Scenario 1: Something’s off in the relationship. Ya know, that thing that just doesn’t seem to be working right. We’re not talking the way we used to. Things don’t feel as close. There’s this unspoken awkwardness when we meet. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but something is broke.
Scenario 2: I’m upset with my friend so and so. They were a “@!#$” to me and I don’t like them anymore. I just can’t believe they did that to me! And I might not have told my friends about this yet but it actually hurts. I think about it and it makes me anxious and I’m not totally sure what to do about it. But I am sure that I’m pissed with them.
(I know, “Phew!” right.)
Happens all the time. People constantly hurt people. Friends hurt one another. Sometimes it’s pretty much an accident and sometimes it’s kind of not. When it happens to us, we usually do one of three things:
Method 1. We get up in their faces, confront, get loud and angry, tell them where they screwed up, make four letter references in their direction. Really let them have it. Sure, given the advent of modern technology, this often occurs via text or the social media vehicle of choice.
Method 2. We never talk about it. Sure we keep seeing the person, maybe a little less often or in groups or whatever. We just pretend that the thing never happened. They might know about it, they might not. It kind of eats away at us. It certainly causes some distance in the relationship. And that distance usually grows.
Method 3. We pretty much cut off contact. It might be abrupt or more of a slow fade. The abrupt version is straight up, “I’m never talking to/texting/calling/social media-ing that person ever again.” The slow fade is being less responsive to their attempts to make contact, not being available when they want to do something together, being somewhat distant or aloof when we do see them, and so on. In my experience, this method is the most likely choice.
Outcome in any of the three scenarios equals no more friendship.
Boy, that’s a sad phrase even to read. Or maybe I’m just a softie.
Anywhoo, these three scenarios happen all the time. And are an absolute virus to relationships. The hurt or disconnection eventually rears up and does a number on that friendship we once had. With it continuing to fester, it begins to get impossible to have a strong, safe, connected relationship with the other person.
Well that sucks, I guess that’s it and it’s all over, huh?
It could be. But it doesn’t have to be. In fact, there is a fairly clear cut path back to making the relationship right. And though clear cut, it’s not necessarily an easy one.
I’ll share the how by telling you a story. It begins in the little city/town I went to college in. And the other character in the story is my dear friend Eric. As well as a royal screwup on my part. So royal that his trust was broken and the friendship was over. It went down in the big confrontation kind of way, or scenario #1 from above. BIG being the key word of that sentence.
I didn’t really know what to do. I knew I had messed up. Albeit initially I was a little reluctant to admit to myself, or anyone else really, how royally I had done so.
Then it started to settle in that I had lost a best friend.
It hurt. With a poor choice on my part, a sequence of events were put into motion that brought our relationship crashing down. Initially I back-peddled a little with our mutual friends, sort of pretended like it wasn’t a big deal or that I hadn’t really done anything all that serious. I also tried to make contact with Eric. I was a little half-hearted and he was a little distant.
Then I let some time pass. Looking back, I’m on the fence about whether I made the right choice here. Part of me says I should have gone to Eric not long after breaking his trust, and vulnerably attempted to do a repair (more on this in a moment). The other part of me thinks that he would not have been ready for it, and time needed to do some healing before fixing the relationship really could happen.
Here’s the “how-to” on repairing a rift in a relationship (then I’ll share what happened with Eric and I).
Method A: If you hurt them.
- Get clear in your mind first, that you want to be in an apologetic, vulnerable, listening space. Remember, your only goal is to repair the relationship and this is the best mode to be in to do this. And I will say that this is a difficult mode to be in when you’re experiencing disconnection from someone, and likely feeling a little defensive and cautious.
- Reach out gently and set up the meeting on their terms. I’m a huge fan of taking a walk for these kind of conversations, but try to be open to whatever they suggest.
- Open by letting them know how much you value them and how sorry you are for hurting them. Then open up the space for them to really vent their feelings with a question like, “I’d love to hear what your experience was like, if you’re open to sharing?”
