How do you forgive your abuser?  I was asked this recently by a woman who is a survivor of domestic violence.  She too is free and turning her life around, but still struggles to forgive her ex.

It’s a good question.  How did I forgive the man who abused me?

When I first left a violent man I felt emotions for the first time in years.  I’d become so numb in the relationship. I stopped feeling them. I suppressed them, as what I was going through was way too painful to deal with.  I hid them from my ex, as he would twist and use them as a weapon to hurt me.  He saw weaknesses as a chink in my armour that he could pierce and wound.

Emotions were of no use to me.  I no longer trusted my gut instincts.  According to him, they were wrong.  He blamed me for the abuse he metered out to me.  And I started to believe I deserved it.   So they were askew.

When I left and was away from the chaos and drama, I was still for the first time in years.  I knew I couldn’t run straight into the next person’s arms.  Sooth the hurt with the next relationship, as I had done in the past.  

I knew not to trust my judgement anymore and that my self-esteem was low.  I would most likely attract another manipulative man.  I had to stay still and process what I had been through.   It was time for me to focus on me and to heal myself. 

The reason damaged, narcissistic people are attractive to us is their baggage matches ours.   It feels right, because we fit, albeit in a dysfunctional way.  We, like them, are lacking self-esteem.  We too have little self worth, (even though narcissists have an inflated sense of entitlement).   But, as their issues appear greater than ours we can focus on them.  This allows us to deny our own.  We can avoid looking deep at our own, too painful, flaws.

I filled the void I felt inside by trying to rescue and fix my ex.  He ‘needed me’ I thought.  If I could love him enough.  If I could prove I was worthy enough.  I could be all he needed to fix his damaged soul to become the man I believed him to be deep inside.  The loving one trapped inside the abusive man.  The one, damaged by a difficult past, he was not to blame for.

Chaos and drama also denied me the stillness necessary to reveal my own damaged inner self.  It was such an effective anaesthetic, I didn’t even know it was.

So there I was, still for the first time in years.   It was volcanic, the eruption of those long-denied emotions.  Now they were safe and free to come out.  I have never felt such raw pain as that.  The wounded loneliness of feeling abandoned.  The anger that someone I loved had been violent towards me, almost killed me.   The grief as my dream of a happy family disintegrated into ashes.  Many times I lay foetal, sobbing gut-wrenching tears.  It was so visceral it was like I was crying out all the pain I’d ever felt in my entire life.

I had to take a hard look at myself. Why was there that void in me? What had caused my lack of self-esteem.   Why was I attracted to and stay with a violent guy, when others would have run a mile?  I’ve talked about this before so I won’t go into detail again here.   But suffice to say, once I’d done that I was able to heal.  You can’t when you are still numb, denying your emotions and needs.

So where does forgiveness come in?  Actually, that was easy for me.  I realised that it was not about forgiving my ex for what he had done to me.  It was okay to remain angry about that.  It was more important that I forgive me.  I wasn’t to blame. I didn’t provoke it or bring it on myself.  No-one deserves violence against them.   I could forgive myself, it wasn’t my fault.   But there was more I needed to forgive, to heal.  

I became a victim, as somehow not all my emotional needs were met as a child, despite my happy childhood.  My lack of self-esteem was deep inside me, long before I had ever met my ex.  I realised I had to forgive the flaws in my parents that led to my own.   To understand them, forgive them, to heal myself.  I had to keep all the good things I inherited from them.  But break the negative patterns to stop them passing down to my sons.

Forgiving my ex then followed of its own accord.  I realised, to stay angry.  To feel bitterness towards him meant I was still allowing him control over me.  Allowing negative emotions to affect me meant I was still his victim. I was handing my power to him and would forever remain joined to him.  I had to take it back.

To stay angry at my abuser meant I was still his victim. Forgiving him made me free. Click To Tweet

I learnt to separate his unacceptable actions from the damaged man. Don’t get me wrong –  he was responsible for them, I have no doubt about that. But he too was a victim in a way.  The negative patterns that lead to abuse.  The cycle of violence in any relationship doesn’t happen in isolation.  It is passed down from generation to generation.  Somehow his lack of self-esteem, his need to control were imprinted in him as a child.   He was responsible for abuse, but not to blame.  Understanding that allowed me to let go.  Letting go of him, forgiving him is what led to my freedom from him.  

