I recently had coffee with a victim of an emotionally abusive relationship. Every time she was ready to leave him after an outburst, he would return the next day and apologize profusely, sometimes with flowers or big displays of affection, begging her for forgiveness.
After her somewhat unemotional description of his violent behavior, she asked me, “Can you help me learn to forgive him?”
She didn’t need forgiveness. She needed clarity to understand that her boyfriend’s behavior was abusive and would continue to fall in that category.
Why did she stay with him? Why do any of us stay in toxic relationships? Simply put: love. Love is a powerful force that can also be treacherous.
A Glamour relationship survey revealed that nearly 60 percent of women ages 18–35 have experienced relational abuse. The study also indicated that emotional abuse almost always escalates to physical abuse.
Over the last two years, I’ve received close to 1,000 emails from women and girls in emotionally abusive relationships. A common theme that has emerged in these emails is many of the women believe they have a forgiveness deficit rather than a toxic man in their life. Many self-blame because thinking “I messed up” is often easier than thinking “he is bad”.
Before we go any further, we must acknowledge that men can also be the victims of emotional abuse—but the statistics are difficult to interpret because men are even less likely than women to report emotional abuse.
One of the pillars of the Christian faith is forgiveness—Christ’s forgiveness bestowed on us at the Cross coupled with the daily forgiveness we are instructed to extend to each other. Paul writes, “love bears all things” and “covers a multitude of sins.” The Bible even says that if we don’t forgive others, then Jesus cannot forgive us (Matthew 6:14-15). We are instructed to forgive an infinite number of times, without limits (Matthew 18:21-22). We know that God forgives us when we confess our sins (1 John 1:9).
We are always called to forgive; but forgiveness should not be seen as a remedy to another’s character, rather a soothing balm to protect our own hearts from bitterness.
But we see sisters and brothers letting destructive people into their lives, laboring under the fundamental misunderstanding that forgiveness equals being a doormat. It’s common as Christians to put ourselves in harm’s way, stay in abusive relationships and fail to set healthy boundaries—all under the banner of “forgiveness.” I know from experience.
Forgiveness and reconciliation are very different, yet often confused, perhaps because of the widespread teaching that God forgives us and doesn’t remember our sins. Are we to follow in His steps when we continue in toxic, abusive relationships?
Anne Jackson gives a great summary of the distinction between forgiveness and reconciliation on her blog:
Forgiveness is unilateral. You can forgive even if [someone] never admits [their wrongdoing], is never sorry, and never changes. But reconciliation requires both people’s commitment to recovery, honesty, repentance, forgiveness and communication. Even then, reconciliation is a long and difficult process of breaking down barriers and building trust.
A paraphrase of Einstein’s definition of insanity rings true here: Staying in the same relationship with the same person and expecting different results is, well, insane. In regards to wanting relationships, especially marriage, to change a partner’s negative behavior, Andy Stanley says, “promises mean nothing.”
In fact, the Bible says, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1). Jesus died to set us free, and your emotionally abusive boyfriend or girlfriend is seeking to restrain your God-given freedom.
Here is a list of real situations I’ve heard over the last year that signal a relationship must end.
13 Signs Forgiveness Won’t Fix Your Toxic Relationship:
1. Your significant other treats you like a project, not a person.
2. He/she forces you further sexually than you’re comfortable with. You say no and he/she acts as if you said yes.
3. Your significant other screams at you or uses derogatory language.
4. He/she twists Scripture to accuse you of wrongdoing.
5. Your significant other calls you a slut when men “notice” you; you can never “act appropriately” around men.
6. He tells you about his masturbation problem, sexual fantasies, etc. and makes you uncomfortable.
8. He/she hits you, pushes you, strangles you or threatens you … even just once.
9. He/she tells you no one else would want you and you’re lucky to be with him/her.
11. He/she plays the victim and blames you instead of taking responsibility.
12. He/she pouts, withdraws or withholds affection to “punish you.”
13. Your significant other has to know where you are at all times and says he/she needs to “keep an eye on you.”
According to Women’s Health, the most detrimental aspect of emotional abuse is the loss of identity that happens gradually because victims falsely believe it is their behavior that causes the abuse.
May you find the courage to step into the greater story that God has for you—one defined by healthy boundaries and selfless love instead of toxic relationships.