What Does Accountability Look Like When Someone Hurt You?

by | Apr 3, 2024 | Abuse, Theology of Marriage and Sex | 27 comments

Accountability is a necessary part of forgiveness and reconciliation.

And yet often it’s downplayed, where even asking for accountability is somehow proof that you haven’t forgiven.

Over the last few weeks we’ve been walking through some amazing truths from Susannah Griffith’s new book Forgiveness After Trauma:

I want to focus today on the idea of accountability, because that’s where a lot of us get stuck.

As Susannah writes:

In some Christian models, forgiveness is essentially an absorption of offenses on the part of the victim, with no prior action necessary on the offender’s part.

Susannah Griffith

Forgiveness After Trauma

And as Susannah realized in the case of her husband, that was actually enabling his bad behaviour. Every time you said, “it’s okay, it’s in the past, let’s move on” without actually dealing with the root of the issue, the trauma in the relationship, and the fall out, you allow the person who hurt you to reap no consequences and to continue what they’re doing.

True reconciliation and healing, then, has to involve accountability.

1. Accountability is not punishment.

When we hold someone accountable, it isn’t to punish, but instead “an invitation to do what we are created in God’s image to do.” It’s holding them up so that they are encouraged to grow to look like Christ and become who God wants them to. It’s to participate in the work that God is doing in their lives.

2. Accountability can be dangerous

In an abusive situation, calling someone out for what they are doing wrong can be dangerous. Yet what happens when we go to the church or to Christian friends about the problems we have in certain relationships? We’re often told to follow the Matthew 18 principle. We have to go to them first, and ask them to change. We aren’t supposed to bring other people in yet. 

That attitude can put abuse victims in danger.

I’m sure Jesus wouldn’t appreciate his words being used to hurt the very same people he cared deeply about protecting through his ministry. Taking Jesus’ words about resolving conflicts between equals [Matthew 18], in which power is being held equitably and justly, and applying them to situations of abuse puts victims and survivors in danger.

Susannah Griffith

Forgiveness After Trauma

Susannah said that the abuse escalated when she tried to deal with things on her own. Yet that is often the emphasis that churches put on that passage–individuals are meant to do this. Why not put equal emphasis on kicking offenders out when they abuse? Why is it so often the victims who are kicked out when they try to ask the community to hold an abuser accountable?

Communities need to come around people who have been harmed by another and make sure that the one who did the harm is called out appropriately, and is not considered a full member of the community until they have done the work to make amends and get safe.

Instead of just declaring that someone who had an affair is forgiven, can we make sure the betrayed spouse is all right? Can the community pay for therapy for the betrayed spouse? Can we make it clear that this wasn’t okay?

3. Accountability means facing the weight of what your actions have done

In the community, this may mean stopping serving in ministry capacities where you have spiritual direction/authority over others. It may mean that you willingly give up some freedoms, like having a locked phone, having internet access at home, even working in a certain place if that workplace was the place where a betrayal occurred. 

On the individual level, though, this is where things often get tricky.

People will say, “He’s apologized! (or she’s apologized). They’re changing! What more do you want?”

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But the problem is that betrayal and abuse can cause trauma. And that trauma is still there with the spouse. It hasn’t gone anywhere. Someone who is truly repentant and willing to be held accountable will recognize that that trauma is something they caused.

They won’t try to rush it or blame the spouse for still having that trauma. They will allow the spouse to say what they need to say. They will allow the spouse space, especially if there are still some triggers. They will support the spouse in counseling or whatever they need to heal trauma.

Healing trauma takes far more time than realizing you were wrong and apologizing. And accountability means that you allow time for the trauma to be addressed.

Sometimes that level of accountability is too much for the relationship to continue.

That’s what Susannah and her ex-husband found. As Susannah writes,

He continued to need the affirmation that he was a new Creation in Christ, and this meant, for him, disconnection with the past. He was unable to allow me to acknowledge the past without resentment or anger. My need for that ongoing dialogue about the past trauma felt to Neill like a denial of his status as a new creation. We were both hurt. We were both angry. We both felt betrayed.

