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A Few Keys to Reconciling Broken Relationships

*Editor’s Note: This post in an excerpt adapted from Paul’s upcoming book called The Way Back: Why Repentance Ushers in the Presence of God and the Revival the Church So Desperately Needs.

As one with a background in professional counseling, I have spent a good deal of the last decade of my life trying to help others reconcile relationships that have been severed. I have worked with parents and children, church members, married couples, and friends who find themselves in the middle of a dispute. This is hard work. I have, in fact, found it to be the most emotionally and mentally taxing of all the work I engage in. But it is also has the potential to be the most rewarding.

You see, there is something powerful about the moment when two people who have been at odds with each other find common ground from which to move forward. It is beautiful thing to watch as two friends who have been angry with each other for months take the first steps toward reconciliation. I have been moved nearly to tears in the times I have witnessed a child embrace her parent for the first time in weeks.

But best of all are the opportunities I have been blessed with to help married couples as they work to put the broken pieces together again.

When a husband and wife sit across the table from me after infidelity has occurred, the relational trust bank is always near empty. In order to take the next step toward reconciliation in moments like these, we must ask what needs to be done in order to begin rebuilding trust. What changes will lead to a gradual refilling of this relational account that has been so depleted.

The desire to change, to do things differently from this day forward, is non-negotiable in situations like these. In cases where one or both partners resist or even refuse to change…well, it should go without saying that reconciliation leading to healthy relationship is nearly impossible. But even in the most broken of situations, if the right ingredients are present, what is broken can be put together again.

Three Common Themes

I have noticed a few common themes that are present in nearly all the counseling relationships where reconciliation is the outcome. Yes, these are difficult situations, especially since they don’t always lead to positive outcomes, but there are few feelings so sweet in this life as the one that comes with watching a broken relationship as it moves toward reconciliation.

First is an acknowledgement that the relationship has been broken, and things cannot continue as they are and have been.

On a number of occasions, I have been witness to a situation in which one of the clients I’m working with doesn’t see anything wrong with the way things are, or won’t accept that their actions have led to the current relational friction. The other client may be clearly wounded by what has taken place, yet even this clear incongruence is not enough to cause the first party to reconsider. If brokenness and the individual contributions to that brokenness are not acknowledged, it is almost impossible to move forward in a constructive way.

The second common theme present in nearly all of these counseling relationships that have led to positive outcomes is humility.

In the excellent book Difficult Conversations, authors Bruce Patton, Douglas Stone, and Sheila Heen encourage readers to make the move from certainty to curiosity in order to see another’s perspective.[1] What these authors mean is that if you are certain you alone possess the facts about what happened, therefore your perspective alone is correct, you will likely be unmovable and unwilling to consider that someone else may have an equally valid set of “facts.”

What’s more is that this posture of certainty will lead you to make absolute statements arguing your view of a situation, which often leaves no room for discussion. If, however, you embrace curiosity, you will be moved to ask questions, which will allow you to hear another’s point of view. It is often when we do so that we discover our own shortcomings as they relate to our ability to see the facts clearly and our tendency to mischaracterize another’s intentions.

When you realize that you have wounded someone you care about, humility will almost always move you to ask the question, “What can I do?” What can I do to show you I’m sorry? Help me understand how my actions hurt you. And what can I do to make sure that I never wound you this way again? Only humility and genuine curiosity will move you to ask these kinds of questions. Certainty is often the enemy in situations like this.

The final common theme I have observed is that the offending party is willing, and even desirous, of making the changes necessary in order to improve the relational dynamic.

In reality, it is good when both parties tend to be owners of the problem to some degree. When we recognize the brokenness and are humble enough to search out how we have contributed to the issue, the next logical step toward reconciliation is identifying what changes will need to occur to create forward movement. And let’s be clear: there is a big difference between simply choosing to move on and doing the hard work required to truly move forward.

Acknowledge brokenness. Embrace humility. Change to move forward. May God bless you as you join his reconciling work in the world around you!


[1] Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen, Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most (New York, N.Y: Penguin Books, 2000). 

Acknowledge brokenness. Embrace humility. Change to move forward.

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