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Ask a Latter-day Saint therapist: I’m struggling to keep boundaries with an abuser

Editor's Note: The views, information, or opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author. Readers should consider each unique situation. This content is not meant to be a substitute for individual, professional advice.

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Q: My father was physically and emotionally abusive to me as a child. Now that I’m older and can push back, he’s still verbally abusive. He’s expressed remorse for the physical abuse and apologized but sees nothing wrong with how he speaks to me. I love him and am working on forgiving him, but don’t really want to be around him. He accuses me of holding a grudge and not letting go of the past. Am I in the wrong?

A: Thank you so much for asking this question. It’s relatable to so, so many people. I’ve heard it said to “never let someone convince you that you’re holding a grudge when you’re really just holding a boundary.”

The Savior commands us to forgive. He never commands us to trust. Forgiveness can be given freely, but trust has to be earned. You can forgive another person without letting them close, letting them in, and allowing them to hurt you again. Forgiveness is necessary for your spiritual, mental, and emotional health. Trust is part of healthy relationships.

Elder Jeffrey R. Holland marvelously taught:

“Forgive, and ye shall be forgiven,” Christ taught in New Testament times. And in our day: “I, the Lord, will forgive whom I will forgive, but of you it is required to forgive all men.” It is, however, important for some of you living in real anguish to note what He did not say. He did not say, “You are not allowed to feel true pain or real sorrow from the shattering experiences you have had at the hand of another.” Nor did He say, “In order to forgive fully, you have to reenter a toxic relationship or return to an abusive, destructive circumstance.” But notwithstanding even the most terrible offenses that might come to us, we can rise above our pain only when we put our feet onto the path of true healing. That path is the forgiving one walked by Jesus of Nazareth, who calls out to each of us, “Come, follow me.”

It is important that you work to feel Christlike love for your father. Loving our enemies, doing good to them that hate us, and praying for those that despitefully use us and persecute us is the path to peace in our lives. Living happy and without enmity is the ultimate way to overcome abuse. It is the ultimate way to take the power back. It is the key to preventing the bitterness, misery, and anger of the abuser to be passed on to the abusee. And it’s a process that cannot be completed totally without the power of the Atonement of Jesus Christ.

God is your Father—your true father. True fathers want to keep their children from harm. Though your earthly father hurt you, your Heavenly Father wants you to be safe, as any good parent would. There is nothing ungodly about drawing boundaries, about keeping yourself safe, or about denying certain associations. At the same time, if you’ve not already, you may wish to express to your dad exactly what behaviors of his keep you from wanting to be close. Let him know the terms of your feeling safe, and what needs to happen if there is to be a relationship. He may not listen, but if you’ve expressed it, then the responsibility is on him to repent and do the work or not.

God bless you. I hope this helps.

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Jonwe

Jonathan Decker, LMFT, Contributor

Jonathan Decker is a licensed marriage and family therapist and clinical director of Mended Light. He offers online relationship courses to people anywhere, as well as face-to-face and online therapy to persons in several states. Jonathan has presented at Brigham Young University Education Week and at regional conferences in Arizona, Utah, and Nevada. He is married with five children. Contact him here and join his Facebook group for daily gospel-based relationship tips. 

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