Susannah Griffith

Forgiveness After Trauma

Susannah and Neill found that healing and reconciliation was easier when they were no longer married. Neill couldn’t handle the trauma that Susannah still carried from the abuse, and Susannah couldn’t cover up that trauma and pretend it wasn’t there. But when they were no longer married, then she could wish him well and bless him and she got some distance so she could love him as a brother in Christ. 

When couples are trying to work through the trauma that someone has caused, this is where the rubber hits the road. 

Accountability was too painful for him to tolerate. Neill needed to believe that he was more than the worst things he had done.

Susannah Griffith

Forgiveness After Trauma

That’s perfectly understandable! But in the meantime, Susannah still had very real trauma and pain that couldn’t really be healed in relationship unless Neill also acknowledged the depth of that trauma and pain and sat with her in it. He couldn’t do that because it sent him in a tailspin, believing he was a terrible person.

Their situation, of course, was more extreme than most, because it involved abuse.

But what if it’s twenty years of porn use? What if it’s an affair? What if it’s years of marital rape, even if you didn’t mean to, because you internalized the toxic teachings about male entitlement to sex? 

There is still real trauma. And if there is to reconciliation within the relationship, the offender is going to have to be able to sit and hear the pain and trauma they have caused. 

Now, much of this processing can and should be done with trauma therapists, since trauma isn’t cured merely by talking about it. But the person who hurt the other has to give the betrayed spouse time to heal, and part of that healing is often willingly feeling the depth of the person’s pain. 

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If the betrayed person allows themselves to feel the depth of the pain that they caused, it is so much easier for the one who was hurt to feel safe again. But if the betrayer isn’t willing to do that, then the betrayed spouse can never know if their feelings and pain actually matter. Their feelings were already ignored by their spouse;  unless they now feel as if they matter, how can they move forward in healing and health?

That’s where the accountability rubber hits the road.

And that’s why healing within relationship is often so difficult. Even if the betrayed spouse has trauma therapy; even if they’ve worked on their own pain. Until that pain is fully acknowledged within the relationship, they aren’t likely to feel safe.

And if the person who caused the pain isn’t willing or able to do that, then healing is going to be very difficult, if not impossible. 

That doesn’t necessarily mean separation or divorce is necessary; every case is different. But you simply can’t expect someone who has been betrayed to suddenly heal and declare everything is okay merely because there’s been an apology and a change of behaviour. The spouse who did wrong needs to emotionally enter into the pain too and be willing to carry some of it. 

In her chapter on accountability, Susannah richly delves into the story of Jacob in the Old Testament, and what accountability looked like there, and I strongly recommend reading this chapter (and the book!) for that alone. 

But my plea to churches is this: 

Don’t ask for forgiveness before an offender has embraced full accountability.

If so, you’re focusing on things looking pretty on the outside, and sweeping the problems under the rug, rather than truly dealing with them. And ultimately that won’t work!

In Susannah Griffith’s book Forgiveness After Trauma, she shows how anger, lament, and accountability are all part of the reconciliation and forgiveness process, and if we try to rush things before they are given space, we won’t achieve healing, and we won’t be following the biblical model.

This is just such a rich book, and I highly recommend it!

Susannah Griffith Forgiveness After Trauma

What do you think? What does accountability look like for you? Let’s talk in the comments!

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Sheila Wray Gregoire

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Sheila Wray Gregoire

Author at Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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27 Comments

  1. Angharad

    Accountability is a necessary part of reconciliation, but it doesn’t always have to be part of forgiveness. And there’s a good reason for that.

    Sometimes, we need to be able to forgive someone who has hurt us so that we can heal and move on. If that person were able to ‘block’ our forgiveness by continuing to refuse accountability and reconciliation, then they would have the power to keep us ‘stuck’ in our pain.

    Accountability and reconciliation is necessary if there is to be an ongoing relationship. But sometimes, we have to accept that there will be no accountability, no reconciliation and no future to a relationship. And in that case, we need to be free to forgive and move on, without being forced to wait on the other person’s repentance.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Yes, very definitely. I think in the church context, where we are often pushed to reconcile, we need accountability first.

