I’m writing a play about family estrangement. About reconciliation.
Granted, it’s not the happiest of topics—if something has happened that even requires some form of reconciliation, then it goes without saying that the inciting incident at the heart of the issue wasn’t trivial.
Trivial things can be fixed over a quick pint. Anything needing reconciliation definitely isn’t trivial, and is unlikely to solved by a swift visit to the pub.
Incidents needing reconciliation are big. They’re messy. They’re painful. In short, people got hurt. Badly.
So badly that at least one of the people involved has decided to remove the person they believe is responsible for that hurt from their life.
That’s a huge decision, especially if the person being ejected is a close friend, or a family member. And the aftershocks of that decision will be felt by a range of people, often not even directly involved in the affair that caused the problem in the first place, for a number of years.
Sometimes for generations, family estrangement can fundamentally alter the structure and dynamics of that unit for decades. Possibly, forever.
The damage caused both by the initial incident that caused the rift, and the subsequent “divorce,“ can never be truly undone. Although we can try and empathize with each other, and attempt to see the situation from the other’s point of view, the memory of the pain caused lingers on. It might dissipate, but it leaves a scar.
And, not wishing to have another injury inflicted, self-preservation may encourage us to walk away from that person for good.
However, thanks to our own differing psychologies, that scar might appear deeper than it is. (It can also make it appear less deep, but that rarely happens.)
Our emotional memories are not flawless—our “feelings” are immeasurably influenced by what was going on in our lives at that moment, and the (sometimes toxic) cocktail of genetics and upbringing: sometimes, those can influence our response to, and memories of, a situation drastically. Often, we’re not responding to what is actually happening in front of us, but reinterpreting it through the skewed prism of our own personal psychologies.
For example: How many times have you, when considering someone else’s words in the midst of a disagreement, had to say, “But I didn’t actually say that?” Or, “That didn’t actually happen?” We all do this—”see” things that just aren’t there, or, worse, jump to conclusions about what someone else is saying or doing due to our own personal, emotional programming.
And that emotional programming can take a situation that was already incredibly painful, and amplify the hurt even more.
However, all that being said, at the same time, whatever either party felt during the fallout is still perfectly valid: Although their unique personality may have amplified the entire situation, if someone’s hurt you, they’ve hurt you. And that pain should never be forgotten.
So, given all of that, how can reconciliation ever occur?
It’s something that fascinates me. Not simply because of the play I’m currently writing, word by painful word, but because reconciliation is an issue of deep, personal relevance to me. But, of course it is: I wouldn’t be writing a play about it if it wasn’t.
As a result, I’ve done a massive amount of research on the topic. And, that research has not only helped me in building my play, it’s also helped me understand just what reconciliation is.
More importantly, it’s shown me how to attempt one.
Because, through the copious reading I’ve done, I’ve come to realize that the question at the heart of my script, and the one at the heart of me, isn’t whether you should attempt a reconciliation, but it’s how you could manage to effectively navigate one. I’m not doubting, or really exploring, the motives behind the reconciliation; I want to know how it can be achieved.
That’s not to say the motive behind the reconciliation isn’t important—it is. Hugely. And intentions matter as much on the stage, as they do in real life. However, those intentions are also fairly black and white: You either do want to reconcile or you don’t.
And, as much as someone else might want to try and persuade you one way or another, ultimately, that choice is solely yours. You arrive at it yourself, in your own way.
Your conclusion could simply be: “You said something that hurt me too much. It was unfair, judgmental, showed an utter lack of compassion, and was simply not true. I can’t take the chance of you doing so again. For those reasons, we’re done.”
It’s utterly fine to put yourself, and your own mental well-being, first. If someone presents a risk to your emotional health, it’s okay to remove them from your life, regardless of the distress it might cause you in the short-term, or how deep your bond was. And, if that’s the case, then reconciliation isn’t an issue—it’s simply not happening.
And, if both of my main characters in my play felt that way, then…well, I’ve got no play:
“I’m certain I don’t want to reconcile: You hurt me too much.”
“I feel the same way.”
