Published articles by Rebecca Mitchell on issues around sexual abuse
Difficult Feelings In The “Season of Goodwill”
Christmas invokes so many feelings. As the external temperature goes; down internal emotions tend to rise, bringing it with it anticipation, excitement and for some people – dread.
For the last seventeen years I have been working with women who have experienced child sexual abuse – many at the hands of close relatives – and Christmas is often an extremely difficult time. All around us we are confronted with pictures, adverts and signals that this is a time for “family”. Along with this the women are often pressurised by parents, siblings and relatives into attending festive meals, events and gatherings and told that at this time of the year in particular they should “forgive and forget” for the sake of the family.
But is this really forgiveness?
What Is Forgiveness?
A study was done by the Human Development Study Group in America in 1998 on forgiveness and they defined it as: “A willingness to abandon one’s right to resentment, negative judgement and indifferent behaviour toward one who has unjustly hurt us, while fostering the underserved qualities of compassion, generosity and even love toward him or her.”
(Source: Enright, R, Freedman S, and Rique J (1998)
Rev Desmond Tutu who led the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa says “Holding onto your resentment means you are locked into your victimhood – and you allow your perpetrator to have a hold over your life. When you forgive, you let go, it sets you free.” (Source BBC News website: bbc.co.uk: 27/2/2006)
So how do we relate these definitions to the extremely painful situations many people have to face over the “season of good will” – when they are expected to spend time with people who have been very damaging to them?
Christmas Is An Opportunity
The positive side of Christmas is that it provides an opportunity to look at relationships when they are often very magnified. There is nothing like a group of people (ie an extended family) being forced to spend relatively long hours together, couped up in one place, to bring underlying tensions to the surface! This sometimes makes it easier to see dynamics, relationships and power struggles being acted out and can be the source of some extremely rich therapeutic material.
However, in my work with sexually abused women we spend many painful hours (and none more so than at Christmas time) discussing and processing extremely difficult decisions about contact, confrontation and reconciliation not just with strained relationships but with the actual abuser and also with other family members who may have been complicit in the abuse. The pressure often being elevated on the victim to forgive and “come home” and causing the victim to suffer – and not the perpetrator.
A Journey Of Many Steps
David Ausburger in his book “Caring Enough To Forgive” describes forgiveness as a “complex and demanding process” which is “…often reduced to a single act of accepting another. In spite of pain, hurt, loss and wrongdoing that stand between us, we are encouraged to forgive in a single act of resolving all by giving unconditional inclusion. Such a step becomes too large for any human to take in a single bound. Forgiveness is a journey of many steps, each of which can be extremely difficult, all of which are to be taken carefully, thoughtfully, and with deep reflection.”
(Source: “Caring Enough to forgive” – David Ausburger).
Forgiveness then is not a one shot deal – it is a series of long, difficult and painful events that may take many years – and any seasonal quick fix solutions from external sources to make it a “Family Christmas” just brings more pain and damage on the person that needs the support the most.
To Reconcile Or Not?
So what about reconciliation – at whatever time of year it is?
Can it ever be possible to reconcile with an abusive person when there has been so much personal injustice and pain? Is it ever possible to engage with the abuser again in a meaningful way and should the victim be expected to do this?
Through research and from working with victims of sexual abuse I have concluded that true reconciliation can only happen with abusers of sexual – and probably other abuses as well – if:
- The perpetrator agrees the abuse happened.
- The perpetrator accepts responsibility for the abuse.
- The perpetrator shows grief and acknowledges the harm done
- The perpetrator agrees to get professional help.
- The perpetrator remains accountable to a professional body e.g. a Probation Officer or Social Worker.
(Sources: “The Wounded Heart”- Dan Allender, “A Door of Hope” – Jan Frank )
This however is the ideal, and I have to say that sadly in my many years of work in this arena I have never seen this played out effectively. When it comes to confrontation of the past, unhappily it is my experience it is extremely likely that the abuser (and possibly others) will go into deep denial and defensiveness.
Again sadly, this is backed up by other therapists work with their clients. “In our experience most of the time when there is serious abuse, the parent denies it” (Source: Re-inventing Your Life – Jeffrey E Young and Janet S Klosko ). This obviously leaves the victim in a very isolated place. Having taken the brave step of facing the situation they are the ones who are often left ostracized blamed for the situation. One client telling me she had been told she had caused “the disintegration of the entire family”. To emphasis the point none of her family contacted her that Christmas and she spent it entirely alone.
Conversations about Christmas contact with destructive people from the past inevitably raises the question of re-abuse and how easy it is for this is to happen. After all you are often back in surroundings and with people who may well not have changed. Discussing with clients boundaries setting before a visit can be a good source of reference for people who feel compelled to go back into situations with the hope that things will be different this time (“unfinished business”) and then find themselves in possible danger of re-victimisation be that sexual, physical, emotional or verbal. John Townsend describes this as “helpful hiding” which is to protect us by setting “appropriate limits on the irresponsibility or selfishness of others”. These include “both verbal and physical boundaries which may involve saying no or geographically leaving the room or house and calling for help”. (Source: “Hiding From Love” – John Townsend)
On the other hand, in some cases, Christmas could be the perfect opportunity to seize power that has been denied in the past and to illustrate personal growth and strength.
A Positive Decision
Some years ago, I had one client in a ten week support and recovery group I was facilitating who I was very concerned about. I felt that she had not been able to share or receive much support during the ten weeks. However, at the last session which was held in mid December as other group members were submitting to family pressure to attend Christmas gatherings in which some of them would be required to spend time with their abusers – she resisted. “I want to do something different” she said and cancelled her flight home and instead decided to spend the holiday with a friend.
I was impressed. It was for her a healthy and brave decision and I hoped the beginning of a new start where she was able to make choices on her terms – and even have a Christmas she enjoyed.
- Enright, R, Freedman S, and Rique J (1998) The psychology of interpersonal forgiveness, in R D Enright and J North (eds) Exploring Forgiveness. Madison, WI University of Wisconsin Press)
- BBC News website: bbc.co.uk: 27/2/2006
- “Caring Enough to forgive” – David Ausburger – Regal Books – Published 1981 (page 30)
- “The Wounded Heart”- Dan Allender- Nav Press – Published 1990 – (page 236)
- “A Door of Hope” – Jan Frank – Here’s Life Publishers – Published 1987 – “Confronting the Aggressor” (pages 107 – 129)
- “Hiding From Love” – John Townsend – Nav Press – Published 1991 – pages 143/144)
- “Re-inventing Your Life” – Jeffrey E Young and Janet S Klosko – Publisher: Plume 1994 P105).