      Reply
  2. Jo R

    One big difference is how many people need to be involved with each of these aspects.

    Forgiveness can be, and often needs to be, unilateral. A victim can forgive an abuser whether or not an abuser ever apologizes, attempts to make amends, repents from and changes abusive behavior, or otherwise tries to make things right for the victim. This is most obviously true when the victim’s abuser is dead.

    Reconciliation, on the other hand, requires, and ought to have the community loudly require, the abuser to first apologize and then BACK UP THOSE EASILY SAID WORDS WITH MAJOR BEHAVIORAL AND ATTITUDINAL CHANGES. If there is no lasting change, if there aren’t even small steps forward, then the “apology” is just an additional form of abuse the abuser perpetrates on the victim. Mouth-noises without action are just manipulation of the victim. And repentance, genuine, soul-deep repentance, takes serious effort to change those neural pathways that lead to the abusive behaviors. Those pathways, and those new habits of thought and subsequent behavior, simply CANNOT be changed overnight. (Please don’t mention anecdotes of miraculous, instantaneous deliveries from harmful behaviors. Miracles by definition are incredibly rare.)

    What do we call lasting change? FRUIT. Fruit does not develop overnight; even radishes, the quickest growing vegetable, take four weeks from seed to harvest. Abusive behavior is going to take a helluva lot longer time to replace than it takes to grow radishes.

    Asking a victim to reconcile before a long period of the abuser growing demonstrable fruit is yet one more way a victim is further abused, both by the abuser and, often, by the victim’s community. Let’s stop heaping even more abuse on victims, shall we?

    So forgiveness is unilateral and reconciliation takes two. But I think repentance can be, and maybe even ought to be, unilateral as well.

    An abuser can take those growth steps whether or not the victim is aware of them. Those new roots of changed behavior can be put down in the dark, in those inmost places. The fruit will eventually start to show. And the abuser keeping keeping quiet about it might actually be preferable, as self-imposed silence might short-circuit the abuser’s instinct and tendency to do easy talking instead of continuing to do the hard work. If the fruit is developing, it will be obvious. And even if the victim doesn’t notice, or if the victim remains skeptical, well, at least the abuser is healing. The abuser needs that internal changing even if it doesn’t result in reconciliation with the victim, because the abuser will at least be reconciled with themselves.

    Accountability may be easier in community, but it also takes a lot of internal work. After all, an accountability partner doesn’t live in the abuser’s mind and heart, but the abuser is with himself 24/7. Ultimately, the abuser has to be completely responsible to get the work done. Others can help, but only the abuser can put in the effort to make the lasting changes.

    As for the victims, we simply have to stop demanding that they ignore the pain they’ve been subjected to. We need to stop demanding they heal to some schedule. They need the freedom to deal with their hurt. To FEEL their hurt, and fully. And this is especially true when WE are the victim. Victims need to be seen, and grieved with, and grieved over. Think Job’s friends those first seven days. Think “Jesus wept.” Think “bear others ‘ burdens.” And let’s not forget “do unto others.” Would we want people to tell us to just smile when we’ve gone through something painful? Of course not. We’d like to receive empathy, some understanding, some commiserating tears, a shoulder to cry on. Just like abusive behavior can’t be changed instantaneously, healing cannot be instantaneous. God doesn’t tell us to turn off our tears. No. He stores them up in a bottle. He puts them in His book. We are allowed to have them.

    Sorry for the ramble.

    Reply
    • Angharad

      “Please don’t mention anecdotes of miraculous, instantaneous deliveries from harmful behaviors. Miracles by definition are incredibly rare.”

      And where there has been true miraculous instantaneous delivery, the person delivered will not be pushing for overnight reconciliation anyway. Genuine repentance is always focussed on the person who has been harmed and what is best for them. Show me someone who is complaining that they’ve repented but their victim hasn’t forgiven them yet, and you show me someone who HASN’T repented.

      Reply
      • Jo R

        Yeah, like the abuser’s repentance must be predicated on first receiving forgiveness from the victim.

        🤬

        In other words, it’s MUCH more important that the victim forgive than that the abuser repent.

