Different Degrees Of Reconciliation- Go With Your Comfort Level



By Sister Renee Pittelli


            After you have forgiven an offender, at some point you will have to decide whether or not to reconcile your relationship.  The offender will expect everything to go back to normal after you tell him you’ve forgiven him, but you may not yet be comfortable with that.  Indeed, you may never be comfortable with that, especially after a major betrayal, a long history of abusive behavior, or a lengthy estrangement.

            We have all heard the old saying “A leopard never changes his spots”, but how many of us are aware that this is scripture from the Bible? In Jeremiah 13:23, we are told that wicked people aren’t going to change.  Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard its spots?  Neither can you do good who are accustomed to doing evil….Jeremiah 13:23.

            In Luke 17:3, Jesus tells us to forgive if the person who sinned against us repents.

He does not tell us to forgive unconditionally.  The offender must earn our forgiveness by repenting.  Repentance is not a mere apology.  It is turning from one’s hurtful ways and changing one’s behavior.  Only if an offender has truly changed her ways are we required by the Lord to forgive, as he forgives us- which he does only when we repent, not when we remain stiff-necked and stubborn and  continue in our sinful ways. 

            It is important to note that, even if the offender does repent and we do forgive, there is no scriptural requirement for us to reconcile.  We can forgive in our hearts and still choose not to expose ourselves to the abusive individual any longer.

             There is a gray area between the two extremes of never changing, and completely changing.   There are abusers who never change in their hearts and whose character will always leave a lot to be desired, but who do manage to change their behavior and the way they relate to others, especially those who will enforce consequences for inappropriate words or actions.  For purely selfish reasons- because it benefits them- such people will make an effort to behave and speak appropriately, although they may do so grudgingly. In such a situation, you need to decide if you can be satisfied in a relationship with someone who may never be kind, honorable, trustworthy, loyal, or truly love you and want the best for you, but who has at least made an effort to modify his offensive behavior.

            If you should decide to attempt to reconcile with someone who has a long history of abusive behavior, or who has seriously betrayed you, it is quite natural that you will feel anxious that she will hurt you again.  Your fear of being hurt again is valid and should be respected.  Additionally, if other innocent parties are involved, such as your husband or your children, you may feel a responsibility to protect them from further exposure to the abuser.  There is no reason to trust an abusive, selfish, manipulative, dishonest, or disloyal person again, until she has proven herself and earned your trust.  Depending upon the circumstances and your feelings, this could take a long time- or may never happen.  Many abusers will not want to expend the effort, and will try to guilt you into returning to the way things were in your old relationship before you are ready.   They may try to convince you that they’ve changed, without being willing to prove it over time.

            Perhaps you genuinely love or miss the offender and would like to have a relationship, but you are afraid and don’t feel she can be trusted not to repeat what she did before.  If she has taken responsibility for her actions, acknowledged that what she did was wrong, genuinely apologized, and made an effort to make it up to you, that is certainly a good start.  Only time, perhaps a very long time, will tell if her change of heart is permanent.

            There is no time limit on the period necessary for you to feel comfortable in trusting a former abuser- feel free to insist upon as much time as you need. Those who try to pressure or rush you have their own agendas.   During this time, however, if reconciliation is your eventual goal, you will need to have some contact in order to observe for yourself if and how the offender has changed her ways.  If she apologizes, and you agree to think it over but decline any contact while doing so, you won’t have the opportunity to learn if she has truly changed or not.

            It is important to give yourself permission to establish whatever level of contact you are comfortable with, and set that as a ground rule for reconciling the relationship, at least in the beginning.  If a long-lost relative finally apologizes after years of estrangement, you probably will not feel comfortable spending the holidays together a couple of months later.  Your relative may expect, and hope for, that, but that may be just a little too much for you to handle having just recently been back in touch.  Yet another consideration is that, until you feel confident in knowing whether the reconciliation is going to last, you may not want your children to become attached, or re-attached, to a person who may not be around on a permanent basis.

            I have seen relationships that have reconciled very happily after long rifts, only to break up again a few years later, usually over something minor.  I think we are deluding ourselves when we think that a relationship which has suffered a major blow can ever go back to the way it was.  Betrayals, broken trusts, and long estrangements change a relationship forever- it will never be the same again. Reconciliation, should it occur, will be unstable and fragile, at least initially.  It is hard to overcome serious betrayals or years of not talking.  There may be imagined slights or insults, and any hint that the offensive behavior is still present will be (and probably should be) seen as a red flag that the offender hasn’t really changed.  In many cases, once relatives learn from a long rift that they can, indeed, survive just fine without each other, they are not as likely to tolerate abuse as they were in the past.  When old habits and patterns resurface, they are much quicker to walk away the second time, rather than continue to suffer through to the inevitable conclusion anyway.

