Under My Thumb–Controlling Spouses, Part XI: Taking Back Control #5, What About Forgiveness?

Posted on December 25, 2011 by

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I left off with the question that all connected people must ask after anger or betrayal: Isn’t there room for forgiveness, or, more-so, haven’t we always learned that it’s better to forgive than to hang on to a hurt, or, as I’ve been suggesting, respond by asserting ourselves strongly–and letting our partner know that that’s just what we’re doing? And I left off with a teaser about my son. But I don’t share with you a story about my son and forgiveness–although we certainly, as do all inter-related people, have our own experiences with forgiving. Rather, here I throw in a parental boast, and I hope you’ll forgive me–I’ll come back to my senses quickly.

My son, Eli Finkel–really, if I’m to milk this for all it’s worth, it’s Doctor Finkel–is a social psychology professor at Northwestern University. [He's also the parent of one of the most adorable and clever children to grace this planet, as I can objectively assert, but let's save that for another time.] Eli studies relationships, and is second author on the paper, “The doormat effect: when forgiving erodes self-respect and self-concept clarity,” published in the Journal of Personal and Social Psychology, May 2010. In that paper [you can find the pre-published version at https://facultystaff.richmond.edu/~jburnet2/documents/LuchiesFinkelMcNultyKumashiroInPress_JPSP.pdf if you're truly interested, but then you'd have to read about study design and also take a bit more than a passing glance at statistics, so you're fairly warned], Eli and his co-authors study the effects of forgiveness in couple relationships on a person’s sense of his/herself, and propose that forgiving a partner only bolsters self-respect if the controller or abuser has acted in a way that indicates that the ‘victim’ of the control/abuse/betrayal will be “safe and valued in a continued relationship with the perpetrator.” If not, if the controlled or abused or betrayed person senses from their partner’s behavior that they are not ‘safe and valued’ in a continued relationship, then forgiveness only further erodes the their rapidly diminishing sense of self-respect.

After a particularly heated argument between Tim and Tali, of Part III fame, Tali pulled out her usual trump card–she would leave Tim and take the children. And if we remember back to Tim’s sense of his own experience, we’ll recall that Tim feared Tali might actually leave–whether by running away with the kids, as she was now threatening, or by killing herself, as was another common intimidation threat she utilized. But this time the threat concretized for Tim something he’d subconsciously known for a while: he was not safe and valued in this relationship. True–and this bears repeating, even though you may be tiring of it–he was not afraid for his physical safety, but much abuse occurs and great pain is inflicted on partners without anyone lifting a hand. Tim didn’t feel safe in the sense that he lived with a niggling fear, only partially hidden from himself, that he might one day return with his wife and children gone. Forgiving Tali this terrorist tactic would not ‘make him the better person,’ and would not increase his self-respect.

If you are involved with a controlling spouse, “forgive and forget” should not be your motto. With that understood, let’s return to some more practical steps you can take to free yourself from the controlling spouse.