The Truth About Forgiving Abuse

Everything we thought we knew about forgiveness blamed victims and enabled abuse. Valerie Hudson joins Anne on the BTR podcast.

Have you been told to “forgive and forget” abuse and betrayal? You’re not alone. Women in the BTR community have been spiritually and emotionally abused by clergy, therapists, and others who have pushed them toward “forgiving” their abusers as a means to cover up the abuse and bypass trauma.

However, Valerie Hudson, university distinguished professor and champion for women’s rights, sheds a new perspective on what forgiveness actually means in the context of abuse and betrayal. Listen to the free BTR podcast and read the full transcript below for more.

Forgiveness vs. Reconciliation (They’re Not The Same Thing)

“Forgiveness is between you and God. Reconciliation is between you, God, and the abuser, and I think this is where the confusion comes in. I think people are using the term forgiveness when they really mean reconciliation, and they’re confusing these two concepts… And because it has nothing to do with the abuser, forgiveness does not mean that you have to return to a relationship with your abuser. It does not mean that you have to lower your barriers to an abuser and invite them back into your life.”

Valerie Hudson, university distinguished professor & champion for women’s rights

BTR is inter-paradigm, religious and non-religious victims can accept reconciliation is not only unnecessary but inadvisable in working toward the process of forgiving abuse.

Forgiveness does not mean:

  • Staying in a relationship with your abuser
  • Spending time with your abuser
  • Accepting responsibility for your abuser’s choices
  • Continuing to associate with your abuser’s family and friends
  • Continuing to associate or attend community or religious services in the same location as your abuser
  • Staying legally married to your abuser even if you are living separately

Forgiveness & “Turning the Other Cheek”

When clergy and religious therapists counsel women to “turn the other cheek” or relinquish judgment against their abusers, they are putting victims in danger. Valerie explains that “turning the other cheek” simply doesn’t make sense in the context of abuse and betrayal:

“If a man has molested your 10-year-old, do not offer your six-year-old as well. If your husband has broken your left ribs don’t offer him your right ribs to break as well. If a rapist enters your home to attack you and you shoot him dead, that’s not a failure of turning the other cheek. And I really think that if a Christian woman gets on her knees and asks God, God will tell her in no uncertain terms no, I do not want you to be abused. That’s not what this example of smiting the other cheek means.”

Valerie Hudson, university distinguished professor and champion for women’s rights

Instead, victims can hold abusers accountable by:

  • Reporting crime
  • Distancing themselves from abuse

Forgiveness is About Justice – Not Mercy

Ultimately, forgiveness is about justice, not mercy.

Trauma victims can find solace is accepting that it isn’t their responsibility to grant mercy to their abusers – it’s their duty to hold abusers accountable for the abuse. While this may feel daunting, victims can take small steps to seek safety.

Choosing to believe in natural consequences while taking empowering steps toward safety is the process of forgiveness.

BTR is Here For You

Harmful societal scripts that place the burden of reconciliation on traumatized victims can be difficult to work through and grow out of – victims need a safe place to process trauma and create healthier ways to begin healing.

Join the Betrayal Trauma Recovery Group today and find the community that you need to help you on your healing journey today.

Full Transcript:

Anne: Welcome to Betrayal Trauma Recovery, this is Anne.

Our Betrayal Trauma Recovery Group, called BTRG for short, is a daily online support group.

Our daily online support group has more sessions than any other support group out there. We have over 21 sessions per week for you to choose from. You don’t have to wait for an appointment, you don’t have to leave your home, you can join from your closet or your parked car in your garage. We are here for you. Check out the session schedule; we’d love to see you today.

Rate the BTR Podcast

For everyone who has given this podcast a five-star rating on Apple podcasts or other podcasting apps, thank you so much. If this podcast has helped you when you rate it, you help other women find it, so your ratings and reviews make a big difference for victims desperately trying to figure out what is happening to them.