            If we imagine restoring a relationship as a progression or continuum, with “choosing no further contact” at one extreme, and “spending holidays and important occasions together” at the other extreme, we realize that  there are  many levels, or degrees, of reconciliation  in between. We need to be able to say, “This is what I’m comfortable with at this point, and no more, at least for now.”  For instance, what type of relationship would you prefer at this time?:

  1.   Forgiveness, but no further contact
  2.   Exchanging pleasantries and being civil at funerals or weddings
  3.   Exchanging Christmas cards
  4. An occasional letter or e-mail
  5.   An occasional phone call
  6. Keeping conversations on a superficial level and not discussing or revealing anything personal
  7.  More frequent letters, e-mails, or phone calls
  8.  Meeting for coffee or lunch
  9.   Meeting for coffee or lunch regularly
  10. Sharing more intimate information about your life, your hopes, dreams, etc.
  11. Sharing a dinner out together
  12. Visiting your relative
  13. Having your relative visit your home
  14. Allowing your relative to relate to your children or husband
  15. Having your relative to dinner in your home
  16. Sharing your birthday with your relative
  17. Regarding your relative’s birthday:

            Doing nothing

            Sending a card

            A phone call

            Buying a gift

            Singing Happy Birthday and helping blow out the candles

  1. Sharing other family events or milestones with your relative
  2.  Sharing a holiday dinner
  3.  Spending the holidays together
  4.  Socializing with each other.
  5. Getting the spouses, children, and families together on a regular basis.


            All of these possibilities represent different levels of intimacy that take time to develop in any relationship, from a new acquaintanceship growing into a friendship, to the re-establishment of an old relationship that had broken up.  Depending upon your trust level, and what is done to earn your trust, a beneficial relationship would naturally progress to where you would feel less and less guarded and ready to reveal more and more of yourself.  As time passes, if the other person proves herself worthy, you will feel increasingly comfortable in her presence, and more ready to move on to the next level of sharing and intimacy.

            For example, you may have a co-worker with whom you enjoy eating lunch  but don’t necessarily feel close enough  to invite to dinner in your home.  Opening up one’s home to someone usually indicates that the relationship has reached a certain level of trust, comfort and familiarity.  You wouldn’t invite a casual acquaintance to an important family event, such as a child’s graduation or wedding.  To be included in one’s family milestones, holidays, etc., is a privilege usually reserved for close family and friends.  Such privileges are earned by caring, love, sharing, and friendship. We invite loved ones to such occasions to honor them and to show them how important they are to us, and how valued their presence is to our family. 

            As pleasant as your conversations are with, let’s say, your mailman, chances are you’re not going to invite him to join your close family circle on such a personal occasion.  The parents of one of your child’s classmates might be out of place at such a gathering.  Even though you get along fine while serving on the same school committee, that doesn’t necessarily mean they belong within your circle of close family and friends.  Maybe you simply haven’t reached that level of intimacy yet- or maybe you’ll never be more than just casual friends.

            In the same way, an estranged relative cannot expect to go from estrangement to sharing dinner at your house in the blink of an eye, with no steps in between.  After a serious betrayal by, or a long estrangement from a relative, you don’t have to be the same daughter, granddaughter, sister, or cousin that you were before.  The abuse, disloyalty, or break-up has probably affected you and changed you in a profound way, and in many ways, you are a different person than your abuser once knew.  Within this particular relationship, it’s better for you not to take a step backwards and return to the way things once were, but to use your experience as an opportunity to grow in the way you relate to your former offender.    All bets are off, so to speak, and if there is to be a fresh start, you need to approach it in a different manner. 

             A reconciliation is like a negotiation.  We need to make our terms and expectations clear.  When someone has abused us or hurt us, we have every right to dictate the terms of any relationship we are willing to have with them from then on.   We are well within our rights to take control of a reconciliation, rather than leaving control in the hands of one who has a history of abusing it. 

            We need to have the self-esteem and confidence to say, “I’m willing to do _____ but I’m not willing to do____”, “I’m not ready for ______”, “I’m not comfortable with______ yet, or “Let’s just stick with _____for now and see how it goes”.  If at some time in the future, we begin to feel our trust building and see sincere change, we can always deepen the level of the relationship and move on to the next step.  And if we realize that we are never going to be interested in a more intimate relationship with this person, we have the freedom and right to make that choice as well.

            Caution, or perhaps even cautious optimism, is the watchword.  If an offender refuses to respect our comfort level and pressures us, or continues pushing for more and more, it is a red flag that this person is going to continue to manipulate, control, make selfish demands, and disrespect our boundaries in the future, just as he probably has in the past.

            Unfortunately, there will always be particular people with whom we will never feel comfortable sharing a deep relationship.  “Once burned, twice shy” is often true, and often the only way we can protect ourselves and our loved ones from some people is to maintain a level of vigilance and wariness throughout our dealings with them.  This can be exhausting and stressful, and only we can decide if it is worth it to have a relationship under those conditions.  Being in the presence of someone we don’t trust and can never really relax and enjoy ourselves around is a high price to pay just to have any kind of a relationship, no matter how superficial.

              Sister, prayerfully consider what level you are comfortable with at this point in your reconciliation.  Do not allow yourself to be pressured by the desires of others, (especially the offender or his enablers), whose interests lie in returning everything quickly to the way it was before with as little effort as possible on their part.  Reconciling a broken relationship is not a race.  There is no reason to hurry. Take all the time you need to observe, consider, and ask our Father for guidance.  At each crossroad, pray and carefully consider taking the next step.

            Reconciliation is a work in progress.  It is perfectly acceptable to proceed with caution, and it is your responsibility not to expose yourself or your loved ones to more abuse because of a premature reconciliation.  If you are to have any relationship at all with an abuser, now is the time to redefine that relationship on your own terms.  It is up to the person you have been generous enough to forgive to show his gratitude by respecting your boundaries.