The relationship of adult children with their toxic parents isn’t talked about as it should be. In fact, it gets little attention, if at all, in standard textbooks or psychiatric literature.
However, the loyalty of these children makes perfect biological and evolutionary sense. We (and also nonhuman primates) are hard-wired to bond with our parents, even if they aren’t really nice to us.
In this post I’ll talk about what forgiveness really is, what role it plays with your toxic parents and yourself, and whether you should forgive your toxic parents at all.
What really is forgiveness?
The word forgiveness seems to have changed its meaning. I’m not quite sure how the definition is currently evolving but certainly the field of Psychology has had a say in it.
Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines forgive as:
to cease to feel resentment against (an offender)
Greater Good Magazine (of the University of California, Berkeley) says of forgiveness:
Psychologists generally define forgiveness as a conscious, deliberate decision to release feelings of resentment or vengeance toward a person or group who has harmed you, regardless of whether they actually deserve your forgiveness.
There’s also the religious variation in which some sort of absolution or pardon is involved.
I could go on with the other versions of forgiveness, but one main takeaway here is that these definitions may not resonate with you. What is forgiveness to you?
4 more things you need to know about forgiveness
1. Forgiveness requires that your toxic parents ask for it.
A lot of people would tell you otherwise, that forgiveness does not need the wrongdoer to ask for forgiveness, which to me does not make sense at all.
Asking for forgiveness includes the acknowledgement of transgression. If your toxic parents do not ask for it, then why should you give it?
To my knowledge, even organized religions teach that to be forgiven, you must ask for it.
2. Forgiveness is earned. To forgive your toxic parents means they are genuinely willing to repent, accept responsibility and accountability for their actions, make amends, and change.
Think about it: Forgiving them without them having to do anything is exactly letting them off the hook as if all the abuse and maltreatment they have done are totally fine.
Needless to say, forgiving is absolutely a huge undertaking. When someone asks for forgiveness, you have to see that they mean it. Don’t believe what they say, believe what they do.
3. Forgiveness is for reconciliation or preserving your relationship with your toxic parents.
Here’s a bit of an oxymoronic question: Do you want to have a healthy relationship with your toxic parents?
If yes, then forgiveness is probably one way to go—forgiveness allows you to continue to hold on to a relationship you think is worth holding on to.
On the other hand, what forgiveness-pushers fail to take into account is the possible negative costs of reconciliation, which include the hurtful memories and pathological patterns that most likely stay in the relationship.
4. Your unwillingness to forgive does not directly mean you are holding on to anger, wishing your toxic parents ill will, seeking revenge, or refusing to move on.
It does not mean it’s a wrong response to the hurt and trauma you’ve been subjected to. Forgiveness is something you can choose to do or not do.
Should I forgive my toxic parents?
Forgiveness, when granted for the right reasons, can be very rewarding for your wellbeing. But you do not have to forgive your toxic parents if you are not ready. Healing should be your priority instead. Forgiveness is only a possible consequence of healing.
Forgiveness is not the cause of healing. It’s only a probable outcome—and only if you choose to.
You may have heard that you need forgiveness if only for yourself and it’s probably correct. But forcing yourself to forgive your toxic parents can actually hinder you from healing.
If people pressure you to forgive your toxic parents, they could actually have ulterior motives: they want to spare you the guilt, they do not want to authentically support you, or in the worst case scenario, they cover up what happened to you or they rationalize the actions of your toxic parents.
Related: Do Toxic Parents Love You?
Remember, forgiveness is only a byproduct of the healing process. You wouldn’t want to contemplate forgiveness just yet. You should prioritize healing before anything else!
Just for a theoretical mind exercise: A loved one has cut your skin using a knife. The wound has not healed yet but then he goes on to attempt another cut. Would you forgive that person for cutting you the first time while he’s trying to pull a second?
Now translate that to the abuse your toxic parents are most likely still inflicting upon you. Is there any difference?
