Relationships, Part 32: Restorative Justice in Marriage

Many jurists are beginning to see that restorative justice has a place in the court system. It also has a place in marriage when there has been an injury and trust needs to be repaired.

This is how restorative justice works in the court system: A kid gets caught with a can of paint, spraying a swastika on a synagogue parking lot. The congregation is outraged. Intense fears and memories of the Holocaust get activated. The kid appears before a judge and admits he’s guilty.

The judge could sentence him to jail, but how would that help? In jail, the kid might likely fall in with a gang of skinheads who would further radicalize him, casting him as the victim, not the perpetrator, of injustice. His schooling would be interrupted, his friendships disrupted, his time wasted; all at great cost to the taxpayers. The congregation might enjoy some small satisfaction that the power of the state is being used to punish the kid, but there would be no true healing, only retribution.

The judge might give the kid probation or a suspended sentence and say, don’t get in trouble again. Many, including the kid, might think he got off easy.

Many judges, wanting to avoid these unproductive options, might send the kid to someone like me to arrange a restorative justice conference.

The first time I meet with him, I’d check to see if he was ready to take responsibility for his actions. I’d ask him if he could imagine how spray painting a swastika on a synagogue parking lot might affect the congregation. I’d invite him to consider how he could make amends. If he can’t do any of these or is not willing to make amends, I’d send him back to the judge.

If he is able and willing, then next I’d meet with representatives of the congregation. I’d tell them about restorative justice. I’d ask if they’re willing to participate in a meeting. I’d invite them to consider how he could make amends. If they can’t deal with meeting the kid, or if there is nothing he could do to make amends, then I tell the judge that restorative justice is not right in this case.

But, if we have a go on both ends, then we arrange a conference. The kid speaks first, taking responsibility, acknowledging the harm he’s done. The congregation then speaks, filling in details the kid might have missed. If the apology is accepted, we to move on to construct a plan to make amends. The kid and the representatives work towards an agreement on what he’ll do to make it right. Maybe he’ll scrub the parking lot, rake leaves, speak to the whole congregation, or whatever. A time limit is placed and everyone shakes hands.

If the kid follows through with his promise, then the judge dismisses the charges, the congregation forgives him, and everyone moves on. The taxpayers keep their money. The skinheads look for other recruits. The world is a better place.

We can do the same thing with your marriage.

You walked in and found your wife having sex with another man. Whether you ultimately decide to get a divorce, or not, you want to be able to get that image out of your brain. Your wife is remorseful. She’s ended the affair. She wants you back. She needs you to forgive her. You need to be able to trust. We can have a restorative justice conference.

I’d meet with the wife to see if she’s ready to take responsibility for the affair. She may want to point to things you did that “made” her have an affair, but I’d tell her she has to lay them aside while we address this incident and get past it. I’d ask her if she could imagine how you might be affected by seeing her having sex with her lover in the marital bed. I’d invite her to consider how she could make amends. If she can’t do any of these or is not willing to make amends, then I’d refer you both to divorce attorneys.

If she is able and willing, then I’d also meet with you. I’d tell you about restorative justice, I’d ask if you are willing to meet with your estranged wife and work with me and her to develop a plan for making amends. I’d invite you to consider how she could restore things. If you can’t deal with meeting with her, or if there is nothing she could do to make amends, then I’d refer you both to divorce attorneys.

But, if we have a go on both ends, then we arrange a conference. The wife speaks first, taking responsibility, acknowledging the harm she’s done. Then you speak, filling in details your wife might have missed. If you have questions about the affair, you ask them. If she answers them fully and the apology is accepted, we move on to construct a plan to make amends. You both work towards an agreement on what your wife will do to make it right. Maybe she’ll paint the bedroom, burn the sheets, buy a new bed, let you use that position you saw her in with her lover but never lets you try, never talk with him again. Whatever.

Coming up with ways to make amends is often the hardest part. Your wife would do well to not agree to tasks that degrade her or that are impossible or vague. She can’t promise to never talk to another man. She may promise to love you, but what does that mean? The best amends are measurable, attainable, and concrete.

A time limit is placed and everyone shakes hands. If she follows through with her promise, then you have to let it go. That’s your promise. If you still have mistrustful feelings, dismiss them. That’s called forgiveness. Everyone moves on. The world is a better place.

Click here to go to the entire Relationships series.

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