I Forgive Him I Don’t Forgive Him

Thoughts on Forgiveness

I’ve had some recent breakthroughs with my amazing psychologist and conversations with amazing partners in regards to forgiveness. I’m really understanding that when it comes to forgiving someone who has done something horrible to you, it’s a process and should never be a requirement. Often, when someone has deeply wounded us with their bad behaviour, we need to be allowed to be furious with them, disgusted with them, we need the freedom to never have to forgive them. I have a feeling telling victims that they should forgive those who have hurt them has the real potential of inhibiting their healing process because it is projecting your own morals and ideals onto the ways in which they work through their trauma.

Forgiveness is a deeply personal and internal process, forgiveness may mean never forgiving the adult who left you wounded and scarred, it may only mean forgiving the hurting child in them who left you wounded. I believe that healing requires the freedom to never have to forgive someone when they have done deep and violent damage and then left you to pick up the pieces alone. Forgiveness cannot be demanded of the victim who is left to deal with the aftermath of bad behaviour. Only the victim can feel forgiveness, if and when they are ready. They may never be ready because some hurts go deep and some last a lifetime.

It’s also important to recognise that forgiveness is not about forgetting – some things you will never forget; they leave you with sore spots and triggers that colour the ways you navigate future relationships and so forgetting really isn’t a possibility.

My personal forgiveness has come in waves. In the early days, I felt too much of it and needed to access my rage, my disgust, my loathing. When the trauma I experienced as a result of emotional abuse left me with a complex soup of emotional problems, I needed access to my truth. I’ve been through much of that process and am now at a point in my healing and moving on where I feel forgiveness and sadness for the person who really hurt me coming back into my heart but even this forgiveness comes in waves; some days I still loathe the bastard, others I only wish him well.

Early on, forgiveness was unhealthy for me because it contained the risk of me returning to the person who hurt me and not giving my trauma the safety and space it needed. In love as I was with my ex, I needed hate and rage to keep me safe. Now, having been through that process, I can feel the same love towards him that I feel for all hurting creatures. I never wish to see him again for as long as I live, but I can now access the sorrow I feel for all beautiful things which trauma, pain and anger destroy.


Reflections on Broken Love

The other day, I showed my new Dom a love letter that I had asked my previous Dom to write me towards the end of our relationship. I’d asked for this because after my ex Dom had spent so much time telling me all the reasons he thought I was a piece of shit, I needed to find a way to believe it when he also constantly told me I was the love of his life. He wrote the love letter, as requested, but it didn’t help. In fact, it made me feel worse as I felt it read like a shopping list of things I gave him, rather than a love for who and what I am.

The reason I showed it to my new Dom is that I realised my experiences of emotional abuse with my previous Dom had fundamentally shaken my ability to trust the words “I love you”. When my first Dom said “I love you” I had believed and felt those words with all my heart, and so when he said “you’re just a worthless piece of shit to me right now” I also felt those words as truth. And then when he was absent and distant while I was suicidal and traumatised from the experience in New York, his “I love you” felt empty. The words “I love you” became something I could no longer trust.

When I left my first Dom, people were telling me he didn’t love me and this became the story I told myself for quite some time. The other story I told myself, to protect myself and distance myself, was that he was a hateful, spiteful, cruel and cold bastard who was fundamentally incapable of love. This perception of him helped create enough coldness and distance in my heart for me to connect to the rage and disgust that would protect me long enough to help me heal. I needed, for a long time, to hate him. Truly, deeply, hate him.

But recently that hate has started to feel like a rut I’m trapped in. Recently, writing more publically about my experiences with my emotionally abusive ex Dom has shifted something in me, like clearing out the cobwebs. I’ve felt more space inside myself and a desire to move forward, especially as I fall more deeply in love with my two current partners. I want to move forward into life with my two loves and start to leave my old pains in the past as much as possible (though I never want to entirely let them go as my own experiences have left me with a wisdom and compassion for other people that I would never trade away). So perhaps that’s also why I showed my new Dom my old love letter.

“I can see why this letter left you unhappy,” he said. “It made me feel sad for both of you. I can see that he did really love you.”

I started crying. “Thank you for saying that. I didn’t know how much I needed to hear that. He did love me. We really did love each other. He hated me and he loved me.”

“I can see that. And it makes sense. It must have been so painful when you left him, you must have felt so much grief.”

I started sobbing. “Yes I did. It was the most fucking painful decision I’ve ever made in my life. And everyone around me just hated him and was glad I left him and that’s good because I needed to leave him – his behaviour was dangerous for me. But my heart was completely fucking broken and I never really got sympathy for that.”

