Abusive Parents: Some Thoughts About The Psychology of Forgiveness

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Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

Positive psychologists tell us about the health and psychological benefits of forgiveness. One definition of forgiveness that it’s reducing or giving up resentment towards a person who has done us some harm. In a close relationship where one person has done some harm to the other, forgiveness is repair a damaged relationship and feel good about re-establishing ties. The psychological concept behind this is that hatred, resentment and the wish for revenge against the other person wears away at our physical health and our sense of well being. Most people would agree that it is harmful to harbor feelings of hate and entertain fantasies of retaliation.

However, is forgiveness always a positive action or are their limits to it because it can cause more harm than good? According to psychiatrist Richard Friedman of Weill Cornell Medical College, there are times when forgiving comes at a cost that is harmful for the victim. Following is an example:


“A young woman was terrorized by a sadistic and violent mother who caused her untold psychological damage to while she was growing up. The fact that her father moved away, abandoning her to her mother only made things worse for her. A very bright and successful student, she managed to endure her mother’s abuse until she was 16 years old at which time she went to a friends house where the friend’s mother and father took her in. From that moment onward, she remained independent of her mother and free of any further abuse. She completed High School, applied for student aid and was accepted into an excellent college where she excelled.

She sought psychotherapy because, typical of many adult survivors of child abuse, she was having difficult forming an intimate relationship with a man. Ultimately, she was able to do this, married and has children.

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In the mean time, she was contacted by a social worker who, on behalf of her mother, asked that there be a reconciliation. Her reaction was visceral, as she experienced symptoms of PTSD. Discussing the issue in psychotherapy and filled with guilt, she decided to refuse the reconciliation. She feared that her mother, if she did see her, could resume causing her harm as well as put her husband and children at her mercy.”

For this woman, forgiveness and reconciliation with her mother was too much to do because of the deep seated injury she suffered.

It’s important to understand that this woman’s mother was now old and sick. This was the last chance she would  have to forgive and work on the relationship. However, as Dr. Friedman points out, there are times when forgiveness comes at too much of a cost, particularly if the individual is left with PTSD. More than that, forgiveness is about the “self” and trying to fix things. In this case, the woman ran too much of a risk of being re-victimized.

There are many cases of people who have tried to forgive an abusive parent and mend fences. One of the major complaints I have heard from these patients (I’ve had several in my practice) is that the abusive parent never acknowledged the fact that they were abusive and never apologized. In some cases, the parent denied that abuse ever happened.

The fact is that, for forgiveness to work, there needs to be reciprocity in which the other admits to wrong doing and apologizes. In the case of abusive parents, this rarely seems to happen.

What are your experiences with forgiveness and abusive parents?

Your comments are encouraged.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

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