        🤬 🤬 🤬 🤬 🤬

        Reply
        • Angharad

          I used to attend a church that had a lot of guys who were going through/had been through a local drink/drugs rehab centre. I learned that the guys who were placing expectations on their family (“I’ve been clean for 6 months now and she still won’t have me back” or “I haven’t touched a drop for a year – what more proof do my parents want?”) always went back to their old habits quickly. Not surprising really, since if they weren’t taking the damage they’d inflicted on their loved ones seriously, then it’s likely they weren’t taking any other part of their rehab seriously either. On the other hand, the guys that said “I totally messed up. My family are justified if they never want to see me again. I hope one day they might give me a second chance, but I’ve no right to expect it” usually stayed sober and clean.

          Maybe that’s something that the ‘pushing for reconciliation’ churches need to think about. Because I bet it applies to other areas of life, not just to substance abuse.

          Reply
          • Sheila Wray Gregoire

            That’s a really interesting observation!

          • Willow

            Angharad, I too was reading this post through the lens of substance abuse, since my ex-partner dealt with substance abuse.

            He used the words quoted above from the book a lot – about needing to be in relationships with people who didn’t know his (‘using’) past, so they weren’t biased against him and could see his full potential.

            This seems worthy on its face, but I eventually realized it was part of a pattern of a “functional substance abuser” who successfully hides the dependency from everyone in their circle, still cannot take accountability for their actions, and only wants to change/go sober for as long as/as much as it takes to evade negative consequences from their actions.

            Acknowledging that the past harms you have committed is part of who you still are is an important part of healing and growth, regardless of who you are and how greatly or trivially you have harmed someone.

            Someone who cannot own their past as part of their history is still stuck at square one.

      • Lisa Johns

        AMEN.

        Reply
  3. Jen

    I’m in the middle of the book and it is well done. There can be no real relationship if the one who harmed does not take accountability; I do appreciate this frank discussion.

    We need to be careful about how we frame abuse. Adultery, in all its forms, IS abuse. Emotional neglect is abuse. Marital rape is abuse. Lying/toxic secret keeping is abuse. I know you don’t mean to imply that it’s not, but the phrasing feels like porn/affairs aren’t abuse. Just flagging that phraseology.

    Reply
    • Viva

      Well said, Jen.
      Thank you.
      I agree from first-hand experience.

      Reply
    • Abby

      Thank you, Jen. I felt that way too—I don’t think she meant it this way but it sounded like Sheila didn’t classify those things as abuse. But they are.

      Reply
  4. Mina

    “Susannah and Neill found that healing and reconciliation was easier when they were no longer married. Neill couldn’t handle the trauma that Susannah still carried from the abuse, and Susannah couldn’t cover up that trauma and pretend it wasn’t there. But when they were no longer married, then she could wish him well and bless him and she got some distance so she could love him as a brother in Christ. ”
    – I love this. Among the many abuses of mariage-reaching in the “church” is that if you agree to firgive & reconcile w your partner, that’s its permanent unless they re-offend fairly egregiously. So they heavily lean on the harmed to forgive, and maybe she agrees to try her best, but over time realizes that the pain is just too much (and perhaps the offenders repentance & change is rather weak). Set the harmed one free, and piled high w blessings to make their transition easier (& whatever custody arrangementthe wronged person prefers). Don’t be a party to their exacerbated grief & opression.

    Reply
  5. M

    I needed this so much today. It gave me words for a situation I’ve been trying to explain for a few years now, and I think it will help me this week with verbage I can use. Thank you Shelia.

    Reply
  6. Sarah O

    Ordered, Susannah! I’m looking forward to reading it.

    Thank you for being vulnerable in your writing, I imagine it’s a super strange feeling to invite strangers into such an intimate story.

    Reply
    • Learning to be beloved

      I can’t wait to read this book! I’m so glad you’re giving sneak peeks into it.

