Living with Toxicity: Embracing Faith & Forgiveness
One of the things that people struggle to understand in the fallout of toxic relationships is how all encompassing the damage can be to the survivor. The losses involved in such experiences include: the loss of the relationship itself, the loss of ideas and memories one had about the relationship, the loss of who you thought the other person was, the loss of friendships connected to the smear campaign, the loss of financial resources (if divorce or a custody battle is involved, both of which tend to be unnecessarily prolonged by the toxic partner's obsession with winning and inflicting as much pain as possible), the loss of time with children (if there are any), the momentary loss of one's connection to reality due to the unfortunate effects of gaslighting, the loss of certain places or spaces that are no longer safe for the survivor, and perhaps most importantly the loss of faith (in oneself, in others, and in the Sacred) that often results from the profound sense of betrayal one experienced in this process. Each of these losses are significant. Over time, some resolve on their own while others seem consistently out of reach. The most significant loss, namely, the loss of faith—which I define as the capacity to trust—is the one that survivors need most in order to move out of the existential and spiritual whirlpool that prevents them from seeing life (including oneself, others, and the Sacred) as potentially hopeful. The key to opening up to this energy internally, relationally, and spiritually is by doing the slow but necessary work of forgiveness.
Forgiveness is an understandably touchy topic for persons emerging from toxic relationships. More often than not, the level of cruelty and betrayal they've experienced is unimaginable. When they attempt to tell friends about it, people literally cannot and often do not believe them. This only adds to their feeling of isolation and self-doubt as the pattern of gaslighting leaves a fog that takes time to lift. For those fortunate enough to have survived a smear campaign with a handful of friendships still intact, it's not uncommon for their friends to wish that the survivor could hurry up and find healing already. They are usually well meaning, encouraging you to find forgiveness so that you can move forward and release the anger and resentment that so often surrounds the soul like emotional sediment. The truth of the matter is that forgiveness after toxic abuse is a process, and it takes as long as it takes, though there are certainly ways to move forward that are better than others.
In a healthy relationship, it is normal for persons to overstep boundaries, to disappoint the other, to thoughtlessly injure, to hurt feelings, and even to intentionally lash out at times. What distinguishes a relatively healthy partnership from a toxic one is the couple's ability to repair well, to learn from their mistakes, and to endeavor to make adjustments personally and collectively. Repair usually necessitates some measure of empathy and the willingness to apologize. The offended partner is then able to ascertain whether they feel heard and if they're willing to forgive the other based on the content and believability of the apology. In toxic partnerships, one party is blamed for the majority of the problems in the relationship and is forced to accept responsibility for the issues that plague them. Apologies are nearly always one sided with the blamed partner being the one doing the apologizing. When toxic relationships end, usually with a jarring abruptness and disorienting justification, there is often a bizarre request by the toxic partner that the other apologize for their behavior. "I hope I can forgive you one day," they say, usually right in the middle of behavior that would be shameful for most people. The codependent partner, usually because they would rather repair the relationship than be right, will go out of their way to apologize, sometimes to absurd degrees in order to try to make things right. It isn't until well after their own vulnerable apologies that they realize that the toxic partner was only using their good faith efforts at repair as further evidence for their ever expansive smear campaign. In the minds of these survivors, it is the toxic person who must apologize before they will even consider forgiveness. This leads to an unfortunate stalemate, for the toxic partner is incapable of authentic apology. Whether as a result of toxic shame or toxic shamelessness, they honestly believe they have nothing for which to apologize. So their partner is left holding a rope tied around them that the codependent believes can only be untied by the other's admission of fault. In other words, they are psychologically and spiritually affixed to someone who cannot perform the one act that they believe is needed to disconnect and move on.
In response to this stalemate, resentment and anger begin to fester. While the toxic partner has moved on to their next target and has succeeded in persuading many that they have finally found "the one," the survivor has likely gone underground into their own recovery process. Most are unable to access anger for a while, but once it surfaces anger unpacks its suitcases and lets you know it's not planning on going anywhere for a while. Anger can be a wonderful, motivating energy that allows persons to move out of the emotional quicksand of shock and grief. As I've heard it described, anger is like fire. It can both warm a home or destroy an entire town. Moving from anger and resentment to radical acceptance and forgiveness usually means one has to experience the destructive force of anger before they can come to a healthier relationship with it. Anger and resentment are both protective emotions that provide cover to softer emotions that are usually more primary in the experience of devaluation and discard. Underneath anger and resentment are more difficult emotions like shame and inadequacy, which, when opened up to with tenderness, can transform one's relationship with oneself to the extent that one can begin to experience the much needed space between needing a "bad other" and no longer identifying with the projection of being a "bad self." At the heart of this experience is the realization that the painful betrayal one experienced at the hands of this other person had nothing to do with them at all.
