You Don’t Need to Forgive People Who Hurt You

On March 1st I will have officially lived in New York City for a year. It’s been a wild ride so far: I gained a few thousand Twitter followers, found my true publishing soul mates at Femsplain, went viral twice and met an actual good person on Tinder. I finally have an apartment with rooftop access, which the true readers will know I’ve lusted after for years. I know which bodegas always have Diet Coke and can stand on the subway for long periods of time without stumbling into the bearded DJ next to me. Walking into a bar where I don’t know anyone is still intimidating, but less so, as I am armed with healthy self-confidence and really cool business cards. I also have not come one iota closer to forgiving my ex-boyfriend, but that’s mostly because I haven’t been trying.

For the past few months I’ve been reading the blog of another sex writer, Emily Depasse. In many ways we are similar: both feminists, both STI positive, both inspired by Carrie Bradshaw (although in my case, reluctantly). She started writing publicly about having herpes much earlier than I did relative to when she was diagnosed, and her blog captures that process of acceptance and healing in real time, whereas I mostly reflect. Her posts are always an eye-opening read, and she quickly became one of my favorite writers.

This Valentine’s Day, Emily wrote a post about her ex called “I’m Most Grateful To The Guy Who Gave Me Herpes.” It’s a thoughtful look at how letting go of a difficult relationship helped her grow as a person, and how getting herpes made her who she is today. Messages like this one are vital for some of us, struggling to see the positive in a positive diagnosis. There is a case to be made for letting go of what has happened to you in order to become who you are supposed to be.

But I need to make the opposite case, in the interest of balance and because reading about Kesha every day has opened an old wound in my chest. You do not need to forgive people who have been abusive to you. You do not need to rise above them, or make peace with them, or even pity them. You need to do whatever is best for you.

When I read Emily’s post, I found myself mad—not at her, but at my ex, again, still. My inability to and total lack of interest in forgiving my ex for the way he treated me is often seen as a personality flaw or as a failure of empathy. I have been told that if I want to move on, I need to forgive, if I want to truly heal, I need to forgive. Never mind the fact that he has done nothing to deserve my forgiveness, or even genuinely asked for it; he does not think he needs forgiveness at all. But forgiveness, I am told, is less about who deserves it and more about it being the right thing. For women, that is. Men seek revenge, and women offer forgiveness. Men seek justice, and women are a bit player in their abuser’s redemption narrative.

Forgiveness has long been an uncomfortable concept for me. It’s hard to forgive a person who used pleading for forgiveness as a way to manipulate me. It’s hard to forgive someone who played on my generosity and translated “being the bigger person” into allowing him to lie, to disappear, to insult me. Forgiveness can be great. It can also make us passive and allow the cycle of abuse to continue uninterrupted. There was a time when I used to fantasize about my ex apologizing to me; now I fantasize about a world where he can’t hurt other women anymore. Ever since being in an emotionally abusive relationship, I forgive people when they earn it, not because they need me to, and not because I should.

And then there is the other compelling lie: that success is the best revenge. This lie is nice; it has a post-feminist shine to it. Don’t get mad, get even. Live your best life, that’ll show him. And hell, if you really become successful, you won’t care anymore that you were violated by someone you loved and trusted above everyone else in the world. You will have grown enough to make your trauma a smudge on your rearview mirror. I won’t pretend it didn’t feel good to imagine my ex seeing me on the front page of BuzzFeed—it was the biggest digital fuck you I’ve ever known. But a woman’s success is fragile, tempered by hundreds of violent, sexualized Facebook comments and the looming threat of a defamation lawsuit that could come at any time. “Success is the best revenge” is working out great for Kesha, her entire career trapped under the bootheel of her rapist and a justice system that values a contract more than her humanity. Women don’t get justice, we get success that comes with the caveat “in spite of…”

I suppose it’s comforting to be told that forgiveness makes us brave and strong in a world where forgiveness is our only option.

Instead of forgiving my ex, I have taken back ownership of the city we both love. There are multiple bars in SoHo where I am considered a regular and I still consult the subway map he used to sneer at me for relying on. I hope the ceiling and scale of Grand Central will always take my breath away, and that nothing will ever be as romantic as the cobblestone streets of the Village glittering after a light rain. Since moving to New York, I’ve taken back my story, even the details left wedged between the cushions of his sofa, even the texts messages deleted and the hugs so tight I felt my bones slide together. Healing is about what is best for you. That might be forgiveness. But it might be moving to a new city, or writing a book, or calling him a human trashfire over drinks with your new best friends.

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Ella Dawson is a sex and culture critic and a digital strategist. She drinks too much Diet Coke.

4 thoughts on “You Don’t Need to Forgive People Who Hurt You

  1. Alright, I liked this article… all of it. I really did. But, when I got to:
    “Forgiveness can be great. It can also make us passive and allow the cycle of abuse to continue uninterrupted.”
    That’s when I clapped my hands together and said, “Yes! Thank You!!!”. I was alone while reading this which makes me feel like even more of a weirdo but… at least no one saw me?

  2. This is wonderful. I finished a long-dragged-out emotionally abusive relationship last year and this is so what I need to read right now. Thanks.

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