- Listen and validate. Then repeat. You will probably have a different experience of the events, and occasionally want to jump in with your side or to correct them. Instead, nod along and try to genuinely understand that this is their real experience of what happened.
- Apologize. Reflect back to them the injury you committed after the apology. “I’m realizing now how much I hurt you by not being there for you when you needed me, and I’m really sorry.”
- Reiterate how important they are to you and that you are committed to this friendship. Even if it takes a while for the trust to be built.
Method B: If they hurt you.
- First, get clear in your mind that your goal is to repair relationship. It is not to retaliate, or to go in guns blazing and really let them have it. Also, we often just feel angry or frustrated with the person. See if you can find the hurt or sadness you are feeling that’s underneath, and what specific thing he or she did that’s causing you pain.
- Reach out from a place of compassion – if you can find any in there – and let them know you’d like to get together to talk. Did I mention I’m a big fan of taking walks for these convos? If they don’t want to get together or say that they are busy, give them some time before you reach out again.
- When you sit down together, they might launch right into their defenses. This won’t feel very good. They might also offer a weak apology, and rush into everything being alright again. However they decide to start, see if you can ask for what you need. “Hey, I’d love to share my side of what happened, as well as some feelings it stirred up. Would you be open to hearing about it?”
- Share what hurt you. Phrases like, “I feel…” and “In my experience…” are really helpful. Words like, “sad”, “hurt”, and “scared” are as well. Try to avoid getting angry and blamey. This will be hard. Words like “why”, and “should” are best left out of this conversation.
- Let them know what you need. It could be something you’d prefer they didn’t do or something you’d really appreciate from them. It might sound like, “In the future, it would mean a ton to me if you would…”. Then fill in the blank.
- Close the conversation with a gesture that let’s both of you know you are good again. A hug and a “Thanks a bunch, you mean a lot to me,” is a great example.
You will know that you’ve successfully repaired the relationship if things don’t feel weird the next few times you hang out with your friend. And if you are not still regularly thinking about whatever hurt occurred. If you do still feel weird around them and think about it pretty often, that’s your way of knowing the repair is incomplete. Return to step 1.
You could open that second conversation up with, “Hey, I know we talked about this already. I’m noticing I’m thinking about it quite a bit and still feeling hurt. Would you mind if we tried to unpack it a little more?”
Okay, to finish the story about Eric and I…
So for a few years we were a little distant. Had the cordial, “how ya doing?” type relationship. We both knew there was a big elephant (AKA hurt) in the room anytime we were together. As a result, there was not the closeness and connection we once knew.
Then one day it got really clear to me how important Eric had been in my life and that I really wanted to repair the relationship. So I reached out to him and we made a point to get some time in person together. I let him know that I had really messed up and broken his trust. I also shared how important he was to me and how bad I felt knowing that I’d hurt him.
Eric was really receptive to what I shared. He did let me know he had been hurt, and vulnerably let me in on what his experience had been during our disconnection. He also shared that he could have done things a little differently so that our rift would not have been so large. Lastly, Eric reiterated how important the relationship was to him and that he’d like to be strong friends again.
Last week I got together with him and it was so so good to see him and spend time together. I didn’t feel any weirdness around him and haven’t in the decade since we repaired our relationship. It feels so good having his friendship for almost half of my life, and even better knowing the storms we have weathered along the way.
As always I’d love to hear your thoughts, additions, subtractions. Leave them in the comments below or reach out to me directly at JeremiMcManus.com.
Jeremi McManus is a Relationship Therapist, Couples Therapist, and Author who works with people who want more fulfilling and satisfying relationships. His own ups and downs in dating and relating were instrumental in leading him into this field. If you feel like you could use some perspective, he looks forward to hearing from you. Jeremi is a Licensed Psychotherapist and delighted to call San Francisco home.