It’s easy to count the ways in which others have harmed us emotionally. It’s not always so easy to count the ways in which we’ve harmed others emotionally.

Whatever “side” you’re on, remember that  although forgiveness is often touted as the best way to move on, it’s easier for the injured party to get beyond pain when real effort takes place.

Verbal apologies, no matter how heartfelt, may just not be enough. Often, action is needed.

In the world of commerce, if a corporation produces a product or sells a service that causes harm to a client, the victim can sue. Though there are plenty of frivolous lawsuits that do take place (unfortunately), it doesn’t mean that all law suits are frivolous or even merely vengeful.

In the world of personal relationships, we can draw a parallel. Assuming that the harm actually did occur (and isn’t a way of getting revenge or making a quick buck like a frivolous lawsuit is), you have to ask: What, if anything, can be done to repair the emotional harm?

If you’ve been emotionally harmed or have harmed a friend or relative, a lawsuit isn’t usually an option—except for rare situations, emotional abuse is simply not a criminal act. Still, it feels criminal to the victim. Unless some kind of effort is made to repair the damage that’s been done, it can be difficult to move on. Even if you both want to.

When there’s been an unavoidable or accidental or one-time injury (for example a person verbally attacks and insults his/her spouse in the midst of an argument), a verbal apology and a promise about future behavior might be enough to heal the pain. But if the injury is serious or habitual, an apology might just not be enough.

What can you do if you are the victim or perpetrator of repeated, painful emotional abuse? What can you do if a family member has egregiously harmed you or you’ve harmed them?

Initially, when the person who caused the hurt has reflected on their behavior and regrets their actions, they might want to apologize. But though the urge is compelling, the initial focus may very well be on their own feelings!

Sometimes an abuser confuses the feelings of guilt or shame he feels with feelings of concern about the victim.  Often the feelings are really about him. In fact, abuse can be attributed in part to the lack of recognition and respect the abuser has for their victim’s personal boundaries. The apology, like the abuse, might actually be all about what the abuser is feeling—not what the victim has been through.

One of they key reasons emotional (and physical abuse) are perpetuated generationally, is because the lack of healthy boundaries. Understanding where you end and another begins is both a cause of and a result of abuse.

Three Ways To Begin To Repair

Not everyone who has done real harm wants to correct their actions and repair what they’ve done. In fact, many people don’t. But a surprising number do.

In situations where harm is proven to have occurred and both parties are in agreement about the nature of the harm (in other words, the harm has to be real and proven and the one who’s caused the harm has to agree this is the case), very real reparations might be appropriate.

Depending on the kinds of harm done, reparations might include:

1. Promises about the future which include very real progress markers that  the individual will be held to before trust can be reinstated. A trusted mediator* (such as a counselor, clergy member, or trusted friend) might be called in to help create a written agreement.

2. Agreeing to go to some kind of counseling alone in order to process and understand what the victim went through, how to improve the relationship (if possible), and how to make amends. The counseling does not have to be with a mental health professional. A clergy member or trusted adviser might be a good choice.*

3.  Material assistance might be given if the damage done has been such that the victim has been traumatized or has been unable to get on with his/her life. For example,  in order to make amends, the abuser may agree to pay for medical treatment, psychotherapy, job training—even living expenses—until the victim is able to move forward. Obviously, this is in cases of serious, proven damage.

Although nothing can make up for some harm done, a serious and sustained effort at reparations can do a lot to move things forward.

*Caution: In some situations, demands for reparation can actually be emotional blackmail. That’s why an impartial, unbiased and agreed upon mediator is necessary.

Photo by Ignas Kukenys, Vilnius, Lithuania