By Laurel-Ann Dooley
We’ve all had one: a good friendship that’s gone awry. Interactions that used to be a source of joy and connection now leave you tense, hurt, depleted or confused. Instead of letting your discomfort linger, take action. Clear out the cobwebs and see whether the relationship can be repaired—or if it’s time to let it go.
“I often see friendships struggle when one person is going through something difficult and the other person is the primary support system,” says Lauren Taylor, founder of Inner Balance Counseling. “It’s normal for the balance in friendships to shift over time, with one person doing more of the supporting and uplifting at any given time.” But problems develop “when relationships get stuck in an unequal balance.”
Shifting life stages can also cause strain. “One friend gets married, has a baby, gets divorced or has an empty nest, and the friendship struggles to stay as close simply because you have less in common,” notes Amanda Carver, founder of HeartLink Counseling.
So what do you do about it?
“It’s important to take some time to better understand what’s happening by disengaging,” advises Carver. “It’s helpful to slow down and ask yourself what the hurt is really about. Are you feeling let down? Overburdened? Left out? Judged?”
Then consider how you might be contributing to the dynamic.
She suggests “talking about the problem with people unrelated to the friend, rather than engaging in gossip or drama within your friend group. Another idea is to tap into your own wisdom through journaling about what is bothering you as well as what this friend means to you and your life.”
After that, determine “if the value of the friendship can be maintained either by changing your expectations (they’re not going to reach out as often as you’d like), shifting how you show up in the friendship (don’t tell them your deepest secrets) or by inviting them to redefine the friendship together. If there’s little value in the friendship, you may consider stepping back. If there’s emotional abuse happening, you may decide not to be friends at all.”
When changing your expectations or approach won’t fix the problem, and you want to keep the friendship, there’s no way around it: you have to have a discussion with your friend. “The only way to know whether a struggling friendship is repairable is by asking for a conversation,” says Taylor. She suggests broaching the subject as an invitation, free of blame. “You can say something like, ‘I’ve noticed that our friendship has been feeling out of balance’ or ‘because I care about our friendship, I would like to share something that I think could be improved so our relationship can thrive and feel more connected.’”
But when the friend won’t discuss your concerns, gets angry, refuses to be accountable or continues the harmful behavior, it may be time to take a break or step away permanently. Taylor urges a break free of animosity and stresses the need for clarity.
“Make sure you define it. Is this a break where you don’t talk at all anymore? Where you talk if you pass in the hallway?” Clear definition is critical.
When your decision to step back comes on the heels of a major conflict, Carver recommends “a simple explanation, like ‘this experience has taught me it’s best for us not to be friends right now.’ Keep it short. And don’t escalate. Try to be gracious if appropriate.”
If, however, ending the relationship will come as a surprise, she suggests focusing on your shifting needs and personal evolution rather than how your friend has let you down. “Thank them for their friendship and end it gracefully if at all possible.”
5 Steps to Mend Friendships
- Take A Good Look: Slow down and consider the root of what you’re feeling.
- Talk It Out: Poll a third- party opinion, or your own via a journal, to process what’s bothering you.
- Redefine the Friendship: Once you know the issue, make changes to start getting what you need.
- Keep Communication Open: Friends are a two-way deal, so talk about those changes together, with an open mind.
- Take a Break: Some friends are for a season, so when you can’t reach an agreement, consider some space to set new expectations.