Dear Portia: The Spiraling Journey of Forgiveness

How Do We Know When We’re Done Forgiving?

Dear Portia,

What does forgiveness look like when you work through the process and do your best, but either the offender never acknowledges their sin or they continue to offend? Not asking about boundaries, that’s pretty clear to me, but how do we know when we’re done?

Working the Process

Dear Working,

Here’s the moment my therapist truly shocked me. She asked me what I wanted from a difficult relationship.

I’d been trying to heal things with someone for six months by then. My real love and affection for them was plagued by their past and present abuse. “Healing” looked like this: I’d share my hurt, or ask honest questions, or kindly state what I needed from them. In return, they’d gaslight me or treat me with contempt.

After the worst round of “healing”, my therapist asked, “Going forward, what do you want this relationship to look like?”

She might as well have asked what superpower I’d pick up at TJ Maxx. My brain did not compute. It took the rest of our hour for me to simply take in the enormity of what she was offering: I could choose.

I could choose not to see this person at all. I could choose to keep engaging with them. I could engage less, or only with a therapist present. I could limit the amount I saw them. I could ask them to contact me only via email, or skywriting, or pigeon post. I could do anything I wanted.

I had Never. In. My. Life. realized I had that power.

And when I actually gave myself permission to do I wanted, I was able to set boundaries and let go of the enormous weight of hurt and terror that being in relationship with that person caused me.

I know, I know, you said your question is about the process of forgiveness, not boundaries, but I’m going to refuse to separate the two. For me, forgiving the worst offenses committed against me or those I love has never felt like a tidy process, with a discernible end. There is no tidy bow to tie when people tear at your being. The rage quiets, it stops poisoning you, but humanly speaking, it never really goes away.

I am still in relationship with the person I talked to my therapist about, but every once in a while, I feel so furious at them I could scream. At the same time, I grieve that they might never live free of the fear that caused them to hurt me.

Have I forgiven them? I really don’t know. What gives me comfort is knowing I did what I could to live at peace with them. That is enough for now.

In the bad cases, the ugly, terrifying, horrifying cases, the best measure of forgiveness is the decision to take the next right step towards peace. Boundaries are the only part of forgiveness we have complete control over. Boundaries clear the ground of filth so new life can sprout.

I talk about the horrific cases first and foremost because I think if advice does not work for the most wounded, it’s trash. If someone has suffered horrific abuse, I don’t think they should do periodic checks to see if their heart is clear, like an emotional cancer scan. Enough has been asked of them.

Will forgiveness help them? Yes. Do they need to worry if they struggle to “finish” that job? NO.

Instead, I would ask anyone who struggles to forgive to imagine God scooping them into Her arms with weeping tenderness, bandaging each of their wounds. To know that when they say a fierce NO another bit of their heart is freed from hate. To rest in the knowledge that when they cannot forgive, the Holy Spirit cries out with groans too deep for words. To affirm that Jesus shoulders the heavy yoke of forgiveness when it is past their capacity to manage it.

I used to think faith (and forgiveness) was like a ladder I climbed, moving towards some distant goal, but now I think we travel in cycles and seasons, often going by landmarks we thought we had left behind. Forgiveness is a spiraling journey, not a process with a beginning and an end.

Also, Jesus does most of the walking.

The mark of real forgiveness is not a moment where we have finished the work, but the trembling, brave choice to take one more step forward.

I Shared Honestly With My Sister. She Responded with Manipulation.

Dear Portia,

My dad, from whom I’ve been estranged, just died. His death brought up a lot of pain from the past. I recently tried to tell my elder sister about some of my ongoing challenges with our family. She responded with a very un-empathetic, emotionally manipulative response.

Her reply traumatized me all over again. I’m left feeling disappointed that we can’t communicate constructively about family issues. It reminded me of why I pulled away from the family in the first place.

How do you have a relationship with someone you care about, knowing that in order to do so, you have to accept their limitations (emotional and psychological) and subsume your needs to get along?

Fatal Family Flaw

Dear Fatal,

I know someone who endured terrible mistreatment at the hands of her family. Even worse, they scapegoated her for her own abuse. This went on well into adulthood, until she finally cut off contact.

Not long after, we were talking on the phone about it, and she said, wistfully, “You know, I’d almost keep believing I was the problem, just so I could have a family.”

Family is air and water and shelter. When you can’t depend on parents and siblings for healthy love, you become an orphan, even if the people in question are still alive.

I admire your bravery, Fatal. You spoke up honestly in a difficult family, and that’s a big, big deal. Pretty much everything in an unhealthy family trains us to keep quiet. In a just world, your bravery would have been met with increased intimacy and connection, and instead, you got your teeth kicked in. Still: it’s worth celebrating that when you faced a crossroads, you chose the path of love and connection. That makes you a hero in your story, regardless of how well your sister responded.

It sounds as if you have weighed the costs and benefits of this difficult relationship and decided that complete estrangement is not the right choice. That’s totally reasonable, especially given how essential family is. Still, my therapist’s question to me is worth weighing on your end, too. Given your sister’s limitations, what do you want? What reasonable expectations could you have of her? Are there points of connection that don’t require you to be so vulnerable? Do you enjoy each other when you’re not talking about family? Can you avoid areas where she could retraumatize you and still have any relationship left?

The second, harder piece of my advice is this: you are actually facing not one death, but two. Your father has died, and a lot of old pain resurfaced. As a result, you ran straight into the brick wall of your sister’s emotional manipulation. Here’s your main problem: Your relationship with her will never be the same after her response. You cannot safely need her in the way you wish you could. That is a death.

The moment I really let go of needing the person I mentioned in the first part of this column, I wept like I was at their funeral. I had to grieve so many things I was desperate for from them. It was terrible.

Still, the grief cleared out space to forgive them and relate to them as they are. It helped me have enough distance to protect myself while still maintaining contact.

Grieving your sister is the really hard and necessary part. Without it, you will continue to need her to be someone she is not, and that will continue to hurt you.

Your letter tells me you’re fierce enough to do this. I’m cheering you on.


Photo by Matt Haggerty on Unsplash

Heather Caliri
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