What can I do to mend the damage I caused to my former partner?

Transformative justice and making amends doesn’t always mean staying close

Ask Kai: Advice for the Apocalypse” is a column by Kai Cheng Thom to help you survive and thrive in a challenging world. Have a question? Email [email protected].

Dear Kai,

I have a complicated relationship with a former partner of mine. When we were together, I was triggered on many occasions and projected my fears onto them based on my past traumas, freaking out at them and treating them terribly over long periods of time. For obvious reasons, we ended our relationship, but we’ve somewhat kept in contact and sometimes talk about those events. 

I now have a deeper understanding of how badly I hurt them, and I have been trying to work on my issues with defensiveness and emotional aggression. In the meantime, my former partner still cares about me and wants to find a way for us to have some kind of friendship; I feel the same way. 

But both of us are at a loss here: On the one hand, they rightly don’t trust me and find it painful to be around me. On the other hand, we both want to be able to have a friendship. What, if anything, can I do to mend the damage I did and become a safe and trustworthy presence again?

Hoping to Repair

Dear Hoping, 

What a beautiful and powerful request for advice. I feel compelled to tell you that it’s letters like yours that give me hope for the future of transformative justice, the practice of coming together to repair harm through change work. I find it deeply human—and deeply moving—that you and your former partner have been able to talk about what’s happened between you and express a desire to reconnect. 

Yet, as you say, there is still pain and mistrust on the part of your former partner. This is often the case in the wake of an interpersonal conflict—even after a resolution has been reached. Right now, it sounds like you are caught in the deep complexity of that tension. How challenging. How very human. 

If you’ve done any exploration of the writing, podcasting and other media in the transformative justice sphere, you may have heard the phrase “moving at the speed of trust.” Essentially, the speed of trust is a reminder that accountability and relationship repair work generally need to move slowly in order to be sustainable. 

 

“Accountability and relationship repair work generally need to move slowly in order to be sustainable.” 

Going slow can be extremely challenging, because when we are working through conflict and harm, many of us want very much to get to the “end” or the resolution, where things feel good or at least okay again. Yet, for better or worse, relationship repair is much more a case of the proverbial tortoise rather than the hare winning the race. For better or worse, discomfort is a key part of the relationship repair process—and when we rush past the discomfort, we miss an essential opportunity for personal growth.

The first thing I suggest, Hoping, is that you and your former partner consider giving yourselves permission not to solve your problem of “how to start a new friendship” right away—or even any time soon. Pressure on their part to essentially “forgive and forget” (or at least move on), and on your part to “make amends,” might increase the level of anxiety and stress you both feel, which in turn might actually prevent one or both of you from finding the inner clarity you need. 

Instead, what would it be like to simply express to one another, kindly and sincerely, that you miss each other and want to reconnect, but it’s not possible right at this moment? You do not need to be in an active friendship to feel compassion for one another. You do not need to speak or see each other regularly to wish one another well. There can be a deep honouring and mutual respect in parting ways for now, with an open invitation to re-engage at some point in the future when “safe enough” feels within reach. 

Time apart and support from trusted and trustworthy advisors, whether professional or informal, may also help you work out your respective wants, needs and goals when it comes to repair and reconnection. What is it that you’re hoping for, and what can you realistically expect? What will you do if it doesn’t work out? 

In the wake of committing harm, it can be very tempting to seek redemption and an end to our guilt and shame in the allure of relationship repair, restoring friendliness and regularity where there is fearfulness and discord. In re-establishing a connection, we show the harmed party, ourselves and the world that we are indeed safe and good individuals, capable of loving and worthy of being loved. 

Yet that temptation can betray us if it is not, in fact, the right time to restore closeness. Even when “amends” have been made to the fullest extent possible, the feelings of woundedness and fear in the harmed party may remain. It is always possible that despite the best intentions on everyone’s part, forgiveness will not come—not quickly, or maybe not ever. We are not owed forgiveness. In such cases, we must learn to forgive ourselves while still walking the road of accountability. We may not restore the bond of trust with the person we hurt, but we can learn to be kinder and more trustworthy in our other and future relationships.

On the flip side, in the wake of being harmed, it can be very tempting to rush towards re-establishing connection to demonstrate that we are forgiving people who are not defined by the wounds we have suffered. Many of us have strong values around forgiveness and believing in the goodness of others, and we may want to live these values by holding on to relationships that have hurt us. Others may rush to forgive because we don’t want to linger in the pain and vulnerability of having been harmed. 

But these desires to forgive and move on can set us up for failure if our embodied feelings of fear, anger and betrayal still linger within; those emotions can harden into resentment if not tended to. In such cases, it is important to honour all of our emotions and needs—and to know that it’s possible to work on forgiveness and compassion while also having boundaries. 

“It is often helpful to remember that love and distance can coexist.”

For both parties, it is often helpful to remember that love and distance can coexist. It’s very common to still love or like the people who have harmed us; it’s also very common to hurt the people we love or like without meaning to. And it’s very natural to miss and want to be around people that we don’t actually have the capacity to stay close to in the current moment. 

Sometimes, the most loving thing we can do for someone is to give them space from us, and/or to take space separate from them. When it feels mutually desirable and healthy, contact can gradually increase. Setting clear limits and boundaries—for example, starting with one conversation every month with a pre-established time and duration—can help create a sense of structure and safety to the restoration. Keeping other close friends and supportive professionals (like therapists or counselors) in the loop can also add to the feelings of safety and equilibrium. 

A quick note, however, on talking to other friends about this: Often when there has been serious conflict or harm in an intimate relationship, the people who care about the individuals in the relationship will have strong feelings and opinions about it. Sometimes they are helpful, and sometimes they escalate conflict or add to the confusion. This tends to happen when a friend is working through their own “stuff,” such as wounds of their own. Take care to be very clear about the kind of support you need from any friends you discuss this with. 

Relationship repair in the wake of serious harm is powerful and mysterious work, Hoping. It often takes pathways that we might not expect. If a friendship is what you and your former partner both truly want, then I wish you the best of luck in pursuing that worthy goal, while also reminding you to take all the time that bridge-building deserves. If either or both of you should discover that it’s not possible or desirable to continue on that path, remember that reconnection is not a requirement for transformative justice or moving forward with your respective life journeys. Healing comes in many shapes, and so does trustworthiness. Give yourself the time and space you need to let your trustworthiness grow. 

Kai Cheng Thom is no longer a registered or practicing mental health professional. The opinions expressed in this column are not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. All content in this column, including, but not limited to, all text, graphics, videos and images, is for general information purposes only. This column, its author, Xtra (including its parent and affiliated companies, as well as their directors, officers, employees, successors and assigns) and any guest authors are not responsible for the accuracy of the information contained in this column or the outcome of following any information provided directly or indirectly from it.

Kai Cheng Thom is a writer, performer, and social worker who divides her heart between Montreal and Toronto, unceded Indigenous territories. She is the author of the Lambda Award-nominated novel Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars: A Dangerous Trans Girl's Confabulous Memoir (Metonymy Press), as well as the poetry collection a place called No Homeland (Arsenal Pulp Press). Her latest book, Falling Back in Love with Being Human, a collection of letters and poetry, is out now from Penguin Random House Canada.

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