Making Things Right
All of us have had broken relationships in our lives, sometimes for a few days or weeks and sometime for years or, even, decades. There is almost always a level of hurt and pain that comes with these that reaches a very raw, emotional place for us when we think about them, perhaps bitterness, resentment, embarrassment or guilt. When considering reconciling, we may have to think about several questions: Is this relationship important enough to take the risk of reaching out? Is this a relationship that I want in my life, or would it be damaging to have this person in my life again? Can I see anything I may have contributed to the broken relationship? Is leaving the relationship in a broken state consistent with my personal values?
Simply initiating contact will likely involve making yourself vulnerable, knowing they may spurn your effort, leaving you feeling even more hurt and rejected. If you choose to take the initiative in reconciling the relationship, here are some thoughts that may help you succeed.
Restoring a relationship requires someone to “be the bigger person”. Even if you sincerely believe the other person is 95% of the problem, there is nearly always some part of the damaged relationship that you can take responsibility for, though in your mind “that was nothing compared to what they did!” It may only be 5% in your mind, but in the perspective of the other person, your part is likely much greater than that. Often, by taking the first step and genuinely apologizing for anything you may have done, it allows the other person to be honest about the part they contributed in the damage, as well.
Seek to understand their perspective. Most often, broken relationships come from two people having different perspectives and knowing, without a doubt, that “I’m right and they’re just wrong!” Give the other person the opportunity to express their thoughts and emotions without judgment and with a genuine desire to understand them. This will require letting go of that impulse to point out where they are wrong, to minimize their concerns or to defend yourself. You have to humbly and completely give yourself over to understanding them, even if you strongly disagree with what you hear.
Decide whether to apologize or to ask for forgiveness. For most of us, the only kind of apology we ever learned to make was, “Shake hands and say you’re sorry.” However, some kinds of hurts call for much more than this. Saying “I’m sorry” is appropriate when you hurt someone inadvertently, such as bumping into them or forgetting to pass along a message or taking the last doughnut. For offenses where there was sincerely no intention to harm another person and no serious harm was done, “I’m sorry” or “I want to apologize” is a fitting way to make amends.
However, this is far too superficial to convey genuine remorse for times when you have said something hurtful, harmed someone maliciously, engaged in passive-aggressive behavior, or otherwise intentionally disregarded the pain and trouble you were causing them. This may include direct action on your part or failure to act when you should have. Before you dismiss any damage done on your end as “unintentional”, stop and do a fearless inventory of your goals, intentions and motives; can you genuinely say that there was simply no way for you to know the other person would have been harmed by your actions or your inaction?
In those cases where you were intentionally harmful, you need to start with, “Will you forgive me for…” and be specific about the offense you committed. When we give a brief, “I’m sorry” or we fail to give details about what we are actually apologizing for, this comes across as generic and insincere. Be specific, ask for forgiveness and leave yourself at the mercy of the other person, who may or may not choose to forgive you. In cases of intentional offenses, it is you making yourself vulnerable and subject to the rejection of your request for forgiveness that truly demonstrates your remorse.
Sometimes the best we can do is love someone from a distance. As much as you might like to restore certain relationships, someone who is continually abusing and manipulating you without remorse often cannot be involved in your life in a healthy way. In those cases, you have to set healthy boundaries to protect yourself and your loved ones. Before making that choice, you have to be honest with yourself enough to recognize whether it is actually your pride painting the other person as irredeemable. When faced with having to humble ourselves to make amends, often it’s easier to label the other person as a villain who simply cannot be reconciled with than to swallow our pride.
Be an example to your children. When your children witness you reaching out to restore a broken relationship, you are teaching them a valuable lesson that will serve them their entire lives. When you teach them the difference between saying, “I’m sorry” and “Will you forgive me?”, you are equipping them with the tools to build happy marriages and friendships; you are raising more emotionally mature adults!
Larry Deavers is a Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker & Executive Director of Family Counseling Service of West Alabama.