Forgiveness Therapy After Spousal Emotional Abuse Alisha C. Garrett Liberty University Summary There has been a significant amount of reports of emotional abuse in the United States. Nearly 35% of women have reported that they have been emotionally abused by a husband or a significant other. Spousal emotional abuse has been a problem for quite some time and the effects of the abuse are long lasting. According to Enright and Reed’s (2006) article, the purpose of spousal psychological (emotional) abuse is to cause the abused spouse to experience emotional pain, and it gives the abuser power over the abused spouse in the relationship.
Some types of spousal psychological abuse include ridiculing or putting a spouse down, threatening to harm or leave a spouse, damaging a spouse’s personal belongings, and being very jealous and controlling of a spouse. Of these types, ridiculing is the type of psychological abuse that causes the most negative effects. Studies have shown that emotional abuse has had far more a negative impact on women than physical abuse.
Enright and Reed’s (2006) article states that the negative effects of spousal emotional abuse include depression and anxiety, low self-esteem, learned helplessness, posttraumatic stress disorder, accusatory suffering, and resentment. All of these effects can last long after the abusive relationship has ended. Although spousal psychological abuse has such a negative impact on the emotional health of abused women, there is not enough evidence regarding the success of treatment after the abusive relationship.
Brief therapy has been recommended for women who have experienced spousal psychological abuse but there is still not enough empirical evidence to prove the success of the treatment. Researchers believe that forgiveness therapy is more effective in treating women that have been abused. There is a relationship between forgiveness and the improvement of both depression and anxiety, and self-esteem. Forgiveness therapy is more effective than brief therapy or an alternative therapy because forgiveness therapy focuses more on helping omen to rid themselves of resentment which can lead to depression and anxiety, and low self-esteem, whereas brief therapy focuses more on “anger validation, assertive limit-setting, and interpersonal skill building” (Enright & Reed, 2006). According to Enright and Reed (2006), although a person has a right to be angry because they have been done wrong, long lasting feelings of resentment can have a negative effect on a person’s emotional health and decision making. The participant sample used in the study discussed in Enright and Reed’s (2006) article included twenty psychologically abused women that ranged in age from 32-54.
These women had been separated from their abusive spouses or significant others for at least two years. The women differed in race, ethnicity, and educational and employment background. Some of them were single while others had gone on to remarry. The participants were screened and pretested with the use of the psychological abuse survey, a posttraumatic stress symptom checklist, and a psychological screening checklist. If a participant reported having experienced at least three types of psychological abuse then she was included in the study.
After screening and pretesting, the participants were randomly selected for either the forgiveness therapy (experimental) group or the alternative therapy (control) group. Although participants in both groups engaged in weekly 1 hour sessions where the experimental group engaged in discussions on resentment and forgiveness, and the control group discussed anger validation and skill building, the participants in the forgiveness therapy group showed significant improvement in depression and anxiety, and self-esteem.
In fact, the participants in the forgiveness group showed minimal to no depression and anxiety while the participants in the alternative group showed signs of moderate depression and anxiety. Women who have been abused may have a hard time getting over the experience because they resent the fact that it happened and they resent the person who abused them but any kind of therapy that supports women’s expression of anger without helping them to find meaning in their suffering and teaching them how to forgive the abuser, may not be enough in helping them recover. Forgiveness therapy allows women to consider forgiving the buser, make the decision to forgive the abuser, work to forgive the abuser, find meaning in their pain from the abuse, and realize their new purpose in life. The Enright forgiveness process calls this “uncovering, decision, work and discovery” (Enright and Reed, 2006). Forgiveness therapy replaces resentment with good will and that is a positive moral decision, making forgiveness therapy appropriate and the best kind of treatment in helping women to recover from spousal emotional abuse. Reflection Enright and Reed’s (2006) article is interesting to me because spousal emotional abuse is so common.
Although I have not experienced spousal emotional abuse, I have experienced emotional abuse and I know firsthand that it is not something that is easy to forget. Making the decision to forgive the abuser and actually following through with the decision is extremely difficult. I have always heard people say that forgiving a person for doing you wrong is not for the person that did you wrong but it is for you. Not forgiving a person gives that person power over you. As a Christian, I have always been taught that no matter how hard it is to forgive a person, I have to forgive because the Bible teaches that it is the right thing to do.