Here’s a five-star review we received on Apple podcasts. It says: Best betrayal trauma podcast out there. This is an incredible podcast for women who have suffered from any kind of betrayal trauma. Anne is so knowledgeable about this stuff from going through it firsthand, and also all of her research and studies. She brings on experts of all kinds, recommends the best books to read, and resources to get yourself and your kids safe, co-parenting strategies, and so much more. I really enjoyed the members of this community telling their stories. It makes me feel less isolated in what I have been through in my journey dealing with trauma and daily triggers in co-parenting after my divorce. It is because of this podcast that I have been able to finally set and keep some strict boundaries with my ex-husband and his girlfriend, which is what I needed to begin healing after two years of being stuck in trauma while trying to make this awful situation comfortable for everyone except me. Thank you, Anne.

Valerie M. Hudson on the BTR Podcast

I am so honored to have Valerie M. Hudson on today’s episode. She is a University Distinguished Professor and holds the George H. W. Bush Chair in the Department of International Affairs in the George Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University, where she directs the program on Women’s Peace and Security. She is the co-founder of the Women Stats Project, and the co-founder of Sex and World Peace, The Hillary Doctrine, The First Political Order, and Bare Branches.

Valerie: Oh, it’s delightful to be here.

“Forgiveness of Abuse and Atrocity: What It Is, and What It Is Not (A Guide for the Perplexed Christian Woman)”

Anne: We’re going to talk about her article: Forgiveness of Abuse and Atrocity: What It Is, and What It Is Not (A Guide for the Perplexed Christian Woman). Valerie sent this over to me, I had wanted to talk about her many wonderful accomplishments and the books that she’s written, so I really encourage everyone to look at her body of work. It’s amazing and I’m so grateful for that. Reading this article, it just hits on every single concern that abuse victims have when they’re faced with this question of forgiveness, or when they are confronted by maybe a therapist or family member or maybe clergy with this you need to forgive kind of advice or counsel. It actually is hurtful or harmful to the victim rather than being helpful. So, to start off, Valerie, thank you for writing this. It’s incredible.

Let’s talk about first of all, why did you write this article?

“How Are Abuse & Atrocity Different From Other Offenses?”

Valerie: Believe it or not, I wrote this article in a 72-hour period following the birth of one of my children. It overcame me in a rush, and I could not help but put pen to paper. So, I would hold my little baby in one arm and nurse him while typing away with my other hand. I look back on that period as just sort of amazing and realize that I felt that my spirit had put together a lot of the lessons that I had learned previously to that time that I had paid for in blood and tears, and that if I put them all together in one monstrous essay that one day you would interview me and that perhaps others could be helped by some of the knowledge that I had gained.

Anne: Well, I really appreciate it. I already posted it on our Facebook page, and I’m trying to get the word out to everyone, like, read this. Read this! It is so incredible. So, you talk about abuse and atrocity. How are abuse and atrocity different from other offenses?

“Those Are Deep, Deep Harms That Attack The Very Soul of a Human Being”

Valerie: Yes. I really, really think that if we’re going to talk about forgiveness, we have to understand that to forgive slights, to forgive microaggressions, those kinds of things are a very different kettle of fish than forgiving the person who has raped you, the person who has murdered your child. And then I think it’s important that while we are enjoined to freely forgive those who have slighted us because we may one day slight others ourselves, that it’s different with atrocity because we’re never going to murder somebody, we’re never going to rape somebody, and these are the deep, deep harms that you know, attack the very soul of a human being. And in that case, I do think we need to tease out what forgiveness means.

Abuse: A Profound Betrayal of Trust

Anne: One of the definitions that you have for abuse in this article is a profound betrayal of trust, which I try to talk about on the podcast all the time. That years and years of psychological abuse surrounding someone’s porn use where they’re living a double life and they are gaslighting their spouse, they’re dismissing her concerns, things like that, that that is profound psychological and emotional abuse surrounding perhaps the pornography use or maybe the affairs that they have. And you talked about this several times in this article, down at the bottom you actually give an example of someone abandoning their family due to an affair. So, before we go on to talk about the forgiveness element of this, which of course I want to spend a lot of time on, can you talk about why the world, in general, doesn’t see psychological abuse or gaslighting or betrayal in forms of living a double life, affairs, pornography as abuse? Why do you think the general population, even people in the church, don’t see that as a serious form of abuse?

