I could tell that there was something else holding her back, and I wanted to help her name it. She’d been struggling with whether to go to couple’s therapy with her long-time partner after the betrayal. He’d asked her – pleaded with her, in fact – to consider going to unpack the pain of the last few months.
After weeks of agonizing over whether to talk to a therapist together for the first time, she still felt uncertain. She’d acknowledged that she still very much loved him and couldn’t and didn’t want to envision her life without him. After processing the initial shockwaves, she’d begun to identify strands of this tangled web and recognize that while he had been the one to pull the trigger, so many factors had loaded the gun. She was interested to know more about how they had gotten to this foreign place, where they’d gotten so lost.
And still, she wasn’t sure. She put her hands over her face when she finally blurted out to me, “I don’t want to look weak!” I asked her to go on and she explained that close friends and her family knew the pain she’d been in recently, and she wasn’t sure she could face them if she gave him a second chance.
Second chances seem harder to come by these days, and it’s hard to say if that’s a positive or negative development. On the one hand, women in particular are finding their strongest voices and more often feeling empowered to say enough is enough when faced with betrayal and hurt. Now that we are more often lead earners in households and can actually apply for our own credit cards and all – something our grandmothers, however miserably married or caught in an abusive marriage couldn’t do – women can finally find their exit strategy.
On the other, I find myself so often these days cringing at the purported empowerment memes on social media constantly telling us to kick that asshole to the curb at the first transgression. In what’s so often framed as a feminist power move, we’re encouraged to cut ties with nearly anyone who doesn’t live up to our standards, whether we’ve communicated those standards or not.
Please, please don’t get me wrong: there are plenty, plenty of times at which leaving a repeatedly harmful friendship, family relationship, or romantic relationship is the most compassionate thing we can do for ourselves. It can in fact be a power move, one that reinforces to ourselves that we deserve to be treated with dignity, value, and love.
But in our efforts to encourage each other to identify and set our own boundaries, it seems to me that we have created a culture in which we’re slowly losing the ability to navigate the complexity of relationships. We aren’t recognizing when the art of repair is valuable and how we can engage in its messy but beautiful work. We’re prioritizing independence over interdependence, which I believe is much more our natural state. And we’re failing to acknowledge and honor the humanness in each other.
As the theory goes, sometime in the late 15th century, a Japanese military official sent a tea bowl back to China for repairs after it had been damaged. It came back to him, but instead of seeing a like-new bowl, he saw one with the broken pieces adjoined by metal staples that reminded him of a locust. He found he rather liked the piece, and over time the bowl increased even more in value because of the staples. Word got around about the beautiful bowl, and artisans began turning their attention to creating beautiful repaired pieces.
Over time, the Japanese art of Kintsugi was born. Practitioners of the art would mend broken pottery by covering the cracks or adjoining pieces with lacquer mixed with powdered gold. In the restored pottery, not only is no one attempting to mask the damage, but the repair is actually highlighted, a testament to the brokenness in us all. It illuminates just how unique, vulnerable, and resilient each of us can be.
I’ve sometimes wondered how those practicing Kintsgui know whether a bowl or a vase is worth repairing. Can they still make beauty out of something smashed into a hundred tiny pieces? What about a thousand? And what if the person who had been entrusted to hold that bowl so very carefully is the one who shattered it?
There are no easy answers – no set formula, for sure – when it comes to whether to offer someone a second chance. There are each and every time unique sets of circumstances, individual and collective histories, and varying values and desires. Chat GPT is probably working on an algorithm for it, but until then, we have only our hearts, minds, and guts to consult.
I want to offer some reflections to that end – questions that you might consider as you discern whether to try again. Like anything, this isn’t an exhaustive list of considerations. And it might be helpful to reflect first independently and then talk to someone you trust – a grounding friend or a therapist, for example.
- Is the person who caused harm expressing regret and remorse? Can they articulate what they did in the situation and how it hurt you?
- Are they taking steps – independently or with you – to better understand what led to the behavior that caused harm?
- Since the hurt, have they demonstrated concern for your well-being and a genuine desire to repair?
- Is this behavior part of a longer-standing pattern of similar behavior?
- How does your history with this person impact your desire or willingness to offer another chance?
- What are ways you may have enabled the harm that was caused or been part of the dynamic, perhaps by ignoring your intuition?
- If you give the person a second chance, what work are you open to doing to examine your role in the harm (even as victim)?
- You may not be ready to forgive, but are you open to considering forgiveness as an option in the future?
- What would repair from this experience look like to you? Can you envision a future in which it makes your relationship stronger?
I hope it goes without saying, but we never owe anyone a second chance. It is a gift we give from the heart when someone demonstrates that they can be worthy of it. It acknowledges our fallibility as humans and the fact that we are always more than the sum of our misdeeds.
When the person is worthy and relationship worth salvaging, I hope that we as a culture find our way to the art of repair. There is nothing weak about engaging in the messy work of forgiveness.
And like the art of Kintsugi demonstrates, with tender care we may just be able to fill in the wounded places with gold.