The article discusses how not choosing to forgive can hinder people from fully recovering. Brief therapy says that it is natural and okay for a person to feel anger toward an abuser but instead of teaching the benefits of forgiveness and letting go of the resentment, brief therapy does not allow the opportunity for reflection and understanding of what happened and why it may have happened. It does not allow the opportunity to find meaning in the suffering of the abuse, and when we can’t find meaning in something we can’t accept it and move on.
Brief therapy causes people to dwell more on their anger, making it almost impossible to improve the negative outcomes of the abuse. Enright and Reed’s (2006) article confirms that forgiveness is extremely important because it brings positive change from negative experiences. Forgiveness therapy does not mean that a person has to forget the abuse they experienced. It does not even mean that the person is looking to build a better relationship with the person that abused him or her but it does mean that the person has made a moral decision to have an attitude of benevolence which will improve all of the negative outcomes of the abuse.
Accepting the fact that I have been done wrong and realizing that I cannot change what has already occurred leads me to only want to make sure the situation or a similar situation does not happen again. Choosing to forgive and let go of anger makes room for joy and cheerfulness. Holding on to hurtful pasts and experiences only causes negative, unstable, and unhealthy lives. I plan to search for readings that discuss the effects of forgiveness therapy on men that have psychologically abused their spouses or significant others.
I can imagine that forgiveness therapy not only has a positive effect on the women that have been abused but it can also have a positive effect on the former abuser, resulting in their not wanting to hurt anyone ever again. Application A few months ago I met with a new client that had come to me for help because she had been experiencing feelings of sadness, low self-esteem, loneliness, and anger.
According to my client her feelings had caused her to push her family and friends away and her job performance at work had become so poor that her boss suggested that she take some time from work in order to deal with her issues or stay and risk losing her job. Upon meeting and assessing my client I determined that she was suffering from depression. I opened up the first counseling session by letting my client know that anything that she shared with me would be confidential and that I was there to listen and support her in any way that I could.
Once my client felt comfortable enough to share with me, she told me about her experiences of abuse by her former spouse. The abusive marriage had been over for two years but after seeing her former spouse recently, my client had realized that she was still angry and resentful because of what the abuser had done to her. According to my client, she was abused physically but what hurt her more was the emotional abuse. The physical abuse lasted for only a short period of time while the psychological abuse left deep scars that could not be physically seen.
Because my client still had feelings of resentment and because she had not forgiven the abuser, I decided to use forgiveness therapy in treating her with the hope that she would make a full recovery. When I introduced the treatment decision to my client she was not happy. She did not want to forgive the man who had hurt her. I explained to her that forgiving the abuser did not mean that she was saying that he was right for what he did, and it did not mean that she wanted to be friends with him and build a relationship with him.
It did not mean that she should forget what happened but it did mean that she was making a moral decision to turn the negative experience into something positive. She was freeing herself to be cheerful again. In using forgiveness therapy I assured my client that I empathized with her and I understood that she was hurting and angry. It was my job to let her know that it was okay for her to feel anger because she was hurt but I also had to explain to her that the longer she held feelings of resentment then the worst off she would be emotionally.
Explaining to my client the positive outcomes of forgiveness helped her in making her choice to finally forgive the abuser. Because my client learned that forgiving the abuser would improve her negative feelings and low self-esteem, she decided to forgive the abuser. Over the following few weeks, I had my client engage in activities and discussions that helped her come to terms with the abuse that she experienced. She accepted that it had happened and she accepted the fact that it was okay for her to feel anger about what had happened.
Our counseling sessions taught her that in order for her to grow and gain control of her life again, and in order for her to be happy again she would have to forgive the abuser. Once she forgave her ex-husband for physically and psychologically abusing her, I noticed significant improvement in her level of depression and low self-esteem each week. It has been four months now that I have been meeting with this client and she is free of depression, her self-esteem has improved tremendously, she is communicating with family and friends, and she is back at and doing very well.
Our sessions will soon come to an end but I want my client to remember that forgiving someone for hurting you gives you power. Although it is never easy to do, forgiveness replaces resentment and allows us the opportunity for more positive experiences. Reference Enright, R. D. , & Reed, G. L. (2006). The effects of forgiveness therapy on depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress for women after spousal emotional abuse. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 74(5), 920-929. doi: 10. 1037/0022-006X. 74. 5. 920.