Part of working with beautifully complex couples means working through really difficult problems. I have seen it all, break ups, affairs, forgiveness, and reconciliation. People often ask me if I believe they can make it through these difficult times. It would be so much easier if there was one right answer.
I have seen people make it through unbelievably challenging situations with remarkably resilient relationships after everyone in their support network gave up and I've watched pairs with great support networks and resources and kindness choose not to be together and build beautiful divorces. And I have seen people make messy choices along the way that make reconciliation extremely unlikely.
I believe it's especially beneficial to work with a coach or counselor in emotionally heated times but while I can try to make predictions, the truth has to come from within the couple. Prediction isn't really in the counseling job description anyway.
So how do you know if you can forgive? Here are five questions I recommend asking yourself to help clarify if reconciliation is something you want. Let me emphasize before you read these that relationships are not all or nothing, they are continually redefined and renegotiated and just because you decide reconciliation is not the best choice right now DOES NOT mean there will never be a time or space for forgiveness. It just means now may not be the time to try to continue as things were. Ask yourself:
1. Can you stay in this relationship and maintain self-respect?
Trust your gut. if you aren't able to feel good about yourself when sticking with a friendship, partnership, roommate relationship or any other relationship after some distance, disagreement, or concern you need to move on. Take time to heal on your own, turn to your community of support, talk to a counselor or mentor and be gentle to yourself as you move on.
Remember, a no answer may mean now is not the time to proceed as things were. Take some more time (read #3 below) and take care of yourself right now.
2. How important is this relationship in your life?
What level of priority is this commitment in your life? Do you see this person daily? Do you have shared responsibilities? Do you share enough history and community with this person to work through the difficulties?
It's important to get clear about which areas of your life are connected to this person, these elements can help inform your decision to reconcile and how to redefine your commitments to one another.
3. Have you worked through your own anger and pain in this situation to really move toward this person in a new way?
My favorite relationship expert, John Gottman talks about something called the "harsh start-up" and its negative impacts on couples conflicts. Research has shown entering into conversation with an abrasive, sarcastic, critical, or resentment-laden energy will likely end on a negative note. 96% of the time you can predict the outcome of a conversation by the first 20% of the time spent talking (three minutes out of a fifteen minute interaction). Taking care of some of your own anger and time to heal, rest and refuel will greatly increase the success in your reconnection attempt.
4. Is there potential for this relationship to evolve into something new and different from what it was before?
Your relationship will likely never be the same again. That doesn't mean it won't be good again, but the question is; are you open to creating something new with this person? Can you detach from the ideas you had about what you were and look forward on new horizons of what you could be now? And, will the relationship be worth is to you even if it doesn't change?
5. Do you have the time, energy, and support resources necessary to really invest in rebuilding this partnership?
Despite what my favorite rom-coms might show, rebuilding a connection after a conflict can be very difficult and will take time. There is no fade away scene at the end, there is some remaining awkwardness, some distance, and some grief that can come with major relationship evolution. Ask yourself what resources you have to support you each individually and in your partnership moving forward. If you need professional help, I am happy to step in or refer you to a great provider.
The decision whether or not to reconcile is personal. The decision can also differ greatly within your partnership. Be gentle with yourselves and take plenty of time to reflect individually and discuss together. Remember, follow your heart, and take your brain with you.