A relationship between two people is meant to be a two-way street. Both people are supposed to be invested in making it work. Both people need to be willing to compromise and work with the other person to maintain a healthy relationship where the needs of both are being met.
This is true of all relationships. Marriages, friendships, families, and even working relationships.
The moment that one person begins to hold the balance of power – meaning that only that person’s needs are being met – things have become unhealthy.
This can often happen in relationships for mainly benign reasons. As one example, one person was too stressed by something to consider the feelings of the other person. In situations, such as this one, it’s easy for the other person to feel hurt, used, neglected, etc… this is where it’s important to be able to have open and honest conversations. The outcome should be that both people feel heard and changes are made to better the relationship.
But there are people with whom these sorts of conversations are impossible.
You may repeatedly tell them that their behaviour is hurtful to you. They may apologize, but then no real change occurs.
They may laugh off your accusations or dismiss them outright. Perhaps they gaslight you to try to convince you that what you know truly occurred, didn’t ever really happen after all. You may not even be allowed to confront them because it hurts their ego too much to acknowledge that they’ve failed. And when their ego gets hurt, they take their anger out on you.
The onus is always on you to be the one to forgive, forget, and keep the peace.
These are toxic people. Their actions come with severe impact, and this must be acknowledged. Without real repentance and change of heart on their part, no healthy relationship can ever be had.
In my time in the evangelical church, I heard a lot of well-intentioned messages from people regarding the topic of forgiveness and reconciliation.
There is an idea floating around in the pews of our churches that if you have truly forgiven someone, you will forget everything that happened between you two. You will be reconciled to that person and live in peace as if you were never wronged. Sadly, this kind of teaching is what enables abusive behaviour. The abuser does not want to confront their behaviour. They want everything to go back to being peaceful without having to commit to any real change.
“…a pastor I worked for made a decision that threw me under the bus publicly and shifted blame away from himself. When I confronted him about it he said he did that because he knew I would forgive him. On principle I did not.” – Justin
In her book, “Did He Hit You: A Memoir of Secrets, Survival, and Subtle Abuse”, author Aubri Black talks about when she was coming to terms with the fact that her husband was abusive:
‘I was still disturbed by everything that had happened recently. I was frustrated that we were not talking about it. I was frustrated that nothing had changed. I was frustrated that for Jay everything had gone back to “normal.”’ (chapter 57)
Does this sound familiar?
This is an example of dysfunction.
“My father covered up the abuse that I had experienced at the hands of a pastor we both knew. I was forced to spend 2 years at this pastor’s church, during which I nearly lost my life to suicide. My father forbade me from going to the police because this would be seen as the action of a person with an unforgiving and bitter heart. I sat in silence for 8 years before I was finally diagnosed with PTSD. – Anonymous”
This sort of abuser often finds an ally in the church and church leaders who will tell victims that it is their Godly duty to forgive and forget.
People who live out healthy relationship dynamics will actively seek to ensure that there is peace in the relationship. It will not be taken for granted that this is the case.
This becomes amplified for those who are toxic/abusive and cannot acknowledge their wrong-doing; these are the people who pin the blame for their behaviour on others. They may have legitimate reasons for this: they may have come from traumatic backgrounds and never fully healed. Perhaps they never developed their skills of resiliency to be able to honestly see where they’ve failed, sit with that discomfort, and seek to be better in the future.
These are all very valid reasons to explain why a person may become toxic or abusive to others.
But these are not reasons to allow a person to be abusive towards us. Nor are they reasons to, as our good and Godly teachers might want to tell us, forgive and forget. Nothing excuses away abusive behaviour.
“My ex-husband cheated on me with my then best friend. The pastor told me to forgive, and never bring it up again and not to tell my parents to protect him. He was verbally abusive as well (husband). I was… told I was lucky HE didn’t divorce me.” – Porteña
You can forgive and move forward with your life if that is something you are ready for.
You can also choose to set boundaries so that this person cannot hurt you further.
If need be, you can even choose to remove this person from your life.
It takes two people to maintain a relationship. If one person is incapable of holding up their end because they are stuck in abusive patterns towards you, the relationship is already terminal. You do not have to hold the burden of keeping the relationship alive in some hope of fixing or healing that person through your forgiveness. I promise you that no human has that power. This is not a burden that you need to carry.
You are not responsible to fix an abusive or toxic person. You will never love or forgive them enough to make them change. They are not your responsibility. You owe them nothing.
God did not condemn us to a lifetime of loving people into emotionally healthy mindsets. He does call us to love, but sometimes the most loving act you can make is to let them feel the consequences of their actions. Up to and including the loss of your relationship.
You do have power in your relationships, even if it doesn’t always feel like it. You get to choose what behaviour you will and will not allow in your life.