The Secret to Repairing a Relationship You’ve Damaged

We’ve all done it. We’ve damaged a relationship we cared about. We know we’re at fault, although we don’t like to admit it. How can we repair that relationship? Some would say it’s like feathers shaken out of a pillow on a mountaintop—you can never put them back in—it’s too late. I respectfully disagree. There is a way to put the feathers back in the pillow.

Relationships are like bank accounts. They have balances. When we damaged the relationship, we tipped the scale away from the other person. From their point-of-view, there’s a negative balance in the account. That’s why the relationship’s damaged. We need to make a deposit.

“Making it right” is not good enough. Maybe we broke or lost something that belonged to the other person. Just replacing the item is not enough, although that technically “makes it right” and undoes the thing we did. But really we just brought the negative balance back to zero. The other person went from a positive balance to zero—they still lost overall in the transaction. They’ve forgiven us at this point, but they still feel slighted in the transaction, which is why the relationship is damaged.

The secret is to make a deposit (or several deposits) great enough to get the other person above their previous positive balance. Once they feel the scales are tipped back in their favor, you’ve repaired the relationship.

Look at it from their point-of-view. Say my neighbor borrows my car, gets in a fender-bender, and has it repaired. He brings it back and says, “Hey, Dave, I got in an accident but I got it repaired. Here’s your car.” I thank him and forgive him, but am I going to let him borrow my car again? Nope. I feel slighted in the transaction. Now my car’s been in an accident. They never quite drive the same. My resale value is negatively affected, blah, blah, blah. While I’m thankful he at least fixed my car, the relationship is still damaged, because I feel like I’m still getting the short end of the stick.

But say he brings my car back and says this instead: “Hey, Dave, I got in an accident but I got it repaired. While it was in the shop, I took out your stock AM/FM radio and replaced it with a state-of-the-art, surround-sound, premium sound system, with a 6 CD disc changer. Here’s your car.” Now can he borrow my car again? Anytime he wants! And I hope he gets in an accident! Maybe I’ll get spinners next time. (Kudos to John Sandford, Elijah House Ministries, for this example.)

You see how this works? It’s called Restitution. It’s the secret to repairing damaged relationships. You have to go over and above to do something the other person views as significant to tip the scales back in their favor. Restitution makes a deposit that takes the relationship balance back above where it was previously, in the other person’s eyes.

Here’s a couple more examples:

  • If broke your neighbor’s lawn mower, not only do you buy him a new one, top-of-the-line even if his other one was not, you buy him a top-of-the-line weed-whacker as well.
  • If you lost your friend’s book, not only do you replace it, searching high and low on eBay if you have to if it’s out of print, but you give her a $200 Amazon gift card along with it.

It doesn’t have to be monetary restitution, although those are easy examples. Here’s a non-monetary one.

  • Maybe you’ve said or did something really hurtful to your spouse. So you get up early and do some chore they normally do that you know they hate. Maybe you know they clean the bathrooms every Friday, so you get up at 4:00 AM every Friday so you can do it before going to work. How long? Forever. And you don’t say a word about it. Let them discover it.

Restitution is a sacrifice you make, could be monetary, could be effort, from a place of empathy over the pain you’ve caused them. Not because you’re hurting. Because they’re hurting.

Some caveats here:

  • It has to be something significant from the other person’s point-of-view, not from yours. It has to be something meaningful to them.
  • You can’t ask them—that just comes across as the manipulation it is. This might not seem fair, but think about it. Once you ask, you make it about you: “What box do I have to check to get on your good side again?” But that’s not fair! I can’t read their mind! No, but:
    • The Holy Spirit can, and will tell you the answer if you seek him out about it. God is totally into restoring relationships. That’s what that whole cross thing was about.
    • If you care enough about the relationship, you’ll put the effort into figuring it out. Trial ‘n’ error is ok.
  • You can only do this with the right heart. This isn’t penance. You’re not trying to manipulate them because you want something from them. You’ll truly broken and hurt, not because you feel guilty over what you’ve done, but honestly because of the pain you caused them. You hurt because they’re hurting, and you want to bless them not hurt them.
  • Don’t bother with narcissists. There are people that secretly rejoice inside when you do something negative to them. They hold that negative bank account over your head as a way to manipulate and control you, and no restitution you do is ever enough. I wrote this post with the assumption that the relationship you’re trying to repair is a healthy one. No relationship with a narcissist is a healthy one. Do whatever a reasonable person would accept, but don’t submit to any control a narcissist tries to exert beyond that. If they walk away from the relationship, let them.

The other person may or may not allow the relationship to be restored. That’s on them and their ability to forgive. But you’ve done, and continue to do, everything the Holy Spirit lays on your heart to do. Depending on the offense, restitution can take years. But it’s so worth it.

Does this strike a chord with you? Does this resonate? Tell us your story in the comments. How did you repair that relationship? And please share if you think this would help someone else (share buttons below).

4 replies
  1. Randi
    Randi says:

    Now I’m asking myself, where in my relationships do I have an opportunity to do some restitution? Because I sense that I often sweep things under the rug, or try to compensate–but with something less. I become afraid of the person once I know I’ve hurt them, and the temptation is to pretend nothing happened or that it wasn’t as bad as you think…

    Reply
    • Dave Wernli
      Dave Wernli says:

      Wow, what a great comment, Randi, you really nailed it! You are so right on. So often our shame keeps us from the person, and we just let the relationship stay damaged. Shame is different than godly conviction. Conviction (truthfully) says, “I did something wrong.” Shame (falsely) says, “I am something wrong.” And so we dodge the person to dodge the shame. But the truth is, often the restored relationship is better than the original, because God is so into restoration. It’s so worth the risk. Kudos for going down this road!

      Reply

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