When to Say When: Ending Relationships, Forgiveness and Reconciliation

Ending a Relationship

A while ago I ended a friendship. We had our differences from the beginning, but over the course of a few years a number of things evolved into issues that couldn't be ignored. 

Wait, scratch that. 

The easier thing to say is that problems 'arose', and then couldn't be resolved but that lets me off the hook a bit. The same issues that ultimately ended our relationship were there in the beginning. I became less willing to expend my energy on them as time went on.

While many were not surprised when the relationship ended, a few people have said 'oh, that's sad'. Which intrigues me. Why do we assume it's sad to end a relationship? Don't some relationships have to end? Isn't is possible that some relationships are more harmful than healthy?

In fairness, I've had my fair share of people in relationships causing me harm- not just hurt feelings mind you- maliciously, real harm. I don't tell you this because I want, or need sympathy. Some people have failed me, hurt me, or harmed me. It is not rare or exceptional. Some of those people are still in my life in some way that mitigates potential harm, some of them had to go completely and I will not allow them to return. 

But all of those experiences trained me. They taught me how to guard my good and get better and faster at cutting BS out of my life.
When I was going through one of the more challenging periods of my life- during one of two court cases to resolve custody of my son- my father told me 'you can't afford to fall apart'. During the case I was pushed to my limits: sending my son into an environment I couldn't predict, trying to communicate with someone who had historically been abusive, having malicious attacks months on end. It's not like I wanted to fall apart, but it was hard sometimes to hold it all together. I struggled with how unfair the situation was to my son and what to do. I can handle confrontation but I don't prefer it, and I was constantly in fight or flight mode. Being hated by anyone was... an adjustment. 

And it was also a tremendous gift.

I learned in order to be what some people want from me, I have to be and do things that are unacceptable; and being someone you're not to maintain a relationship can be a form of imprisonment. 

When my father told me I couldn't afford to fall apart he didn't mean I couldn't have moments when I didn't know what to do, but that ultimately I would be the protector of all the good in my life. No one else can be expected to do this job for me- even if I fall apart. My emotional well being, my children, my family, my career, my relationships, all the things I have created and done and am need to be kept safe. By me. Sometimes that means making choices about what I accept, knowing- as I well do- the cost of not protecting the good.


Most of us have been brought up with some sort of belief system that teaches us everyone deserves forgiveness (whether or not they've asked for it); that we should forgive even those we don't think deserve forgiveness in order to give ourselves peace; that those who show no mercy will be shown none in the end, but forgiveness and reconciliation are a little more complex than that. And boiling down complexity into quotable phrases, as inspirational as that is on Instagram isn't all that helpful in making good and just decisions. So what does reconciliation mean and look like? How is it different from forgiveness? 

Growing up a non-Catholic in Catholic school, I struggled with the idea that forgiveness meant constantly turning people your other cheek so they could smite you some more. That felt too literal and if you think about it in the context of, say, domestic violence, torture, human trafficking, slavery or any other social injustice, there are some pretty obvious problems to such a literal, isolated interpretation.

Letting go of hatred or resentment for those who have done us wrong is undoubtedly the healthy thing to do; but condoning unacceptable behaviour or subjecting anyone- continually, indefinitely- to bad behaviour hardly seems like a reasonable way to define forgiveness.

Historical, religious texts in the greater context of our lives today may not hold everything we need to know about what forgiveness and reconciliation looks like to us now. And I think there's also an argument to be made that there's a difference between forgiving someone in our own hearts- so we don't carry the corrosive albatross of acrimony round our necks- and offering forgiveness to someone who has not asked for and does not want it. One is a healing act carried out alone, nurturing ourselves with the fruit of forgiveness; the latter involves offering that fruit to someone who may just say 'screw you'. 


For ... reconciliation [to be] achieved, there must be mutual respect and agreement on what is acceptable behaviour and what is not - Omar Cherif, from To Forgive Is Not To Reconcile

Reconciliation is more than forgiveness and requires some accountability on both ends. Speaking from personal experience, that doesn't always exist.   

I try to accept people not for just the good, nice, palatable stuff, but for all the quirks, differences and challenging personality traits that make them... them. But there's a line in there somewhere between that and unacceptable behaviour. And that line is probably different for me than it is for you.
I hate gossip, particularly gossip used to manipulate what people think or feel about others (which gossip almost always does). I don't want to be in relationships with people who cut others down when their back is turned, but pretend at friends to their faces. Duplicity in friendship is not acceptable to me. It's a deal breaker. 

Maybe that's not a deal breaker for you, but something else is-  jealousy, threats, lies, immaturity, superficiality, drama.

If you're unwilling to be accountable for your behaviours and how they impact others, reconciliation is probably unrealistic. 

When is enough enough?

Sometimes we tolerate behaviours if the good outweighs the bad. For me, one of the ways I mark when 'enough is enough' is when it becomes obvious the negative is outweighing the positive and no amount of my effort will help it balance out again. If there isn't accountability on both sides, it's a black hole that will suck in as much as I allow it.

Break ups in the era of social media

And then there's social media. There's nothing in the book of Matthew or Luke to help us with that.

When I ended my friendship, I made a complete break and conscious choice not to say anything about it on social media. But I could have. I could have shouted from the digital mountaintops, tried to make sure everyone who would listen heard my story first, controlled the conversation. I could have tried to elicit support, or trash talk or make accusations. Like plenty of people do, I could have tried to make myself look so good, so happy and so successful (#lovinglife!) it would be clear just how great I was doing out of that relationship.

But it's not my job to tell people what to think. I trust the people I choose to keep in my life, the people whose opinions matter to me, are intelligent enough to think for themselves. Maybe it's just a natural extension of my distaste for drama and cattiness, but winning a social media breakup doesn't make my priority list. 

We're instinctively wary of people pretending to be something they're not, as a matter of survival. No One Wins the Breakup on Social Media

But it is important to some people. Even if you have no desire to bring your relationship status onto social media, the person on the other end of your relationship might have a different agenda, or just be a whole lot pettier.

I don't have all the answers, I can only offer what I have learned in the hopes it helps with decisions you may have to make in forgiveness and reconciliation, knowing too that sometimes we attach guilt to the inability to forgive or reconcile. It isn't a failing. Perhaps not everything is forgivable, or reconcilable. Not everyone can or should be in your life. Whether they are (and how they are) are decisions and boundaries you get to make knowing you are the guardian of your good. 

Have you ever had to make that call and say enough is enough?