“A Legacy of the Domination of our Religious and Secular Spaces by Men”

Valerie: I don’t have any research on that, but I will tell you that I think that those who are disinclined to see that as serious abuse, do tend to be male. I think those who are inclined to see it as serious abuse do tend to be female. Again, I am not a psychologist, so all I can say is how I’ve explained it to myself is that I think that sometimes men have a greater ability to compartmentalize and say, well, yeah, I was watching porn, but hey, I still love you. And that all makes sense for them. Whereas I think for most women, the viewing of porn is clearly infidelity, it’s a betrayal of trust, and it is deeply wounding.

So, I think that many of our religious and secular institutions are run by men with male perspectives, and I think we see this legacy in our rape laws and other sorts of things where questions like well, what were you wearing or what time of night was it or had you been drinking, you know, somehow, excuse the rape, explain the rape, make it seem more natural that she was raped, and that is a real male perspective on things. So, I see this as a legacy of the domination of our religious and secular spaces by men.

When Betrayed Women Are Told To “Make Peace”

Anne: I want to quote you. This is from her article. “The betrayed spouse is told to ‘make peace’ for the sake of the children, but it is often a peace based on lies and concealment of abuse.” This happens with pornography use as well when people are told, well, make sure you don’t tell anyone about it, support his recovery, keep it quiet, you’re going to be the worst sinner if you don’t forgive him, that sort of thing. So, let’s transition into talking about forgiveness, and your definition of forgiveness I had never even considered before reading this article, but once I read it, I was like, yes. This makes sense, and I totally get it because I have been told so many times, why won’t you just forgive, you know, something like that, and so many of the members of our community have when we’re continuing to hold boundaries for our own safety. And so, rather than recognizing that this abuse is still ongoing, and I need to hold these boundaries for my own safety, people are like, what’s wrong with you? Why are you holding a no-contact boundary? You should just forgive because that’s what Christ says. So, can you tell me your definition of forgiveness?

“I Distinguish Between Forgiveness and Reconciliation”

Valerie: You bet. I distinguish between forgiveness and reconciliation. Forgiveness is between you and God. Reconciliation is between you, God, and the abuser, and I think this is where the confusion comes in. I think people are using the term forgiveness when they really mean reconciliation, and they’re confusing these two concepts. So, what I asked people to do in this essay is to understand that forgiveness means something that happens between you and God, not the abuser. And what happens between you and God is that you choose sincerely to have faith in God’s justice, not God’s mercy, but God’s justice, and you can do that without involving the abuser at all. In fact, it has nothing to do with the abuser. And because it has nothing to do with the abuser, forgiveness does not mean that you have to return to a relationship with your abuser. It does not mean that you have to lower your barriers to an abuser and invite them back into your life. It doesn’t mean that you have to keep silent about the abuser or hide their abuse from the authorities. No, no, no, no, no. Forgiveness means that you believe in God’s justice and that you are not prepared to exact justice yourself on the abuser, but you will leave it to God, and you will leave it to civil authorities. And you will not stoke hatred in your heart because you so sincerely believe that justice will be done.

Trauma Mama Husband Drama

Anne: I am going to take a break here for just a second to talk about my book, Trauma Mama Husband Drama. You can find it on our books page which has a curated list of all of the books that we recommend. My book, Trauma Mama Husband Drama, is a picture book for adults. So, it is the easiest way for you to explain what’s going on to someone who might not understand it, it’s also just a good reference for yourself because it shows what’s happening with very telling and emotional illustrations, as well as infographics at the back.

We’ll now continue the conversation.

Forgiveness is About Believing in God’s Justice

Anne: I have been listening to the Psalms lately when I can’t sleep, and they put me back to sleep, and I really appreciate that you brought this up in this article about David and writing the Psalms about the justice of God and thinking of forgiveness as you said this but I’m going to quote you again. Your article says “Forgiveness is not about believing in God’s mercy. Forgiveness is about believing in God’s justice.” That speaks to my heart and to the heart of all of these victims because that is one of the most difficult things to wrap your head around.

You’ve seen these atrocities, you’ve been a victim of abuse, and it seems like you can’t get help. Like women might go to a therapist or they might go to clergy or even in the court system right now they’re trying to get help, and they’re not finding it, and so believing that God will hold them accountable and that they will have to pay in some way or that justice will be served in God’s own way and in his own time is such a different view of forgiveness because you can let that go to God and hopefully live in peace at the moment. I just really appreciated that. Thank you so much. I think that definition is actually perfect, especially in this context. Have you had any pushback from this definition from people?