      “Unforgiving” is one of the most painful mischaracterizations that has been used against me as I seek safety from my abuser, my husband of 21 years, after he was trying to kill me. My mother-in-law, a pastor’s wife, who had tremendous sympathy for me while I stayed in abuse, has turned against me. When she doubled-down on her “unforgiveness” claims, I tried to explain to her that she was demanding that I give something valuable while I was still being harmed. There was no apology, repentance or accountability from my soon-to-be-ex; instead there was anger that I would speak the truth of his behavior, he attempted to control my words, thoughts, plans, freedom to go to public places to an even greater degree, and he blamed me for his actions and choices. I know that what I need is safety, but she denies there’s any danger instead placing blame on me for not forgiving. But I was her hero when I suffered “silently” as she has. She told me repeatedly that her son was so much worse than his father, that she admired my ability to be kinder than her in the face of adversity, that I created resources for myself & my 5 children because we were in need. In her eyes, my abuse made me honorable. So freeing myself from it makes me dishonorable. And she blames me for that.

      How freeing and validating to see this book coming out now! Thank you for your bravery, Susannah! Thank you for sharing the comfort you were comforted with.

      Reply
      • Jane King

        I’m wondering if she saw the two of you as kindred spirits. And now that you have said no to her sons continued abuse you broke the “abuse buddies” contract. Real friends and supporters want what best for you. Her “support” was just keeping you stuck in an awful situation. As painful as it is just count yourself lucky that she is no longer “in your corner” because she never really was.

        Reply
      • Nessie

        Not sure if the larger paragraph is the book or your words, but if your words… By admiring you while you were putting up with the abuse, she may have been projecting the admiration she wishes she had gotten for putting up with her abuse. Maybe she can’t face that she feels you are perhaps stronger (or just as honorable) than her in some ways by putting your foot down and taking a different path now?

        Reply
  7. mom2sweetbug

    I also find that those who abuse often have a fundamental misunderstanding of what “reconciliation” actually means. To them, it so often means simply being restored to their former position — whether that’s moving back into the home, regaining their place in the church, resuming activities they didn’t feel free to pursue while separated or under discipline, etc. It’s about the APPEARANCE of getting back what they feel was taken from them. In my experience, it is rarely (not *never* but very infrequently) about doing the hard work of rebuilding trust and humbling themselves by truly taking responsibility for the pain they have inflicted on others.

    Reply
  8. Kelly27

    I am not married but I am SO glad I have found this blog. Like a previous commenter wrote, this entry has put into words what I haven’t been able to say.

    Short back story, I am not married nor in an official relationship however I am expecting a SECOND child with a long term on & off partner (due to abuse). It is only now that I am noticing positive changes in his behaviour however I am still, understandably, skeptical. He has given me the space to fully let him into my pain & has taken SOME accountability, I am not the only woman he has abused in the past & contrary to what the author suggested above, my church community actually did demote him & eventually had to kick him out due to his lack of repentance and accountability. They also paid for my therapy sessions…yet here I am, having another child with him. I feel so stupid, disappointed and that I have betrayed my church community by doing this.

    I don’t want to ramble on but what led me to this blog was the blog post about the meaning of Paul’s message to those who burn with passion should get married. We both definitely burn with that passion (hence we’re having another child) & I love him very much BUT I am very skeptical to say yes to a lifelong commitment due to the fact that I think he hasn’t taken “full” accountability for his actions.

    He has admitted he abused me & I have forgiven him but I think there is still a long way to go. I am just wondering can we continue this work in marriage?, because I don’t want to keep sinning by having pre marital sex & I know it’s cliche but he truly is a wonderful father. I cannot raise two kids on my own, so is marriage the right next step for us to take & continue our healing journey? I know it may be hard to give advice not knowing the full extent to this situation but anything is appreciated Xx

    Reply
    • Lisa Johns

      Wow, that’s a lot to deal with! I don’t know if marriage would be a right step if he is still a potential abuser, and I would definitely recommend you tread with caution. Perhaps you can find an abuse-informed counselor that will help the two of you sort out your thoughts and what you want and need to do?
      Also, if a man is abusing the mother of his children, there’s definitely something missing in his fathering. He may be a “wonderful father” in terms of how he interacts with the children when they are small and cute, but first, will he be able to continue acting well toward them when they get big enough to have personality and the need to individuate (hence, pushing back on some interactions); and second, what does he model in terms of how men should treat women, and how is that going to affect your children as they grow up and begin to seek out relationships of their own? Those are two really important aspects of fathering that can show up as really weak spots in family relationships.