I sobbed and was hugged. I felt, for the first time in a long time, the memories of all the good times with my first Dom flooding back into my heart and this time they no longer felt dangerous, like they could hurt me. For the first time in over two years, those memories felt safe. And beautiful. And I felt my heart break in sorrow for my first Dom who truly did love me but who was too hurt and broken inside to love me properly.

The next day, I told my psychologist about my experience. He talked about different types of love, he mentioned infatuation, lust; early stage types of love. But this didn’t connect with me. I told him that I actually felt myself and my Dom had formed a very deeply bonded sort of love. All up, we had spent three years together, slowly revealing our deep traumas, our vulnerabilities, learning to talk, learning to love. I felt we had truly loved one another, and to heal I needed that truth acknowledged.

My psychologist said he didn’t like to diagnose people he’s never met but we both had independently come to suspect that my ex might have narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). He said that when he saw clients with NPD, his heart broke for them because it is such a profoundly difficult disorder for people to have. Now please take everything I am about to say with a grain of salt as I am not a trained psychologist, only a regular person with an interest in how people work. Disclaimer aside, here are my thoughts on trauma, schemas and NPD. As far as I understand, NPD stems from childhood traumas and dysfunctional schemas that cause them to have a deep belief in their own fundamental unlovableness. They compensate for this by becoming self-aggrandising, ego-centric and superficial with their relationships. Intimacy is profoundly difficult because when someone loves them, it confronts their deeply held belief that they are worthless.

When we are children, we are creatures of ego. When children are traumatised and abused, they feel it must be because of something about them. If a child is neglected and deprived of love, they may come to believe that this is because they are fundamentally unlovable. People with narcissistic personality traits were often deprived of love in their childhood and so they had to be self-sufficient from the start. They may come to view their self-sufficiency as a sign of their superiority to others. I suspect this may in fact be the reason that so many men seem to have traits of NPD and go on to become abusive – because we, as a culture, tend far too often to deprive young boys of their need for love, safety and a place to be vulnerable. A culture that doesn’t let boys be soft and loved is like a factory that produces narcissistic, abusive men.

The view we have of ourselves is largely formed in our childhood, and if our childhood didn’t contain the love, consistency, validation and safety we needed, we form faulty views about ourselves, or “schemas”. These schemas are powerful; they are deeply held and are very difficult to challenge or shift. They are not impossible to work on but it requires a lot of work, a lot of therapy, a lot of patience and a lot of mistakes.

If your childhood schemas include the idea that you are worthless and unlovable, then when somebody loves you it puts these schemas into a profound state of shock and confusion. Schemas will try anything to maintain their “truth” and so they will tell you that the person who loves you must have something wrong with them. And when that person doesn’t behave the way you think they should, this will put you into a critic mode; a horrible, judgemental, cruel critic mode. You will start to find all the things “wrong” with the person who loves you. And then, if you feel the person who loves you is seeing the real you, the worthless and unlovable you, this will put you into attack mode.

A person with narcissistic traits in attack mode is not a pretty thing. My memories of the man who had held me and whispered “I love you babe” contrast so deeply with my memory of the same person looking at me with pure disgust in his eyes and saying “you’re a worthless piece of shit”. For so long it was impossible for me to understand. Had he tricked me? Was he a sociopath who was incapable of love? Was I insane? Was I a fool for believing him when he said “you’re the love of my life”?

I wasn’t. He did love me. The healthy, evolving, adult in him loved me. The child in him who needs love, like we all do, loved me.

And then… he didn’t love me. When his schemas were triggered, he reverted to a childlike ego state and in that state, he despised me as much as he despised himself. In attack mode, he wanted to destroy me and he used all my vulnerabilities as weapons against me.

So the truth, as I now believe it, is that he loved me and then he didn’t. And then he loved me again but he couldn’t face the consequences of his actions so instead he started to shut down and push me from his heart.

How heartbreaking for both of us. How deeply, fundamentally tragic that his childhood traumas destroyed the beautiful, precious, irreplaceable thing that we had together.

Because it was beautiful. It was imperfect and there were many unhealthy aspects to it which I was not experienced or wise enough to see. But there were so many truly beautiful, profound, bonding moments that we had together. That those beautiful times have forever had a shadow cast upon them is… devastating. It still breaks my heart.

My Forgiveness

About a year ago while I was intoxicated, I sent my ex Dom, who I no longer speak to, a sloppy email telling him that I would never forgive him but that he should forgive himself. However, I said that first he needed to look in the mirror and face the fact of how appalling his behaviour was. I also said a lot of stupid shit about how I was going to become a feminist porn star – ha! I never got a response and to be honest, I would never have sent that email sober.

I never saw him take accountability for his actions and perhaps he never will. This is the reason I had to remove him from my life and this is the reason I needed to connect to my rage and disgust, because he wounded me and then I had to do all the recovery work by myself. Yes, while we were together he had suggested that we get couples therapy, but he expected me to do all the work to find a therapist, and underlying this was his belief that I was overreacting; that dealing with it was my responsibility, not his.