“Forgiveness Does Not Involve Reconciliation”

Valerie: No, actually not. I think it’s found its way mostly to women who have been abused, and I think their reaction is pretty much the same as yours, which is if I had understood this before, I would not have been beating myself up for the fact that I didn’t feel good about going back to an abusive relationship. We hear folks quoting to us from the Bible, it’s up to you to forgive seventy times seven or if you don’t forgive in you remains the greater sin. That changes completely when we understand that what God is talking about is a sincere belief in God’s justice and injustice that will be administered by civil authorities, but it’s rooting out of our own heart, the sword that we would otherwise be tempted to use against our abuser. People are, I think, liberated by the notion that forgiveness does not involve reconciliation, and that in fact, it may be part of one’s duty to God to not reconcile when there is a chance that innocence will be harmed by that reconciliation. I think it really changes things.

“Believing in the Justice of God When All Earthly Means Have Been Exhausted”

Anne: One of the things that you talk about in the article is reporting to civil authorities. Many of the listeners to this podcast are rape victims. Their husbands have raped them. They’ve been lied to, they’ve been cheated with money, so the actual crimes have been committed except for the woman don’t feel comfortable reporting because the chances of justice actually being served by civil authorities is pretty low, especially considering that they’re married to the person. So, victims kind of consider these things when they’re thinking about reporting. In cases of like psychological abuse or emotional abuse where you cannot report to authorities or where clergy doesn’t believe you. Do you have anything to say about that scenario, when it comes to believing in the justice of God when all earthly means have been exhausted? There seems to have no earthly means of justice.

“God Does Not Want You To Accept Abuse”

Valerie: Oh, I’m so glad you asked that question, and I think it’s a compelling question. As we were talking about just a few minutes ago, I think that our legal system is a legacy of male perspectives on these kinds of things. I mean, it took until the 1970s for the criminalization of marital rape. I mean, before that time, it was simply assumed that you know, they were married, rape could not occur, he had his conjugal rights to use her body as he saw fit. So, I agree that I think that sometimes women are not going to be able to count on civil authorities to administer earthly justice, though they can always count on God to administer heavenly justice. And I think that’s really where the healing comes.

But in cases like that, to be perfectly honest with you, I think it’s incumbent upon the woman to begin to create a distance from the abuser, or I understand that there are programs that allow you to confront people who, for example, husbands who have grown up in abusive households, and may want to change but may view these abusive techniques as being simply the way one lives. Either way, right, whether it’s by intervening or whether it’s by creating a distance, God does not want you to accept abuse. That is not the way. If you’re given a choice, right. I mean, there have been times past where people have been slaves and they had no choice at all, but we are not slaves. And I think it is incumbent upon a Christian disciple to either get out of an abusive relationship or to intervene and try to turn that relationship around.

Turning the Other Cheek Doesn’t Work In Terms of Abuse

Anne: I want to talk about some of these, let’s say, misapplied Christian principles in the context of abuse. But before that, you quoted a scripture that I often quote to victims, and it’s Alma 5:60. I love this scripture, I quote it all the time to victims and it says, “And now I say unto you that the good shepherd doth call after you, and if you will hearken unto his voice he will bring you into his fold, and ye are his sheep; and he commandeth you that ye suffer no ravenous wolf to enter among you, that ye may not be destroyed.” I love that scripture because he’s commanding us not to be abused. He’s commanding us to step away from that. So, let’s talk about some of these misapplied Christian principles that are often used. The first one being turn the other cheek. So, can you talk about how that principle does not work in this context?

Valerie: Right. One of the problems, I think, is that we are not living in the same time as Jesus Christ. And as a result, I think there’s a number of things about the context of the turn the other cheek, that are just so different. So, for example, one Christian theologian James Talmage, had this to say, “of old the principle of retaliation had been tolerated, by which one who had suffered injury could exact or inflict a penalty of the same nature as the offense. Thus an eye was demanded for the loss of an eye, a tooth for tooth, a life for life. In contrast, Christ taught that men should rather suffer than do evil, even to the extent of submission without resistance under certain implied conditions.

