Laura Davis has been pushing the boundaries of our dialogue about relationships since publishing her groundbreaking work The Courage to Heal in 1982. Her teaching, research and writing have encouraged many to take up the difficult task of emotional healing.
In her new book, I Thought We'd Never Speak Again: The Road from Estrangement to Reconciliation, she confronts the difficult issue of mending relationships broken by betrayal and misunderstanding. NUVO is co-sponsoring an upcoming lecture by Davis and took this opportunity to talk with her about her ideas regarding reconciliation and repair in all relationships, from the personal to the political.
NUVO: What prompted you to want to write about estranged or broken relationships?
Davis: Estrangements by their very nature are painful. They cut us off from part of the world and make us smaller than we want to be. Whether you have a brother or sister you don"t speak to, an adult child you wish you knew, a parent you long to make peace with or a friendship gone sour, there is a path to reconciliation that can help you feel whole again. That"s the message I want to share with people.
NUVO: In your book you suggest people can experience reconciliation in many ways.
Davis: I talk about four different types of reconciliation. The first is the kind we covet the most, where there is a deep healing in the relationship in which both people change and grow. While that"s the kind of reconciliation most of us want, it's also the least common outcome, so it's a real gift when it happens.
The second type involves one person changing his or her expectations of the relationship, whether or not the other person makes any significant changes.
The third type of reconciliation is where two people agree to disagree. In this case, both sides stop trying to convince each other of the rightness of their position. They forge a limited, cordial relationship in which their disagreement is fully acknowledged.
The fourth type happens when a direct relationship with the person isn't possible. In this instance, the path of reconciliation means you evaluate the relationship, grieve for what cannot be and move on.
All four experiences can bring a sense of peace. Reconciliation won"t occur in every instance but it is definitely possible to come to a sense of peace.
NUVO: You've written openly about being alienated from your own mother. What enabled the two of you to reconcile and where would you place your relationship with her on that continuum?
Davis: That's interesting. I think we've probably hit all of the places on the continuum. When we were estranged I did a lot of work to let go of the relationship, assuming reconciliation with her was impossible. So the first thing I did involved making a deep commitment to my own healing. Slowly my need for her to believe me diminished because others supported me and I knew what had happened. I also began to see that things weren't so black and white. So while I didn't need her validation anymore, I continued to really miss her.
Eventually, I changed my perspective on what I needed from her, which opened up the possibility of relating to her again. Of course, we were at a terrible impasse for many years over whether or not I had been sexually abused by her father. Now we agree to disagree.
I'm no longer trying to convince her the abuse happened and she's no longer trying to get me to recant. I've also grown to understand her point of view. I accept that and I think my mother accepts the fact that I'm not going to back down. We've figured out other ways to connect in our relationship that are valuable enough to continue. So I'd say focusing on those second and third types of reconciliation over a number of years we've actually grown closer than we've ever been.
NUVO: How much of reconciliation is an internal process and how much is an external one?
Davis: I think it always starts on the inside. You have to do your homework first. If someone has hurt you, you need to work through the pain of that hurt. You need to grow yourself into someone who is not capable of being hurt in the same way. You can't just go back into the situation and say, "Here, hurt me again." You have to grow and change to the point that you can"t be hurt in the same way because you've changed.
NUVO: What if you're the one who has hurt someone else?
Davis: Again, that's where the inner work comes in. You need to take ownership of the ways you've hurt that person, and to hold yourself accountable. It also takes time to develop a perspective on the relationship that isn't just about your emotions. Can you tell the story from the other person"s point of view as well as you can tell it from your own? Often there is a history of generations of conflict and hurt being passed down through families, which you can't see when you're just caught up in being wounded.
NUVO: How do we know if we're ready to reconcile a relationship?
Davis: You need to ask yourself some critical questions. Do I have the time? The energy? The inclination to pursue this relationship? What do I still value about it? What don't I like about it? Is there something worth fighting for? What is the greatest risk I am facing? What is the worst thing that could happen if I take this step? I think another really important question is "What kind of person do I want to be?" Sometimes someone has really hurt us but that doesn't mean we want to turn around and do the same to them. Instead we may want to act out of values that reflect more of who we want to be. There are no right answers to any of these questions, only ones that work for you.
NUVO: Tell me about how the shift in your identity away from "abuse survivor" plays a role in your reconciliation story.
Davis: It plays a huge part. If you had asked me who I was 18 years ago, incest survivor would have been at the top of the list. My whole life revolved around the abuse I had experienced as a child. I lived from therapy session to therapy session, barely hanging on in between. I just could not imagine getting through the pain. And then I went through an incredible process of healing, years of dedicating myself to it. To the point that if you ask me who I am today, I would say I am a mother, a grandmother, an author, a teacher, a sister, a cousin, a friend and a daughter. Incest survivor wouldn"t even be on the list. It's that paradox of healing that you have to focus completely on the way you were hurt in order to earn the right to let it go.
NUVO: What words of hope would you offer to people wanting to reconcile?
Davis: Direct reconciliation with the other person is not always possible or desirable but I do think everyone can come to a deeper sense of peace. When I started the book, I thought the opposite of estrangement was reconciliation, but now I realize the opposite of estrangement is peace. In terms of relationships with family members, you never really know what's going to happen until both people are dead. There may be great disappointments but there can also be wonderful surprises. If you had told me at the beginning of my healing process that I was going to reconcile with my mother, I would have said you were crazy. Yet here I am.
Remember, no one is going to force you to do this. It's really your own volition. Most people attempting to reconcile take a very small step, then decide if it felt good and whether they want to take another step or retrench. You"re not committing yourself to anything; you're just putting your toe in the water and checking the temperature.
NUVO: You recount inspiring stories of reconciliation from around the globe. What prompted you to include them?
Davis: From the beginning of this project I wanted to broaden the idea of reconciliation and talk about how this work applies to situations between adversaries in the world. I was really committed to including stories that weren't just about family members. I talked with Vietnam vets and their experiences of reconciliation. I talked with children of Holocaust survivors and of German Nazis. I talked with victims and perpetrators working in the restorative justice movement. I wanted to broaden the scope of the book beyond the interpersonal to the social and political.
NUVO: Has the current political situation affected your thoughts about reconciliation?
Davis: I think about reconciliation every day. I have a son in the Marines so my passion for reconciliation is more heightened than ever. To me, the principles that help resolve conflicts with a boss, a family member or a friend are the same ones you need to reconcile with an enemy: listening deeply, looking at the bigger picture and committing to finding a solution that is good for both parties. It's painful to see how far away we are from that. While the book describes places and situations where incredible work toward reconciliation is being done, the world doesn"t seem headed in that direction right now.
NUVO: How can we as individuals contribute to greater peace and reconciliation?
Davis: We are living in a time of great uncertainty. The events of the last year and a half remind us that people are precious and that we only have a short time to love each other. We are all living in a world that has profoundly changed, and we can no longer afford to hate each other. The old saying, "Peace begins at home," has never been more relevant. Each of us has the responsibility to do whatever we can to build peace and understanding in our families, in our communities and in the world one relationship at a time.
Laura Davis will speak at the Indianapolis Marriott Downtown, Thursday, March 27 at 7 p.m. Tickets are $16 in advance or $19 at the door and available at Out Word Bound bookstore, New Age People (at both locations in Broad Ripple or at 86th and Ditch) or by calling 317-951-9100.