I will never forgive that. I forgive the child he once was who never received the love he needed. I forgive the adult he is who still needs love but may never be capable of holding onto it. I forgive the person who held me in his arms and whispered “babe, I need you.” But I will never forgive the adult who shrugged when I was suicidal, who abandoned me to the trauma he caused me, who said “sorry” but had no idea how little that meant when he continued to justify his behaviour and attack me. The pain of his attacks was tremendous and traumatic but his indifference to my pain in the following months was the most wounding thing of all. That was the biggest betrayal of our love.

This made his words “babe, I’ve got you” hollow and painful.
Now that I can sit with some of the beautiful memories we once shared I can see the complexity of the truth. None of this could come from trying to force myself into a narrative that others felt about how I should relate to my experience, though of course their thoughts, emotions and opinions helped me gain better clarity on my own. Ultimately, I needed ownership over the specificities of my story and the complexities of my truth. None of this can be simplified or put into trite statements about forgiveness.

He loved me, he didn’t love me. I forgive him, I don’t forgive him.

That’s how I feel today. All of this may be different tomorrow.

That’s ok.

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First Feelings

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Just around this time last year, my husband Wes whisked me away in an aeroplane for an emergency holiday in Bali. I say “emergency” because that is how it felt to him, digging deep into his tax return, he flew me to a place that was tropical and vibrant as a means of emotional resuscitation, a life-saving procedure. We were lucky to be in a privileged enough situation to be able to do so and I am lucky to be so loved.

Only a few months earlier, a different lover (Wes and I identify as polyamorous, that is to say we are in an open relationship where we both have multiple loves and yes thank you we’re very happy that way) let’s call him Pete, had flown me to holiday with him in New York where things between us had gone incredibly sour. Upon my return, I was diagnosed with a sort of post-traumatic syndrome and my therapist and my closest people were telling me that Pete was behaving in ways that were emotionally abusive. Combine that with the depression, chronic pain condition and suicidal ideation I had been struggling with for the last couple of years and you’ve got yourself a recipe for someone who doesn’t really want to exist anymore. Suicide was constantly on my mind, I had planned how and had come close one too many times. The light within me was flickering dangerously and Wes, who knew and loved me best, was terrified.

So he flew me to Bali and just as he had hoped, the change in the air and colour and the company of my beloved quickly had me waking up. I adore the tropics like no other place and the ugly beautiful intensity of Bali mirrored something within my own internal landscapes. I started to feel excitement again, particularly as we were to do a diving course which would have us realising one of my lifelong dreams of scuba-diving in coral reefs.

Except as I already knew too well, life doesn’t always go according to plan. On the first day of our diving instructions, an over-eager instructor gave us flawed lessons which caused us both to sustain inner-ear injuries which we only became aware of late in the day. That night, Wes and I sat in a restaurant overlooking palm trees, chickens and tourist resorts and realised we were not going to be able to complete our diving course.

Heart swamped by bitter disappointment, the vision of my green cocktail blurred with tears. I felt miserable and I felt stupid for feeling so miserable when here I was drinking a cocktail in the tropics, a vision of privilege and good fortune. I felt ashamed of myself for feeling so unhappy when our holiday had only just begun. Optimistically, Wes said “Hey, no need to be upset, we’ll still have a good holiday, you know?” and at those words, something inside me clicked and, emotionally, angrily I snapped “I know, ok? I know it’ll be a good holiday! I know we are lucky to be here and I know we will find other things to do but right now I’m really fucking disappointed because this is something I’ve always wanted to do and now it’s just another fucking broken dream, you know? Just another thing I can’t do to add to the giant list of things I can’t do! Can I just wallow in this misery for awhile? I’ll be okay but can I just fucking be upset for awhile?”

“You know what, you’re right. That’s fair. I’m upset too. This fucking sucks.” And so when we went back to our hostel, we wallowed. We ate junk food, drank beer and I cried in Wes’s arms. I cried giant, heaving sobs of bitter disappointment that were a little about the ear injury but much more about the broken dreams caused by my chronic pain condition and disability as well as the deep hurt I was feeling over the betrayal of trust and emotional violence enacted upon me within my relationship with Pete who I was still deeply in love with. I allowed myself to feel sorry for myself, really, truly sorry.

Wes held me and I bathed head to toe in the bitterness of my disappointment and misery and after only an hour or so of wallowing… I felt fine. Better than fine, I felt good. Better than good. And happily, we planned out the rest of our holiday, adjusting our plans, discussing possible new adventures. We then went on to have an incredible holiday, one that was full of exploring, eating, fucking, nature, beauty, art and healing. During that time, we read Buddhist books together and I discovered the philosophy which has helped me develop a deep compassion for myself and a capacity for coping with my struggles with greater equilibrium.