Is it okay to not forgive your toxic parents?
Yes, it is perfectly okay to not forgive your toxic parents. You forgive them only if you understand what genuine forgiveness means and if you are ready to grant it. A belief that’s now widespread is that the abused must forgive the abuser ASAP—but this is wrong!
Society as a whole wants you to be forgiving, but like I pointed out, merely forgiving for the sake of it (mostly forced) leaves a lot behind unresolved. The intention is good, but the means can be rather harmful.
See what these professors have to say:
“Forgiveness is in danger of being debased into a kind of cheap grace, a waiving of standards of justice without which such transactions have no meaning.”— History Professor Wilfred McClay in a 2008 essay in the journal In Character
“There is a watered-down but widespread form of ‘forgiveness’ best tagged preemptory or exculpatory forgiveness. That is, without any indication of regret or remorse from perpetrators of even the most heinous crimes, we are enjoined by many not to harden our hearts but rather to ‘forgive.’”— Jean Bethke Elshtain, Professor at the University of Chicago Divinity School
Do you need to forgive to heal?
No, you do not need to forgive to heal from the trauma, abuse, and maltreatment you had because of your toxic parents. Healing requires a focus on the self, which contradicts the idea of forgiveness because the latter requires a two-way relationship.
Healing is not dependent on whether you forgive your toxic parents or not.
If we claim that indeed forgiveness is needed to heal, we go back to the definition of genuine forgiveness I pointed out, and assume that you can never be whole again if your toxic parents do not ask for forgiveness, earn it, change their behavior, etc.
In many cases, survivors can’t even relate to the concept of forgiveness. Healing work largely focuses on the self, which includes managing triggers, parenting your inner child, or getting needs you didn’t have in your helpless childhood.
To heal without granting forgiveness does not mean there’s something wrong.
If it’s not forgiveness, then what should I do?
If you’re on your journey to healing, you should not force yourself to forgive your toxic parents. Instead, what you should strive for is acceptance. When you reach this state, concepts such as letting go, moving on, and grief will follow. You need acceptance to heal.
It is accepting that you did not have the childhood you deserved. Or the adult relationship you currently have with your parents.
It is accepting that the world has been different for you. (You would think it’s unfair but you can reframe it by thinking it was only different.)
It is accepting that the past is past and now you can bear the responsibility of moving forward, being more cautious this time in vetting the relationships you’re getting into.
In fact, when you hear someone try to guilt-trip you to forgive your parents, or when you’re confronted by a myriad of “Positive Psychology” articles saying you should forgive, just replace the word forgive with accept and the outcome will most likely become true.
You can accept that things may never change between you and your parents, but it just doesn’t make sense at all—and is actually harmful—to forgive them just for the sake of it. Why insist on forgiveness?
Forgiveness isn’t some magic potion you need to take. Acceptance is what you’d want. Focus on yourself, not on your toxic parents.
If you choose forgiveness, make sure it works for you.
Don’t get me wrong, I am for forgiveness. Forgiveness is one of the most honorable, spiritual, and humane acts someone can undertake. It can bring peace, even joy.
But you have to be sure you understand what it is and you are truly ready to grant it.
That’s the whole point of this article. Forgiveness seems to be quite misunderstood that forgiveness-peddlers seem to insult the abused for what they have gone through and shame them for not doing “the act of loving yourself” through forgiveness.
The way to face the future is through acceptance. You don’t have to go this alone, of course—but you don’t have to include your toxic parents, especially if up to now they’re still hellbent to prove that you are wrong.
- Forgiveness Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up To Be. NPR.
- Healing From Trauma Does NOT Hinge On Forgiveness. Anchor Psychotherapy, Inc.
- The Debt: When terrible, abusive parents come crawling back, what do their grown children owe them? Slate.
- When Parents Are Too Toxic to Tolerate. The New York Times.
Image Credits: Photo by “Road Trip with Raj” on Unsplash