On Reconciling Differences and Bridging Relationship Gaps
Counselling is often sought when there seem to be differences between people in a relationship that seem irreconcilable. Perhaps there is too much conflict and not enough mutual understanding. Perhaps there are inconsiderate, insensitive or hurtful behaviours. Regardless there is usually a distinct lack of positive communication, often too much negative communication, and many hurt feelings.
A fitting song begins “You’ve got to change . . . your evil ways . . . Baby . . . before I start loving you.” Similarly, people often come in to the Counsellor’s office with some conviction that the other person needs to be fixed, see the light, make amends (change their ways), and to apologize. Alternately, there may be the expectation that the other person should and will do these things first.
Who can come together again to successfully close the gap? Simply put, those who believe there is a benefit to doing so; Those who see that being together or forging a new relationship outweighs the perceived costs involved in managing the risks of changing or of keeping things the same, ie that all considered, reconciliation via relationship change is the prefered option. This may require each person to do a cost-benefit analysis. Each party must believe that it is better to have a healthy relationship and to manage conflicts within it, than to risk either ending the relationship or in going on with things as they are.
Furthermore, it is necessary to believe that change and reconciliation is possible. This requires some faith in the capacity of those involved to act better in relationship and a mutual desire and commitment to change.
Rather than fixing past wrongdoings, bridging the gap in Counselling is more often about taking a future looking viewpoint. To be successful, it is necessary to be able to recognize that the past is the past and can not be changed. Some hurts can never be erased nor fully repaired. This means that it is rarely possible, nor is it a necessary precondition, to have trust before moving forward in the relationship in Counselling. Instead of the focus being so much on who is right versus who is wrong, it can be moved towards how to close the gap and get closer, with as little risk to everyone involved as is possible.
So how is risk managed during reconciliation talks? First of all, ground rules must be set and agreed upon, which honour each party’s needs. These safety needs will vary from person to person. However, most often there is the acknowledgement that there is no room for blaming or condemnation in moving forward. Indeed, any negatives in the relationship need to be reduced and the positives elevated as much as possible.
Indeed it is crucial to understand that initially, it is likely to be very challenging to be together, even in the Counsellor’s office. Each participant may be super-sensitive and will be searching the other for danger signals; seeking to find evidence that the other person has either no desire to change, has not changed, or can never be trustworthy. Here, persons involved need to be able to distinguish between what they imagine or anticipate the risk may be versus what the risk truly is. How is that possible to see? It is necessary to be able to gauge risk through grounded and nonfearful eyes in the present tense. Preconceived expectations of risk may cause us trouble, and blind us to the possibility of seeing the positive intentions of each other. This is where communication skills, such as empathic, active listening and conflict resolution, need to be taught and reinforced by the Counselling professional involved.
Through consistently practicing mutual respect, being as risk-tolerant and as grounded as possible, having improved listening and conflict resolution skills, and by keeping true to the agreed upon ground rules, gaps can be bridged, and with time and effort, trust may be built.