“Am I in error to avoid all contact with a family member who continues to emotionally abuse me?” Ensign, June 1994, 60–61
Maxine Murdock, retired member of the Brigham Young University Psychology Department. Emotional abuse and mistreatment that occur over an extended period of time can be devastating. Those so wronged have the right and responsibility to protect themselves.
If a perpetrator is not a family member, avoiding all contact might be easy. But terminating contact with an abusive family member is difficult, particularly for Latter-day Saints, because of the emphasis we place on the importance of family ties. Nevertheless, victims of abuse must protect themselves from family members and others who freely choose to mistreat them.
Avoiding contact, for a while at least, may sometimes be the only way to achieve that end. When the time is right and if a perpetrator has repented and abandoned abusive behavior, minimal contact might be initiated, perhaps through cards or letters on holidays. Later, a phone call might be appropriate. It may help to make such contact impersonal at first. When renewing personal visits, those who have been wronged should consider doing so in group situations that provide a safe atmosphere and an opportunity to gauge the offender’s behavior and reaction toward renewed contact.
Visits should be brief at first. One of the best ways to determine how, when, and whether to proceed is to appeal for heavenly help through prayer. Those who have been abused, not their well-meaning friends or relatives, must determine when to reinitiate contact.
The ability to discard bitterness is a big step toward reconciliation and forgiveness. Many individuals who have been abused express frustration over their inability to grant forgiveness. The offended often receive great pressure from others to forgive their offender. They are told, “You can’t heal until you forgive.”
Forgiveness is a personal and often lengthy process. Condemning those who have difficulty forgiving places an additional burden on them. Sometimes, under pressure, they will say, “Yes, I forgive,” while deep inside, the hurt not only remains but is compounded by guilt because they do not really believe their own words. On the other hand, those who have been abused should remember that forgiveness is a gospel principle that eventually brings peace of mind. Forgiveness is not only possible but is an essential part of healing, though in some cases it may take years to forgive.
“You cannot erase what has been done, but you can forgive,” said Elder Richard G. Scott of the Quorum of the Twelve. “Forgiveness heals terrible, tragic wounds, for it allows the love of God to purge your heart and mind of the poison of hate. It cleanses your consciousness of the desire for revenge. It makes place for the purifying, healing, restoring love of the Lord” (Ensign, May 1992, p. 33).
The Savior said, “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; that ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven” (Matt. 5:44–45). Although we do not have the same degree of knowledge that the Lord has, we do have his counsel. While he will forgive whom he will forgive, it is required of us, no matter how arduous the task, “to forgive all men” (D&C 64:10).
Small offenses may be fairly easy to forgive—especially those resulting from accidents, carelessness, or insensitivity. But offenses that are long lasting or that cause deep wounds to the soul are much more difficult to forgive, particularly when an offender does not care, feel sorry, apologize, or even recognize the offense.
Elder Scott further taught, “Forgiveness … can be hard to understand, even more difficult to give. Begin by withholding judgment. … Leave the handling of aggressors to others. As you experience an easing of your own pain, full forgiveness will come more easily” (Ensign, May 1992, pp. 32–33).
True forgiveness often develops slowly, a little at a time, perhaps even unconsciously at first. No one can predict how long it should take to forgive. As friends, family, priesthood leaders, or professional helpers, we must be patient with those seeking to forgive. Few of us can see or feel the invisible wounds they have suffered.
Forgiveness does not require acceptance of abuse or acceptance of an abusive person. But when hurt has healed, when victims have realized that the abuse is not something they caused or deserved, when they have tried sincerely to understand the offender, and when they have prayed for charity and spiritual guidance, then peace of mind and true forgiveness will come.