Monday, September 23, 2013

Learner therapist (38)…… pathways to reconciliation

Torrey Orton
Sept. 23, 2013

“You always say / do X when I say / do Y….”

I always offer the following six propositions to first time couples therapy patients. It is a perspective they can use to interpret and shape their relationship from this point forward. And it is the one I use.

  1. The responsibility for the current state and future of the couple is joint
  2. This responsibility has varying levels with different issues because individuals value issues differently
  3. We can never fully meet all the needs of another person, hence our need for friends while coupled
  4. We can never fully know our own needs at any time because:
    1. they are partly hidden in our unconscious, and
    2. they emerge as we transit our life stages, or
    3. they are subordinated to the needs of others.
  5. Consequently, conflict is a necessary part of relationships (not just marriages)
  6. This conflict usually takes a repeated form – the systemic communication dysfunction – which can be seen early in couples work, and which the couple immediately recognise as ‘what we always do…’ (see point 1 above)

The systemic communication dysfunction, however, is the hurdle too high for some couples. It brings them to me – this barrier which looms up between them with reliable consistency about a well-known set of issues. These are also facts, but mainly emotional ones about the status of the relationship. Helping them to be shared is my first task. I’ve written elsewhere (  ) about the techniques for doing this – exploring needs and wants, building a shared agenda for joint exploration and creating resolutions to the agenda.

Usually there are emblematic hurdles which have years of unresolved injuries* attached to them. Often these hurts are so big that some form of reconciliation is called for, though usually it is me who labels them as such. Even the mention of reconciliation expresses a level of optimism for the relationship which the traumatised couple may not easily rouse early on in the work…

…such issues attack the central confidence of the relationship – usually matters of fidelity, though not always sexual. They corrupt trust and embed suspicion while accruing a nest of reinforcing experiences between the couple, eventually becoming self-reinforcing to the point of crippling their basic relationship assumptions. The common verbal form or corrupted trust is the accusation: “You always say / do X when I say / do Y….”

Reconciliation for a change

The offer of a reconciliation process - which assumes that everything relevant can be (1) truthfully acknowledged, (2) apologised as appropriate, (3) recompensed if necessary and, finally, (4) prevented from recurring - is often heard by patients with mild to serious wonder, edging into disbelief. Here’s roughly what I say about it, set out as a presentation which ensures, when well executed, that a clear idea of a clear process is available to both parties. It can take numerous sessions to get to the detailed implementation, though it often has been pre-empted by their engaging with each other with that process in view before formally arriving at it. The power of applied suggestion.

An approach to marital reconciliation:

1 Acknowledgement
To build an agreed version of what happened, so that the ‘facts’ are mutually endorsed. This will be essential to achieve a credible apology and to establish appropriate recompense and relevant prevention strategies
The person responsible** writes out what the facts are, with guidance from the person harmed to assure they are all there. The final document is read by the writer out loud, repeatedly if necessary, until an acceptable tone of seriousness is achieved for the person harmed.
2 Apology
To ensure that the acknowledged facts are taken up as the responsibility of one of the other parties – credibly and authentically (the latter contributes largely to the perception of credibility)
The writer apologises for their role in the acknowledge facts, again repeated until an appropriately authentic tone is achieved for both parties.
3 Reparation
To restore a sense of balance in the relationship where damage is seen to be high by both parties. May be material or services in nature…
In civic life we have community orders as a form of giving back for breaking the law. In private the same concept can be applied. For instance,
4 Prevention
To ensure that “it never happens again”.
If the acknowledgment is full about the damaging behaviours, their triggers should be clearly in view. Consequently, pre-emptions can be designed jointly (!) to interrupt recurrence opportunities.


Any system like this actually reflects participants’ unreflected understanding of violations – their sense of justice.  So, they often have begun the reconciliation process implicitly. For example, at the start they may already have ideas about recompense and prevention…very likely in fact, because these two steps are the imagined results both are looking forward to. Failing to do the pre-work on acknowledgment and apology is what prevents progress on the last two. Fear of the last two inhibits progress on the first two. Similarly, getting good at the first two means falling into distress deep enough to call for recompense and prevention happens much less often and the cycle of re-injury is broken up front when precipitating events occur – as they will!

Note there’s a practice of reconciliation for criminal invasions of personal and property safety. It is called Restorative Justice and has formal state, national and international proponents. In these the guilty are encouraged to confront their victims and engage with the damage they have caused. The focus is on acknowledgment and apology, with occasional acts of reparation.  Restorative Justice is associated theoretically and practically with Truth and Reconciliation Commissions in various places – e.g. Canada , South Africa, Australia – with heritages of systemic and systematic colonial violations of indigenous families (among other violations of indigenous life!). All  from marital reconciliation to inter-ethnic truth and justice are means of engaging the past by working it through in the appropriate publics.

Forgiveness and forgetting. Matters for another time.

*unresolved injuries are deep historical relationship patterns which remain present to the view of oneself and others as how we normally behave under pressure. They are often not acknowledged either to ourselves or by others because they are the kind of behaviours which elicit automatic defences on both sides; empathy helps us conduct this tacit defence.


** Person Responsible and Person Harmed is the language used in Restorative Justice to identify participants in various kinds of proceedings. See Best Practice Standards for Restorative Justice Facilitators Copyright © Victorian Association for Restorative Justice, 2009


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