      Reply
      • Jen

        It’s also very important to know that abuse of the mother IS abuse of the children. Witnessing abuse has very similar effects on children to being directly abused. A man who is abusing you IS abusing your children.

        Reply
  9. Woods43

    Yup! Living this right now. He seems engaged until I ask about commitment to accountability. Our marriage has been plagued for 25 years of ongoing unaddressed porn use, alcoholism, verbal abuse and rage and blame when asked as address difficult topics. We have had some success in addressing destructive behaviour but only when I am completely vulnerable and doing the hard emotional work n my own and spoon feeding him articles, bringing up needs in the most delicate of ways. When I tell of my need for accountability and a commitment coming from him he crumbles and goes silent and the seething stress and attitude re-emerges. I separated and ask for a commitments coming from his own words and that didn’t last two weeks until the return of drinking every day returns, stops initiating prayer, not contacting friends that have reached out, no addressing of his poem addiction healing other than “I’ve stopped” which I don’t believe. Literally brought up this accountability piece last night and he said, you are focusing on the negative instead of the positives like I stopped drinking….when literally he had drinks the night before when our friends came over, and before that he had only stopped 3 nights before because I reminded and cried that he had already returned to drinking. He says he can’t do anything right, he is spending more time with the kids, not having raging explosions anymore and doing nice things like building me planter boxes but I told him that’s not going to save our marriage. He gets do upset anything I refer to saving our marriage or that it’s in jeopardy because I’m “threatening him”, which I guess I am because I don’t want to stay in a marriage like this. I have glimmers of hope, where we connect and I feel loved and love him, but without the accountability I can’t stay there.

    Reply
    • Jo R

      Please believe his actions, not his words.

      He knows that tiny crumbs are all that you need to keep hanging around, hoping for him to change.

      You need to plan to excise him from your life. Maybe he’ll change, but there’s no need for you to stay in the firing line of his long-term and ongoing lying and abuse. You can be in a safe place while he heals—or, most likely, not—over there, waaaaayyyyyy over there.

      Leaving him to the consequences of his behavior is not being mean. It’s fulfilling the law of reaping and sowing, and he will finally be the one bearing the consequences.

      Zawn is pretty on point here, with things to look for. Go ahead and clutch your pearls now if strong language is offensive to you. You can just scroll down to her bullet points to skip some of it.

      https://zawn.substack.com/p/has-he-really-changed

      (Tap the “continue reading” on the pop-up box to make it go away.)

      Reply
    • Nessie

      What he claims is “threatening him” sounds like creating and following through with boundaries which is healthy, and the ones you are creating are ones that are a natural progression/consequence of his actions, as JoR shared. For those who are unhealthy (like him with his various behaviors violating your marriage), healthy things like boundaries and consequences feel mean or threatening or too much or impossible.

      You sound worn out trying to help him, help yourself, and from walking on eggshells. You are worth much more. Your kids are worth much more, too, and may be blessed by seeing their mama be strong and be iron sharpening iron to their dad.

      Reply
    • Lisa Johns

      Its sounds like he is happily allowing you to do all the heavy lifting in the relationship, and that is not sustainable: at some point you will collapse because you are simply beyond exhausted. And then he will probably kick you and demand that you get back to work. He is not ready to change; he has made that abundantly clear. He will continue to breadcrumb and gaslight you until the stars fall out of the sky. And that sad cry of, “But haven’t I changed?” can be easily answered by asking him what he has done to fix the heart behind the actions rather than just fixing the facade he uses to try and excuse the actions. Please find someone (preferably professional) who can help you make a safety plan and get yourself and your children out of a toxic situation.
      And that porn use? He has NOT quit. Drug users lie like that all the time. Porn is the leading drug in the nation at this point.

      Reply
  10. Anne

    I told him that he betrayed me and betrayed our marriage. His reply “So? Get over it.”
    I don’t even know what accountability would look like at this point. I have zero hope.

    Reply

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