As Jackson MacKenzie makes clear in Whole Again, survivors of these kinds of relationships often find that the seeds of betrayal are sown deeply in the soil of the soul. Not only have they been betrayed by the person they trusted the most, it also opens a chasm of doubt about the trustworthiness of the universe that they are liable to fall into at any moment. Relatively normal problems in living, from a cracked windshield to an unexpected bill to a frustrating health diagnosis become cumulative fuel for the tire fire that has become their life. Whatever the contract was they had with the universe, it feels as if it has been torn in half by a sadistic god who now seems in on the joke. How are people to move toward forgiveness and release when it feels as if the world is set up to fail them. For many, such crises offer survivors opportunities to encounter healing through a variety of different mediums, most never considered prior to this experience. These may include different spiritualities or religions, new spiritual practices, somatic work (including but not limited to: reiki, acupuncture, yoga, massage, tai chi, and other physical forms of exercise), therapy in its many forms, journaling, and many others. Anything that allows persons to break up the emotional and spiritual scar tissue will place them back on the road toward seeing their life and all that undergirds it as trustworthy and fundamentally for their well being.
The problem is that one can do all of this work and still be vexed with the question about forgiveness, however. Some of those conundrums may be theological or religious in nature. Many persons' faiths ask that they forgive their enemies, but this is difficult for persons who have survived emotional abuse because forgiveness and reconciliation are often placed together in the same breath, and what survivor wants to be within ten feet of their abuser? In the aftermath of a truly toxic relationship, reconciliation is a fantasy that one must release in order to move toward forgiveness. Reconciliation requires work on the part of both parties to admit fault, and since this isn't going to happen with most cluster B persons, there's no use subjecting oneself to the false hope of this actually ever happening. Sadly, some toxic persons take advantage of the codependent persons' desire for reconciliation by occasionally engaging in hoovering where they will offer false apologies in order to further use the partner, usually resulting in increasingly painful discards as they know how little self respect the codependent person has for themselves. Decoupling forgiveness and reconciliation allows us to focus on what forgiveness means for those recovering from toxic relationships.
The etymology of the word forgive has Old English and Proto-Germanic roots, both of which imbue forgive with the sense of "give up" and "release." This is exactly the energy one must embrace in the aftermath of a toxic relationship. One must give up the need for resolution, for apology, for understanding, and the need to occupy a victimhood stance that—while warranted—doesn’t ultimately serve wholeheartedness in the long run. Giving up is another way to talk about the need for surrender, which is ultimately a way of embracing the paradoxical need for consenting to what is. This is the essence of radical acceptance. Our protest against the givens of life, in this context the experience and fallout of emotional abuse, is what provides the fuel for further suffering. Giving up the need for the ruminative protest puts us in touch with the pain that is always our true teacher. Similarly, survivors are encouraged to release resentment and any other desire connected to retribution or revenge. As many survivors have noted, the best revenge is a life well lived. When persons can release the rope that has been tied around the waist of the toxic other, they may find a tremendous sense of lightness and freedom as their hands are now available to receive other gifts and experiences that have been difficult to hold given having their hands full for so long.
Forgiveness is not for the toxic other in these situations. It is for the person from whom much has been taken and who deserves to get their life back. If nothing else, survivors would do well to slowly and gently offer themselves forgiveness. You did the best you could with the information and resources you had at the time. For most persons who have been through this gauntlet, the task is to take the lessons learned and move forward with greater self-compassion. For some, it may even be important to consider the paradoxical act of forgiving God—or however one characterizes and names the Sacred in their lives. When we can name our disappointment and anger honestly, we are more likely to create a channel where intimacy and love can flow naturally again spiritually.
The lessons learned in living with toxicity are too complex to capture in an essay or even multiple essays, but as we move closer to the freedom found in forgiveness, life can once again feel like a sacred adventure in the education and development of the soul. This adventure is inspired by a hard won faith grounded in the reality that we have encountered the worst humanity has to throw at us and yet we refuse to close our hearts to the world around us. Through forgiveness, our hearts expand in capacity and tenderness with a confidence that there is no darkness that this light can't overcome.