Forgiving the Emotional Abuser

By Robin Mullins Senger

Many of us have experienced emotional abuse, not just from partners, but also from parents, children, and other family members.

They may use their trump card - forgiveness - if they sense the relationship is threatened in order to maintain control and power. You may be feeling a conflict in your soul about forgiveness. Does it mean you have to forget and pretend abuse hasn't happened? Does it mean reconciliation?

Do we have to forgive the unforgivable? One of the pillars of the Christian faith is forgiveness. Christ’s forgiveness of us, coupled with the command to forgive each other: “love bears all things” and “covers a multitude of sins.” “Forgive 70 x 7.” “Forgive or we won’t be forgiven.” (Matthew 5:23-24, 6:14-15, 18:21-22, Luke 6:37, 17:3-4, 23:33-34, John 8:7)

But what does that really mean for you? Is forgiveness and tolerance intertwined?


You have an enemy, whose purpose in life is to destroy you. He works subtly to plant seeds in your heart that are not of God. These seeds of offense, if not dealt with early on, begin to intricately weave themselves into your life as issues that bind and ultimately destroy you spiritually – exactly what your enemy hopes to achieve. Unforgiveness comes into agreement with his agenda to cause you even more pain and heartache.

When you choose not to release others who have wronged you, you may throw in the towel on Christianity altogether. Or you may begin to create a false religious system. Deception creeps in, takes root, and you quickly become imprisoned in a worse way.

Hebrews 12:15 says that bitterness is a root and if it grows unchallenged in your heart and life, it will eventually lead you away from the grace of God. It starts out as seemingly justified unforgiveness. But eventually it unites with your character and perverts God’s truth in your life. You may want to know God, but you never will as long you refuse inwardly to release those who have wronged you.

Jesus said in Matthew 6:14-15 that as we forgive others, our heavenly Father forgives us. Can you honestly say that you have no need of mercy? I certainly can’t. God says we ALL have sinned, and we ALL need His forgiveness. We can’t embrace His mercy for ourselves, yet extend judgment to others. We will never know what friendship with God is without forgiving others and receiving His forgiveness.

Think forgiveness is too hard? It often is, but Jesus never asks something of us without giving us the power to do it. As someone who has also struggled with this, I have come to realize that it really can be done - although it may need done over and over.

Here's how I deal with my own inner anger toward toxic people in my life:

I want to forgive, but only feel anger and bitterness. Those are just feelings. I make the choice, genuinely from my heart, to release the person anyway. I talk to God about it. I am honest with Him about what I think and how I feel – it’s pointless to put on a show for Him. He knows every feeling and thought anyway, so I find that putting voice to it is the beginning of my healing.

There have been times I did NOT want to let go. Once again, it’s pointless to stay silent and pretend there is not an issue. How often I have told God – “I don’t want to release this person. I hate him. I want to hate him. But more so I want to be obedient to You. He isn’t worth losing my fellowship with You over. So please do a work inside of me. Get me to the place where I want to release him.”

This would take some time and often have to prayed over and over. Sometimes I would forget about it for a season. But God would be working inside me and one day I would remember. I would see that I had softened up to the point where I was ready to genuinely choose mercy.

I would take the next step and tell God: “God, I am ready to release this person. I want to, and as an act of my will I release this person and myself from unforgiveness.” But rather than my feelings always following suit, they might stubbornly cling to anger.

That’s when I would have to choose not worry about it. “God, I choose to release this person. I want to. But I still feel as angry as I always have. Will You please work in me and cause my feelings to line up with my choice?”

My will was to let go, and I stayed firmly in that. Eventually, my feelings came around and conformed to my choice.

As impossible as it may seem to you now, it is a battle you can and will win when you ask God to accomplish this in you.

Another thing that always helps me is to ponder what on earth went so wrong for this person in life that he or she must cause others so much pain. Hurt people hurt people. That does not excuse their choices, but it helps me to let them go.

Whenever your feelings pop up telling you that you have not forgiven, speak to them and remind them that you have chosen to move on. The issue is over for you. God will carry you through to a peaceful and joyful victory, and your relationship with Him will thrive. Let Him do the work – you just agree with Him!

In regard to Christians in particular who wound others: I think that often this is what is happening. Simultaneously their root of righteousness in Christ is drying up due to a root of bitterness being allowed to take over their character. In the process it becomes very hurtful to those around them.

You and I don’t want to be like that do we? But we will if we do not set others free. We will become the ones causing others pain. So let us choose grace and mercy, for others and ourselves, so that we may grow in the love of God and bring healing and joy wherever we go, rather than pain.

Does forgiveness require reconciliation?

As time goes by and the pain develops into a pattern, those of us on the receiving end of toxic behavior increasingly struggle to forgive. We doubt our value, and judge and condemn ourselves for our struggle. We may confide in someone that we need help learning how to forgive.

The fact is, the line between forgiveness and acceptance is thin, but very different.

Here are three ways forgiveness may be different from what you think it is, and may not be your problem at all.

#1 – Forgiveness does not mean acceptance or approval of the behavior.

You can forgive without accepting the behavior. You can forgive and have clarity at the same time that toxic behavior will continue. The established pattern will continue.

#2 – Forgiveness is not a remedy to someone else’s character.

In fact you may be thinking, I’m ok because my partner doesn’t beat me – he just says mean things. The fact is, emotional abuse nearly always escalates to physical abuse. Abuse does not stay the same. It progresses, and it requires that you forgive. If your definition of forgiveness is letting it go and pretending it didn’t happen – you’ve just added wood to the fire. Your forgiveness doesn’t fix anything in your relationship. It buys you a few hours, days, maybe weeks of perceived calm, but the next episode is on its way.

#3 – Women often see themselves as having a forgiveness deficit in their lives, rather than being in a toxic relationship.

Self-blaming is common. “I messed up.” “I caused this.” “I need to be more loving.” “I need to be more considerate.” “I need to be more forgiving.”

The truth is, you need a paradigm shift. “He chose to say this.” “He chose to do this.” “He has a free-will and is capable of making his own choices – for better or worse. He is making bad choices that are hurting me and the children.”

#4 – Forgiveness equals being a doormat.

Its common as Christians to put ourselves in harms way, stay in abusive relationships, and fail to set healthy boundaries – all under the banner of forgiveness and love.

The truth about forgiveness:

#1 – Forgiveness is unilateral. Reconciliation is for both people.

You can forgive without the other persons knowledge, admittance of wrong doing, apology, or change. But reconciliation requires both parties commitment to change, recovery, honesty, forgiveness and communication. Even then, reconciliation may not be possible because of destroyed trust.

A paraphrase of Einsteins definition of insanity applies here: staying with and forgiving a toxic person and expecting different results is well, insane. Promises mean nothing.

#2 – The Bible also talks about freedom in Galatians 5:1.

Jesus died to set us free, and your toxic partner is restraining your God-given freedom.

#3 - A few signs forgiveness wont fix your toxic relationship:

  • He does not respect you when you say no or wait.

  • He is verbally abusive.

  • He twists Scripture to accuse you of wrongdoing or to make you submit to him.

  • He is physically violent.

  • He plays the victim and blames you instead of taking responsibility.

  • He is emotionally abusive.

  • He is jealous and watches your every move.

May you find courage to step into the greater story God has for you – one defined by healthy boundaries and selfless love instead of toxicity.