So I learnt something really important through that experience. I learnt to take my emotions seriously, to stop judging them and stifling them and instead to let myself feel them completely so that they might pass through me and shift and metamorphose into something else. My therapist spoke of that phenomena as the idea that we experience both primary emotions and secondary emotions. Primary emotions are the first emotions we have in response to the phenomena of our lives and those emotions are understandable, reasonable things to have. Secondary emotions, the emotions we have in response to our emotions, more often than not, those guys are cunts. In my experience, secondary emotions tend to be judgemental emotions, the guilt that says “I shouldn’t be feeling this, I’m stupid for feeling this.” Secondary emotions are perhaps useful in helping us keep some perspective on our emotional landscape. Maybe secondary emotions are like our conscience, but left unchecked, they’re the jerks that stop us from giving ourselves the compassion and mental space to actually process what we’re feeling.

Similar concepts are described in Buddhism. My friend, Chance, explains it well in her excellent writing here:

“There is a Buddhist parable (or koan) about “the second arrow”. In short, the parable says that if a person is shot with an arrow, there is no point shooting a second one. The teaching is that sometimes in life you will get hit with an arrow. But many of us then shoot one at ourselves in response.

Buddhist teacher Tara Brach uses this parable to explain the phenomenon of blame – the human tendency to react to painful events by blaming others, or blaming ourselves. I remember when I first heard this parable (not from Tara but another teacher, Gil Fronsdal), I was struck by the idea that we could separate feeling awful, burdened or weary from being angry with ourselves for feeling those things. Perhaps it would be easier if we could just feel them.

This is what often happens with depression: we feel like crap, and then feel ashamed of feeling like crap, partly because we see the impact of it on those who love us. Sometimes shame is useful, and there is room for looking for answers, but if you are already wounded, injuring yourself further doesn’t help. It makes it doubly hard to put the pieces back together.”

So when I experienced the disappointment of not being able to complete the diving course, my habitual pattern was to emotionally attack myself for feeling disappointed, to tell myself that emotion was self-indulgent. But this time, I allowed myself to indulge that emotion, I validated the reasons I was disappointed and gave myself the compassion and space to feel unhappy for awhile. Through the act of doing so, I was amazed to see how quickly the miserable feelings passed and how quickly I was able to go about the task of having an amazing holiday with my gorgeous husband.

When we returned home, I ended things with Pete via email because I realised that there was no reason I should have to endure another verbal sparring match with him, no reason I had to listen to another cruel word. It would still take me over six months to start taking seriously the depths of the hurt his emotional abuse had caused because of course his default position had always been that I was overreacting and playing victim. Gaslighting is like the externalisation of the second arrow – your abuser shoots you with the arrow of their initial violence and then the second arrow is their denial of their responsibility, their insistence that you, in fact, are the one to blame for their bad behaviour. Their stubborn belief that your recovery from their wounds is your responsibility alone. For a long time, I internalised that message and in fact I’ve only recently allowed myself to feel the deep rage and disgust I have towards him for his behaviour. That has been healing as for a long time, I denied myself my fury.

Several months after returning from Bali, I had my first surgery for my thoracic outlet syndrome, a scary prospect with no guarantees. After my surgery, the surgeon came to me and said that mine was the worst case that himself and his assistant surgeon had seen and, after thanking him for such incredibly validating news, I broke into tears while my mother and husband held me and cried with me. After many years of not being taken seriously by a great multitude of medical professionals who made me feel as if my struggles with my health were just me being a hysterical woman, or incompetent, or crazy or just overreacting to my pain, after so many years of essentially being gaslit by medical professionals, to discover tangible evidence of the reality of my experiences was profound. And healing.

I’ve always been an emotional person, as a child I was told by adults that I was too sensitive, and as an adult I have often been told the same thing. After the experience in Bali, after the experience with Pete and after the experience with my surgery, I resolved never to disregard or minimise my emotions again. Yes, it is true that I feel emotions with perhaps more intensity than many and it is important for me to regulate and manage my responses to them with self-awareness, however emotions are a type of intelligence and more often than not, a reasonable response to the circumstances of our lives. We do not have to be controlled by our emotions but nor do we have to deny them, our emotions are a fundamental aspect of our lived experience and they have a great deal of wisdom to impart to us.

From now on, I am determined to listen to my emotions. I am determined to sit with the truth and wisdom and beauty of them. I am determined to give myself the compassion I deserve when I struggle because life is goddamn hard sometimes. And I am determined to do the same for others. Contrary to the belief of some, becoming better acquainted with emotions does not weaken me, in fact I have never felt stronger, never felt more resilient.

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