“If A Woman Gets On Her Knees and Asks God, God Will Tell Her In No Uncertain Terms, No, I Do Not Want You To Be Abused”

His forceful illustrations- that if one were smitten on the cheek, you should turn the other, that if a man took another’s coat by process of law, the loser should allow his cloak to be taken also; that if one was pressed into service to carry another’s burden a mile, he should willingly go two miles; that one should readily give or lend as asked- are not to be construed, Talmage says, as commanding abject subservience to unjust demands, nor as an abrogation of the principle of self-protection. These instructions were directed primarily to the apostles, who would be professedly devoted to the work of the Kingdom, to the exclusion of all other interests. In their ministry it would be better to suffer material loss or personal indignity at the hands of wicked oppressors, than bring about an impairment of efficiency and a hindrance in work through resistance and contention.”

So, no. If a man has molested your 10-year-old, do not offer your six-year-old as well. If your husband has broken your left ribs don’t offer him your right ribs to break as well. If a rapist enters your home to attack you and you shoot him dead, that’s not a failure of turning the other cheek. And I really think that if a Christian woman gets on her knees and asks God, God will tell her in no uncertain terms no, I do not want you to be abused. That’s not what this example of smiting the other cheek means.

When It Feels “Wrong” To Leave An Abusive Relationship

Anne: I think a lot of Christian women say divorce feels so terrible and it doesn’t feel right because it’s not right to be abused, they get really confused by the feelings they’re feeling and the messages that they’re feeling. And so, I think they often think that the spirit is telling them no, it’s not right to divorce, because they feel so terrible, and they don’t feel peace. And to women in that situation, I will always want to say it’s the abuse talking, right. It’s this fog of abuse and manipulation that is talking and when you have to face abuse, when you have to confront it, when you have to make your way out of it there’s no part that is going to feel peaceful. You know, you might have moments of peace where you know you’re doing the right thing even though you feel terrible. When something is so atrocious, I love that you use the word atrocity, it is not going to feel good. There’s not going to be this like, oh, I feel so good, this is perfect. I’m happy, this is fine. I’m making my way out of abuse. Like, it’s just going to feel miserable until you can make it out of the fog, but don’t let that misery and that horror of realizing you’re being abused stop you from making your way to safety.

The Worst Thing You Can Do For An Abuser, Is Stay With Him

Valerie: That’s absolutely right. That is so well said. It boggles the mind that one would believe such a horrible thing about God, that God wants you to stay in an abusive relationship. You know, I opened my essay by talking about a true story of an acquaintance I knew. Her husband would beat her up and she would go to the hospital, and she would lie and say she’d fallen down the stairs or something. And her husband would say, “Don’t tell them. I’m so sorry. I’ll never do it again.” And she would go back to him, and at one point, right, he beat her so badly she was in a coma. He was put in jail and her children were put in foster care. So, tell me how it is that God wanted that situation? Did God want her in a coma? Did God want these children in foster care? I don’t think so. The more loving thing, right, if you really, really love your abuser, the worst thing that you could do to their soul is to let them keep abusing you. Let that sink in for a minute. That is the very worst thing you could do for them because they are on the path to hell and beating you up and abusing you is part of their progression to hell. Don’t do it.

Support the BTR Podcast

Anne: We’re going to pause this conversation here but join us next week when Valerie and I will continue talking about forgiveness.

If this podcast is helpful to you, please support it. Until next week, stay safe out there.


  1. Raquel

    So good to hear the difference between forgiveness and reconciliation.
    And the way you finished saying the worst thing you could do to an abuser is to let him abuse you. Wow so much to think about . . .

  2. Anonymous

    The part where one of the hosts says to let god do the justice – sounds an awful lot like saying “don’t press charges.”

    • Anne Blythe

      Thanks for your comment. I’m the host, and I always encourage women to report. However, since often times reporting doesn’t result in justice – I also encourage women of faith to pray for deliverance and justice:). I do not want women to not press charges. Also, with covert abuse, like emotional and psychological abuse, there isn’t a “reportable crime”. I think that what the abuser has done is so damaging, it’s criminal. I wish the law would recognize it as emotional and psychological abuse, or even fraud. But since they don’t, sometimes reporting isn’t an option.


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