“I forgave him for the debts it took us a decade to pay off. He promised me over and over that he’d never again gamble with our money. That he wouldn’t make a single financial decision without talking it through with me first. I found out about the loan he’d forged my name on by accident. The bank officer called to verify some details and dialed the home number, not his office. That’s when I learned that almost all the equity in our house was gone. It took me thirty-five years but after I hung up the phone, I called a divorce lawyer.”
That was the story “Marnie” told me. She was college-educated, smart, and a teacher; her husband was a consultant and they had two grown kids. But as she approached what she thought would be a relatively carefree retirement, she discovered instead that her husband had secretly gambled away just about everything. She was understandably distraught because she blamed it all on her forgiving him to begin with: “Instead of demanding to see every bank record and transaction after the first time, I went about my business as if nothing had happened. That’s what I learned coming of age with my father and stepmother. That’s what I learned when I was small and my mother and father screamed at each other night and day until they divorced. I learned to look away.”
Our culture praises those who are able to forgive; we understand it as a sign of moral rectitude, a higher ground than exacting revenge. As Alexander Pope put it, “To err is human, to forgive divine,” a stance echoed by the Lord’s Prayer. Forgiveness reaffirms an individual’s core values and bolsters self-esteem it’s thought. But is forgiveness always a good idea? What if, as some researchers opined in a study called “The Doormat Effect,” there was a real downside to forgiveness?
The dynamics of forgiveness and “The Doormat Effect”
While the act of forgiveness appears to be driven by one person—the person doing the forgiving—authors Laura Luchies, Eli Finkel and others point out that it’s actually a dyadic process. It’s not enough for the forgiving person to take the initiative; the person being forgiven has to act and both make amends and change his or her behavior and intentions so that the situation never arises again. Think about that for a moment and then consider whether the person you are forgiving has taken full responsibility and, moreover, owned his or her behavior. There lies the rub. Here’s “Lucy’s” tale:
“After being no contact with my mother and sister for two years, I decided to reinitiate contact by writing my mother a long letter about what I wouldn’t tolerate in terms of her treatment and my expectations and hopes for a continuing relationship I was surprised when my sister answered the letter with a brief phone call to set up a time to meet but, frankly, I was overjoyed that things seemed to be resolving themselves. We all met up and I didn’t push for anything; I just assumed by being there, she’d agreed to what I’d said in the letter. I could not have possibly been more mistaken. It took another three months but it became clear that they took my letter as a permission slip to abuse me once again. I was a mess but I went into therapy, finally, to deal.
What the researchers found was that, indeed, self-respect and clarity were diminished by the act of forgiveness if the original perpetrator simply saw forgiveness as an opportunity to keep acting as he or she did before.
Forgiveness and the specific vulnerabilities of the unloved daughter
Of course, it’s not just whether we forgive but why we forgive that matters and here’s where the experience of a toxic childhood or one in which our emotional needs weren’t met comes into play. In the best of all worlds, when we decide to forgive someone who has wronged or betrayed us, we are motivated by our strengths, not our vulnerabilities, insecurities, or fears. As explained in my book, Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life, until we recognize the maladaptive behaviors we learned in childhood to muddle our way through, the chances are good that we will dispense forgiveness for the wrong reasons.
Here are some vulnerabilities you need to be aware when you’ve been wronged or betrayed:
- You lose sight of your own needs
You may have learned to “go along to get along” especially if you had a hyper-critical or combative mother; you’ve learned that duck and cover is the best route and, as a result, you don’t see your own wants and needs clearly. Even worse, you often don’t know what you’re feeling. This kind of detachment-from-self is relatively common for children who struggle in the day-to-day in their families of origin and as a result, you may forgive without even considering your own needs or wants but because you think you ought to.
- You’re highly sensitive to rejection
This is a kind of chicken-and-egg problem; the unloved daughter has trouble asserting herself but her need to belong and her sensitivity to rejection often trump everything else. Forgiveness may be a way of heading off those feelings of being rejected, especially if you’ve been betrayed. Again, the default position learned is to look away from the problem as “Marnie” did or to reinitiate contact without asking questions as “Lucy” did.
- You default to peace-keeping and pleasing
Many unloved daughters will do anything to avoid a head-on confrontation and so forgiveness seems the route of least resistance. Unfortunately, that gives the merry-go-round another spin since the other person hasn’t owned his or her behavior. Is this you or has it been?
- You crave normalcy
It’s not simply that it’s easier to look away than it is to confront; it’s also that you’re sick and tired of feeling like the only person on the planet who can’t catch a break. I’ve come to think that the idea of being singled out in this way—being deprived of the love and support everyone is supposed to get—is almost as damaging as the lack of maternal love. In this context, forgiveness is wrongly seen as a magic wand that will make things “normal.”
It’s only by understanding your own motivations—and those of the transgressor—that forgiveness can become a positive tool. Until you fully plumb your own behaviors, it’s best to stay wary of the possible doormat effect.
Photograph by Alex Bocharov. Copyright free. Unsplash.com
Luchies, Laura, Eli J, Finkel, James K. McNulty, James and Madoka Kumashiro. “The Doormat Effect: When Forgiving Erodes Self-Respect and Self-Concept Clarity”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2010), 98. 734-49.