and get sympathy for herself. The woman use to drive me nuts, until I understood, my tears, my feelings, my plight, she couldn’t empathize. She would say the most hurtful, careless things, and then feel bad for herself that you were upset by what she did!!! So I do not think she has the capacity to learn feelings, unless they concerned her. Much like my ex, my begging, my on my knees pleading with him, the tears of the children….he couldn’t FEEL empathy for us, if he did he would of stopped!!!! So ya I have dealt with people who do not have empathy, and I am inclined to think it cannot be learned or acquired.
This is the sticky part: God absolutely can bring an abuser to repentance. He is God and He can work miracles. I believe in miracles, but I don’t depend on them.
Those who teach that we should wait for repentance (and even expect it, as I was instructed) are essentially teaching we should throw ourselves off a cliff and expect God to catch us. Can He? Absolutely. Should we expect it? Well I know Jesus did not have a favorable view of cliff jumping, and I’ve not seen too many of these pastors put their faith into practice that way either.
The church would do well to see repentance of an abuser as the highest of miracles. Just ask the Apostle Paul.
Yes, I agree with you completely, Memphis. I just cannot fathom a therapist believing that he / she could instill some sort of empathy / conscience in another person! That is a work of God!!! (And, as you mentioned….ONLY if the abuser wants it!) So, how could a mere person believe that he / she could do such a miraculous work? I am sure this therapist means well….I just find it incredibly assuming!
I believe this is the ONLY way abusers can change – which is why so few do. But I also can’t see anything else a therapist can work at that will do any good. Anything else is window dressing, making the abuser look good or feel better about themselves, and that does no good at all. I know that helping the abuser develop empathy is now at the core of a lot of abuser programs. I think they are getting the idea right, that this is what abusers lack and a big part of the reason they continue to abuse. How to actually accomplish it – yes, that takes God’s work and a miracle. I keep praying because I know we have a big God. But the abuser in my family isn’t even at the point of thinking about needing any help….
It always makes me think of the part in the Harry Potter series where if Voldemort were to put his soul back together he would have to really be sorry, to face up to what he had really done. I can’t write like the books but that’s what the abusers getting empathy would be like. They would be prostrate with grief.
Jeff, thank you for this post. It is amazing how emotionally dependent we are on our abusers even after we get away from them. I find myself wondering where he is and what he is doing. Part of me wants him to be doing well and changing the way he needs to, but I must admit part of me hopes that he doesn’t change so I don’t have to let go of my anger. Which is only another way I am making him responsible for my healing…. If he doesn’t change I get to stay angry…. That’s not what God says is it?
There are parts of me that fear her changing because if she gets better then it seems I problem; if only I had done or said things better, then she wouldn’t have been like she was. I have to remind myself that a) I am not powerful enough to cause her to be like she was, and b) if God does change her, it is His work and glory to Him for it. I actually do want her to be happy and given a choice I’d certainly pick her happiness, but I fear it as well.
I work really hard at not knowing what she’s doing, though people make it hard because they ask. Even my family, some of whom feel she shouldn’t have any access to our son at all, seem to think it’s strange when I don’t know what job she has. I try to answer “I am trying to move on and not know the details of her life.” – to me that is setting a boundary. When our son goes to visit of course I need the details of where he’ll be staying, ett. but where she works or if she’s happy, I just can’t invest myself in those details (though she will tell me if she has a chance).
There are some monsters who so thoroughly maim their victims the targeted women have no ability to heal. Think about the victims of acid attacks whose faces are forever marred. Think about the victims who self-immolate in despair and survive their suicide attempt. These are easy examples as physical scars are readily acknowledged by the general public. The rest of their lives are going to be ruined by the continuing pain, trauma, disabilities, etc.
The real dessert for monsters is to so thoroughly destroy their victims that there is no chance for recovery. Death would be a mercy for the victims.
My ‘healing’ is non-existent. My solace comes from knowing every moment that passes is a minute closer they are to being tossed into the fiery furnace to burn in hell. That’s my sanity. My comfort. As the clock ticks, God is closer to repaying them for their evil.
Thanks, Anonymous, I removed the part of your comment where you talked about Men’s Behaviour Change Programs. The reason I did is that you gave a statistic and if we allow this blog to get into statistics we are likely to get lots of comments submitted by abusers because they LOVE fighting on the battleground of statistics. Also, I’m going to be publishing a series soon-ish about Chris Moles, and one of the things I’ll be discussing there is Men’s Behaviour Change Programs / Batterer Intervention Programs (BIPs).
Yes, the abusers and their distorted ‘statistics’. What a crock of crud. I just wanted people to hear and know that even those who run “Batterer Intervention Programs”, and I’m thinking of Lundy Bancroft, specifically, admit that there’s almost no hope for any of the guys to change, but that they run them because (my words: lucrative, money-making possibility without much demand / accountability for results) but Lundy says he did it in the chance that they made life better in some way for just one victim out there.
This makes me think of your recent post about the abusers not needing to be shown that they are doing wrong, as they already know it. BIPs aren’t giving batterers any new information but rather the abusers get more lingo to manipulate, con, deceive, and mind-muck their victims.