I understand that he still feels enormous bitterness towards me for leaving him.  Thirty years on!  I feel sorry for him, but it’s not my problem.   I am the opposite.  I am perversely grateful that for my time with him. Not for the violence, but for the fact that he held up a mirror to me.   Understanding what happened made me look hard at my own part in the relationship.  To take responsibility for my own flaws and nurture my insecurities.  It made me a better person today than I would be had I not learnt from the experience.

People come into your life for a reason.   “When the student is ready, the teacher comes” is a mantra I now live by.   Sometimes they are a mirror reflecting back at you parts of yourself.   Learn from them and let bad experiences teach you something about yourself.  Become a better person because of them.  Then move on, forgive and let go.

(Caveat: I do understand that for some people, it is very difficult to forgive the level of abuse they have suffered.  This post is not to put pressure on anyone that they must do this.  Nor is it to make anyone feel guilty if they can’t.  It is just my story, my experience.  We are all unique.  The main thing if you can’t forgive, is to work through your emotions, especially negative ones that will keep you tied to them.  And try to release them – with professional support if needed.   If you find freedom from them, without forgiving them, that’s okay too.)

Are you finding it hard to forgive?  How did you move on and let go?  Let me know in the comments below.

Domestic violence resources are widely available.    If you need further help or counselling please refer to the following helplines (or the equivalent in your country):

1800Respect: 0800 737 732  RESPECT
Lifeline: 13 11 14  LIFELINE

National Domestic Violence Helpline: 0808 2000 247 NATIONAL DV HELPLINE UK
Paladin National Stalking Advocacy Service 020 3866 4107  PALADIN UK

Women’s Aid:1800 341 900 WOMEN’S AID
Safe Ireland:  +353 90 6479078  SAFE IRELAND

The National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233  THE HOTLINE USA 1-877-695-5395


DAWN Canada crisis hotlines:  DAWN CANADA

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Written by Vivian McGrath

Vivian McGrath is a TV Executive Producer who makes documentaries for major US, UK and Australian broadcasters.  She is also a survivor of domestic violence.  Her book ‘Unbeatable (How I Left a Violent Man)’ – her story of surviving abuse to finding success in love and life – will be published soon.  She hopes this blog will help others to become strong, fearless and successful too.  Find out more about Vivian Here.

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4 thoughts on “How did I forgive my violent ex?

  1. I have spent the last few years turning my life around, and making ammends (or trying to do so) for mistakes that I have made. Many of which I didn’t realize I had made. Which is really sad. I am very glad that I had a wonderful boyfriend who supported me through the process. I was able to make so many changes, that I felt like a completely new person. I do not know if I was forgiven by others, but I had worked through and forgiven any painful situations in my past that had haunted me(mostly form childhood trauma). Then, I started working on a legal issue that should have been easy to resolve but has lingered. As I began going through old legal documents, a very disturbing pattern began to emerge. It appears, through volumes of documentation, that someone tried to kill me in a rear end collision back in 1997 in front of a bar called Stone Face. She hit me at over 60 mph and broke my back in 3 places. Resulting in complex legal cases from 1997 through 2001. Until I began reading all of the legal paerwork together, it was meaningless to me. Now, it looks like it was intentional, and the legal paperwork I am working on now was tied in because it looks like it allowed someone to legally steal my identity and anything I was entitled to receive. As I read this, the evidence points to someone wanting what I had and being willing to do whatever they could to get it. Followed up by years of someone trying to frame me. Not just me, but I was the one that was in the way. The day I put all this information together, someone was waiting at the end of my street and tried to hit me head on when I left. How did they know what I had written? Maybe I am being ridiculous and paranoid. Now, I feel like I am stuck, because if I try to go after these people legally, I look like I am trying to get revenge or ruining someone’s life. If I don’t, they have made it clear that they will continue to come after me. I even got the impression that they are watching my boyfriend, but I may be overeacting. I do not want anyone innocent to be in harms way. Plus, no one will believe what I have, or what has happened, so I am helpless, and they know it. It has made me feel useless and like I am saying that this is all ok. So, I am trying to understand, how can I really and truly forgive these people for what has been done? Is it possible? How did I not see all of this before a few weeks ago? What I have learned, is that it’s ok to forgive people for what they have done. Not easy, by any stretch, but possible. Grieving this situation is allowing me to see that forgiving is the only way to approach what happened with a clear head. I have no business trying to put all of this together with a broken heart or to make emotional assumptions based on what I see. It is too serious, and it would be too easy to try to justify a bias because I hurt. So, I am forgiving. And I realize that it is not impossible to forgive the people who hurt me. Though I will likely not feel warm and fuzzy towards the situation. That, even though I can’t control what happened, I can say that I forgive and mean it. That doen’t mean that I won”t still grieve and process the situation, or that I approve of what was done. I can”t imagine I will ever approve of what happened. I doubt I will ever even find out exactly who did it. It does mean, though, that I accept what I see as something that can”t be changed. I really wish I hadn”t seen it a few weeks ago, because it really knocked me over. But, it taught me something about myself. I care. I can still love. I can find compassion in adversity. And forgiveness allows me to release the situation.

