I’ve counseled many couples over the years whose relationship bonds had become strained to the point of possibly breaking. Generally this happened because the parties had allowed themselves to cross certain boundaries and violate certain limits that inflicted deep emotional wounds. Some of the things we allow ourselves to say to one another can really pierce the heart. And there are things we can let ourselves do or refuse to make ourselves do that can inflict a lot of injury, too. Over the years, I’ve been really taken aback by some of the things folks have allowed themselves to do or say without sufficient appreciation for the damage caused and without a due sense of obligation to repairing the damage.
Making amends in a meaningful way can be a particularly arduous task. But in a loving relationship, repairing any damage done (whether inadvertently or intentionally inflicted) is not only a person’s duty but also essential for maintaining integrity of character. Relationships never survive or prosper unless the parties embrace this obligation both willingly and freely.
I once counseled a couple who’d been blessed in many ways. Well-educated, and coming from somewhat privileged backgrounds, they had it all: wonderful careers, financial security, beautiful, healthy children, etc. But like most couples they had “issues” between them and unfortunately they didn’t do very well in addressing those issues in a respectful way. One major bone of contention between them had to do with how the children should be disciplined. The husband tended to be the rule-setter and “enforcer” whereas the wife tended to be the coddler and “rescuer.” The children, recognizing the the lack of alliance between their parents, knew very well how to play one against the other. But it’s how the couple addressed their differences with one another that really caused the trouble. Dropping expletives, name-calling, withholding affection, chastising and belittling were common, and when there appeared no compromise, there’d be the inevitable “threat” to end it all. Now both of these individuals were a lot alike: Neither liked to lose a fight. Both were strong-willed, opinionated, and most of all, they had their pride. And in their determination to win, and especially to vindicate themselves, each was willing to go to the mat, even over matters that could rightfully be considered pretty trivial. And they knew very well each other’s deepest emotional vulnerabilities, and sometimes they just couldn’t seem to stop themselves from going too far (“Going for the jugular,” is how they put it). As a result, their marriage was really in trouble. Too much hurt, too many scars – these things had taken their toll. And it’s not like either of them hadn’t felt sorrow over some of the things they’d done or said. And it’s not like each hadn’t apologized, sometimes over and over again. But the wounds they’d both inflicted and sustained went deep and were a testament to the fact that being sorry or even saying you’re sorry simply isn’t enough. For a relationship to work, each party needs be able to trust. Partners need to know they’ll be safe in the arms of the other and free of the threat of the worst kinds of wounding. Inadvertent slights are one thing. But repeated acts of cruelty just to prove a point or to try and intimidate the other into doing what you want them to do, or to feel the pain you believe they’ve caused you is quite another. And unless you’re truly willing to make amends, and you demonstrate that willingness quite clearly in your efforts to change your approach, there’s no way to restore or rebuild that necessary trust.
I’ve written before about what genuine remorse and contrition look like (See, for example What Real Contrition Looks Like, Contrition Revisited, and Shame, Guilt, Regret, Remorse, and Contrition), and what it really takes to make amends. In counseling this couple, I called their attention to the work that had to be done and made it clear there could be no excuses. If you really love someone and fancy yourself as having any real integrity of character, you have to be willing to repair damage you’ve done. It’s like when you were a kid playing baseball in the street and you accidentally knocked a ball through someone’s window, your responsibility is to do more than apologize. You need to sacrifice and underwrite the repair of the damage. And there’s always a cost to damage you inflict, a cost you have to be freely willing to bear. It’s never ceased to amaze me how many people are willing to pay the price for something like breaking a neighbor’s window but not be willing to do what it takes to repair damage they’ve inflicted on a person they purport to love.
In the next few articles, I’ll be having more to say about making amends with examples of how folks who not only accepted the responsibility to repair damage they had done but also did the work it took to nurture their relationships back to health. In the process, they didn’t just save their partnership, they developed greater integrity of character.
Some announcements: This week’s Character Matters program will be a rebroadcast of a prior program, so no calls can be taken. And within a few months, you’ll be noticing some striking new changes in the overall appearance and structure of the blog as well as some new content on the pages devoted to my books In Sheep’s Clothing, Character Disturbance, and The Judas Syndrome.