It’s hardly going to have an audience moved to tears. Boredom, maybe, but little else.
Instead, the starting point for my main characters is that they do want a reconciliation. “Something” happened a long time ago, and they’ve become estranged from someone else, a family member, because of it. Now they want to make up with that person.
Inevitably, their reasons for desiring this are touched upon. Not wishing to give too much away, but their reasons are, firstly, based on injustice (they felt the other person unfairly, and harshly, judged them, and—even after all this time—they still have the urge to be “heard”)—and nothing burns longer, or harder, than injustice.
But, there’s also a genuine desire to simply have that person back in their life because they miss them.
They’ve considered the potential risk this person presents to their emotional well-being but have decided, on balance, the risk is worth taking: They don’t want to lose them forever.
As a result, they’re pretty committed to the process of reconciling, which also means they’re willing to accept their part in the dissolution of that relationship.
And that’s a key point: If a relationship has denigrated so much that two people aren’t even speaking on terms, you can bet that all of the parties concerned have played their part.
Yes—one side is probably more to blame than the other. But, is anyone ever entirely blameless in that, or indeed any, situation? If you’ve got anyone in your life who believes that they are purer than the driven snow, then run. Just run. That bullying, toxic arrogance is only—only—ever going to cause you pain: You’ll forever be in the wrong, even when you’re in the right. Walk away, and never look back.
As all drama needs conflict, my second character doesn’t want a reconciliation. Obviously, his stance is not “set in stone;” if it was then, again, I’ve got no play. He’s resistant, but there’s potential to be won over.
However, it’s not simply about him being persuaded; he’s also got to contribute to the reconciliation process itself. Which means accepting the very thing that lies at the heart of successfully repairing a broken relationship:
Inevitably, the play explores forgiveness. How can it not? It’s a huge topic, especially in modern-day psychology.
Contemporary thinking is that forgiveness lies at the center of self-healing. When you forgive someone for the pain they’ve caused you, you’re not doing it for them, you’re doing it for you—you’re severing one of the bonds that keeps you tethered to that person, and freeing yourself from a potential source of pain.
Forgiveness is liberating. It’s you saying, “Yes, you hurt me. But I’m done now—I’m releasing that source of hurt.”
It doesn’t matter whether the other person accepts your forgiveness. To be honest, they don’t even need to know if you have forgiven them. You do it for you. To heal.
However, when it comes to reconciliation, the landscape alters.
Forgiveness is one corner of what’s called a “relational triangle.” The other two are apology, and reconciliation itself. For reconciliation to happen, you have to forgive the other person; that’s a given. And, they have to forgive you (remember—it takes two to tango, and you’ve both probably danced your own respective ways into this mess). However, you also have to both say, “sorry.”
But, that apology can’t be empty.
You can’t just each say, “I’m sorry I hurt you.” There’s no specifics—it’s not rooted in the truth. More pertinently, the other person’s truth.
By not saying how they hurt you, they’re not only taking no responsibility for the effect their words and actions had on you, they’re also denying the specific pain those words and actions caused. They’re invalidating your distress: To genuinely reconcile, you have to both acknowledge, not only that you actually did something that hurt the other, but what it was.
It’s simple, but something as straightforward as, “I’m sorry for saying you hurt me deliberately; I accept you did it unintentionally,” is profoundly powerful.
Then you’ve got to reciprocate—there’s two of you in this emotional hurricane, remember.
If all you want to do is hurl blame at each other, and are only interested in getting the other to acknowledge their failings, then your relationship is already dead.
Forgiveness, a specific apology, and reconciliation—that’s how you repair a broken relationship. Specifically acknowledging each other’s pain, and the part you played in the creation of that hurt do that, and you’re practically on the home straight.
Do my characters end up reconciling? Do they both embrace the painful journey, and rebuild their fractured relationship?
To be honest, I’m not sure: I’ll let you know as soon as I’ve finished the damn thing.
But, although my characters’ fate may not be certain, my mind is now, thankfully, clear on the importance of reconciliation. Hopefully, one day soon, I’ll be able to put into practice what I’ve discovered.