The Fallacy of Making Our Healing Dependent On Those Who Hurt Us
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!