The only relationships in this world that have ever been worthwhile and enduring have been those in which one person could trust another. Samuel Smiles
When those we love or a system we trust deeply trespasses our values or breaches the history of trust that has been given, our hearts feel ripped open, violated, hurt, confused, vulnerable, angry, afraid, deeply sad, in crisis. One of the most difficult choices I had to make in a deeply connected relationship was to offer the hand of reconciliation after a deep betrayal left a gaping wound in my heart. Finding my way into the heart after such a betrayal or breach was a real challenge. There is no way around the task of feeling the hurt when trust is betrayed or broken. Trust is one of those core ingredients in a relationship which can take years to build and only a moment to destroy.
To understand what reconciliation calls from us in a broken relationship, we need to understand the power of trust. As Rob Voyle, a Change Agent and Episcopalian Priest puts it, “Trust is the ability to make vulnerable what you value, to the actions of another, knowing that what you value will be protected or kept safe.” Stephen M. R. Covey states “trust is confidence. You know it when you feel it. And the difference between trust and distrust is dramatic.”
A common and yet truly unhelpful understanding that clients come in with after such a breach of trust is that somehow they must forgive and forget. But they can’t. They feel shame and guilt because they can’t forgive and be reconciled with the person who abused them, or who violated their values. It is impossible to forget such a breach. The more we try to forget the trust betrayed, the more we hold it in our consciousness and entrain our memory with it.
The healing task is to feel through the hurt and to change how we remember what happened, how we remember this memory, as we cannot change what happened in the past. As we work through these tasks, we realize that the wholeness of healing comes with forgiving the one who broke the bonds of trust. The Dalai Lama has said that we need to forgive the person, not necessarily the event. Lots can be said about forgiveness, about what it is and is not. Though we are focusing on reconciliation, it is best sustained with the act of forgiving. In my work, I have encountered a couple of reasons why people cannot forgive – one is that they don’t know how to forgive. The second is that there is still a deep objection to forgiving what has not been justly satisfied.
Simply, forgiveness is about how we relate to the past and our memory of the past. Reconciliation is about how two or more people agree to live together, to relate together in the future. In the process of reconciliation we seek to overcome our hurt, anger, grief, the fractured relationship and enter into a peace process wherein we come together in unity with those involved. And in some cases, reconciliation may not be a chosen path for healing. Indeed, if core values are not shared, it would be unwise to reconcile with another where the repeated risk of broken trust would occur.
In my own journey with my friend, it has taken me considerable effort and willingness to walk the journey of reconciliation with my friend. By nature, I am a peace-maker. That being said, it has not been an easy path because deep trust of the heart, destroyed in a moment, is not easily repaired. The one who breaches the trust must make themselves trustworthy over and over again. This is often very, very difficult for the person who breached trust to accept and understand. Trust is earned in small steps of someone reliably valuing and safeguarding what another values and has made themselves vulnerable in sharing what they value.
On the other hand, the one who has been betrayed consciously chooses to trust the one who betrayed. They are willing to make themselves vulnerable again in the relationship. Needless to say, the steps are often small and take a long time. Trust builds through what we do which has far more power than what we say. Re-building trust is key to reconciliation in relationships and when there is agreement to restore some semblance of intimacy, this re-building must be intentionally and mindfully attended to by all. Trust is a journey of the heart, not the head. Being trustworthy is about the actions of our character, not an intellectual exercise.
One sobering statistic I learned in mediation training is that when a conflict takes place over 25 years, it can take 50 years for reconciliation. Perhaps in certain situations, the time can be shortened or softened. But I believe it’s important for us to remember the difference between forgiveness and reconciliation, because re-building trust once it is broken can be forgiven. It may not always be reconciled. I have a dear colleague who grew up in Germany. She once shared with me that upon returning to Germany to visit family and she saw the German flag being waved from cars. Germany was in the World Soccer Championship that year and there was pride in the nation. Growing up in Germany, she had never seen this kind of national pride. The shame of WWII took 50 years to dissipate before the national flag could be proudly displayed. Trust betrayed is not easily restored.
I know that reconciliation is possible and can and does offer my future a brightness not possible without this gift. I also appreciate the great effort of heart and soul it has taken on my part to be open to reconciliation, because it means being willing to trust the one who betrayed me and let them demonstrate they are trustworthy. It’s a journey. An incredible journey with gifts that still await me because reconciliation is about my future, not my past.
Choose forgiveness. It’s freeing. Be wise about reconciliation. Your trust is precious. Be precious with your trust. And you will build a delightful future, perhaps even with the one who had once betrayed you. And if you were the one who betrayed another, remember to also heal your hurts and commit to making yourself trustworthy again. It too will change your future.