    1. Hi Yvonne, you’ve been through so much. Your legal issues are complex and out of my experience, but I am glad to hear you have a supportive boyfriend who has been there for you. Particularly as you’ve worked through complex past traumas. Forgiveness helped me too. It’s not for everyone, but it did work for me. I am happy you can still have compassion and an optimistic outlook on life. Keep working on you and stay strong. x

  2. “Allowing negative emotions to affect me meant I was still his victim.” I needed to hear that, thank you for being so open about all of this.
    I am on the verge of forgiveness too. Two domestic violence relationships behind me. The first (narcissist) nearly destroyed me, the second was an ‘upgrade’ (psychopath) from the first. Although the second one was shortlived it pulled me way back to the first one, and anger consumed me. Disappointment and sadness consumed me. During the second one I got burnt out, and still am at home trying to get back on my feet. Which is going well luckily! But, it hit me that I needed to do one more thing to truly be free. I heard a song, that I had shared with no.2 and there it was again: anger, sadness etc. I have always been against forgiveness towards people who were evil, who never asked for forgiveness, as I saw it as a gift. They treated me bad, so why should I forgive them? They don’t care.

    But, still forgiveness popped in my head, and just the thought of it made me calm. Felt like true closure. Anger, sadness, just like you said, it all keeps you tied to them.
    I still see forgiveness as a gift, but I now see how even though it’s directed at them it’s a gift to me. A gift to let go of what was and move forward.

    The first one (narcissist) I have forgiven, as he comes from a very disturbed home situation (his dad is more toxic than he is) and he is a prisoner of his own disorder for life. The second one, the psychopath, feels harder to forgive even though he caused less damage (the first beat him to that already and this one was short lived). It feels harder, because he has absolutely no inner life. A walking destructive robot. No soul. But, I know I have to for my sake. And I’ll see it as him never being able to feel love or anything good during his lifetime. He too is a prisoner with a life sentence. And although he thinks he’s king of the world, he will never experience true joy nor true love. And I have to forgive, because the bitterness of it all is destroying my life, keeping me on guard with new people I meet and I dó have a chance at being happy again. So, I’m pulling my ‘get out of jail’ card by choosing forgiveness.

    Thank you again for your story. I needed a little push to see that it is the best decision for me.

    1. Thanks so much for that Sue. Sadly, we do tend to upgrade with each abusive relationship, the more we become numbed to it. It is definitely a gift to you. You can forgive, but not accept you’re to blame, nor forget what they did to you. There’s a difference in that. Forgiveness is a choice too. One that definitely worked for me. I let him go and moved on. I hope you find freedom this way too. I also hope you are now working on yourself to understand why you repeated the pattern from one relationship to the next. And building up your sense of self worth and ability to set strong boundaries? Only when we do this can we break the cycle and not repeat it again.

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