Should victims forgive their abusers? I’ve worked on sexual assault hotlines and participate in survivor group counseling, and the question “Should I forgive my abuser?” comes up often.

(P.S. Sometimes, I use “victims”and “survivors” interchangeably. I recognize that there are individual preferences to these terms.)

I can’t tell you how many times over the years I have heard that victims should forgive their abusers. This often comes from people who make statements (without using “I statements“) of what’s worked for them, or opinions and statements stemmed from religious beliefs. And far too often, these statements come off as judgmental and critical lacking much needed empathy.

What really is forgiveness?

Forgiveness is a tricky thing. Of course you can go by its definition, but forgiving people in and of itself is one’s own personal journey. And depending on the degree of harm, and by whom, the more complex forgiving can be.

It is not up to me, or anyone else, to tell an abuse victim/survivor how, when, and if they should forgive their abuser(s).

When I did some Googling, I discovered how some people view and define forgiveness for their abuser(s):

  • “Forgiveness is refusing to let your past abusers rule your life any longer.”
  • “Having empathy for my abuser, which ultimately let me empathize even more for myself.”
  • “Having acceptance for what happened and not allowing a person have control of my emotions any longer.”
  • “A process of moving toward indifference instead of hate.”
  • “Finding forgiveness for myself first.”
  • Etc.

What is forgiveness to you? Leave a comment in the comment section…it may help someone (kindness only, please)!

To forgive or not to forgive

For some, forgiveness may come easier when/if the abuser or offender makes an apology. This day may never come though as an abuser will have to have some form of empathy to make a genuine apology along with an awareness of their wrongdoing/crime. For others, forgiveness can be a journey that doesn’t involve the abuser. And some people choose to not forgive at all. Everyone’s experience with trauma and healing is different.

When you look back at times you’ve forgiven people, has it been from your own volition, or has the offender made the first move? Which felt better for you?

For some, forgiveness involves an apology. I’ve put some hours into studying the art of apologies and what makes them feel genuine or not and I stumbled upon apology love languages.

5 Apology love languages

Not all apologies are equal. You may have heard of the 5 Love Languages, but did you know there are love languages for apologies? Here is a brief list of the 5 apology love languages:

  1. expressing regret: hearing the regret one has (“I’m sorry.”)
  2. accepting responsibility: hearing responsibility being taken within the apology (“I was wrong to lash out at you.”)
  3. making restitution: making a tangible effort to right the wrong (“I’m sorry I was late. Next time, I’m going to set an alarm and leave early to ensure I am not late in the future.) Note: apologizing and following up with the person you’re apologizing to’s love language and incorporating that works really well here.
  4. genuinely repenting: verbalizing a desire to not hurt someone in that way again (“I am genuinely sorry I hurt your feelings when I said that. I care about you and don’t want to hurt you like that again and will be more mindful in what I say.”
  5. requesting forgiveness: requesting freedom from guilt of your offense (“Will you forgive me?”) Note: this can be a tricky process as the person requesting forgiveness has no control over the reaction or response and the person in the position to forgive or not may or may not want to relinquish forgiveness as some form of justice.

Like the 5 love languages, many of us have a primary apology language that speaks to us while others don’t.

I believe that forgiveness is a unique journey and it’s not up to any of us to tell someone how, when, or if they should forgive.

What’s worked for you if you’ve decided to forgive? Or, what motivated your decision to not forgive? (Please use “I” statements.)