Reconcile When You Can

One of the reasons I focus on the ideal of reconciliation in my work and my thinking more generally is that I think broken relationships are among the greatest harms that humans endure. Almost nothing hurts well-being more than the loss of a loved one, or becoming estranged from one’s partner, children, parents, or friends. Indeed, many people spend most of their lives in dysfunctional, even abusive, relationships because those relationships provide them with meaning and value, and many other goods besides. Reconciliation has supreme value because it is the resumption of these lost relationships.

Reconciliation is also valuable as a process because it requires us to engage in morally admirable acts, such as admitting wrongdoing and forgiving others. In reconciliation, we express regard and love for another person, and are often prepared to humble ourselves in order to restore the relationship to working order. That’s why I find the process of reconciliation one of the greatest beauties the world has to offer.

One main barrier to reconciliation is pride. People who have broken the relationship often cannot admit to others, or even themselves, that their actions have done so much harm. As a result, the unreconciled retreat into their own emotional worlds, often guarded by the false belief that the other person is at fault, or that the relationship was broken by forces outside of their control. Reconciliation has value because in reconciling, people can break through self-deception, unfairly blaming others, and social isolation. The other main barrier is simply overwhelming hurt; reconciliation means reopening old wounds, which might not get healed, and so many refuse the opportunity based on their assessment of the risk of how it will go. When people pursue reconciliation anyway, they exhibit a kind of trust or faith, and indeed courage, because they care enough about healing to take a chance.

These are all very good reasons to try to reconcile with others. But there are two good reasons not to pursue reconciliation. The first is if you have very good reason to believe that the other person does not want to reconcile. That’s because reconciliation is a two-way street, and trying to force or cajole others into reconciling can often backfire, and even further damage the relationship by creating an additional source of resentment and division. The second is if you think the resumed relationship is likely to be harmful to you, the other person, and/or some third party. For instance, resuming a relationship with a drug-addicted friend might lead you back into addiction as much as it might lead the other person away from addiction.

But before refusing to reconcile, we need to be fairly sure that the other person does not want to reconcile and/or that reconciliation would be harmful in some respect.

A final point. Most people stay in bad relationships too long, but others err in cutting people out of their lives too quickly. In my experience, the most painful harms people are endure are being cutting out of others’ lives, and their former lovers, friends, or colleagues refusing to communicate with them, so that they have no chance to heal or even ask for forgiveness. In many cases, people end relationships based on past grievances that could be healed even by a simple conversation. Many people will endure enormous pain and loss, and give into anger and fear, rather than spend five minutes with the person who hurt them. While such conversations are often painful, the benefits of the attempt usually outweigh the costs, if for no other reason than that we do not always know how the other person thinks about the loss. In my own attempts at reconciliation, I’ve often found that the other person is hurt for reasons I could not have anticipated, or that they think I have attitudes towards them that I simply lack.

So reconcile when you can. And if you’re refusing to reconcile with another person who wants it, reconsider, at least for a moment. Reconciliation is one of the great joys in life, and breaks us free from the chains that hurt and loss place on our hearts.

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