When Friendships Go Bad and How to Fix Them

ex-friends

Smooth sailing is always a temporary thing, even in friendship. However great is the joy of being with your best friend, there will come a time when things are not perfect. Your interests and his interests will almost inevitably collide; one will do something that disappoints the other.

I’ll begin by giving you some examples of the kinds of issues that make the water choppy. Then, I’ll point out a possible way back to a place of less turbulence and make some suggestions about how you might navigate there. Even if things do get stormy, surviving the torrent can sometimes strengthen the relationship.

THE PROBLEMS:

  • Sometimes you think of your relationship to your friend differently than he thinks of it. He may consider you simply a business associate, while you think he is someone closer and more important than that. This is rather like having a romance with someone who simply enjoys sex with you, but isn’t in love with you, even though you are in love with him. Once you figure this out, you will be disappointed.
  • The world is a busy place. Your friend probably has other friends and competing obligations. His spouse and children are likely to come first. You might get miffed, even jealous. As the old song goes, “Wedding Bells are Breaking Up That Old Gang of Mine.”
  • You can love your friend but dislike his new girlfriend or new wife. Even a new platonic friend of yours or his might complicate the ease of getting along.
  • Politics and religion are tricky. It is likely that you will be attracted to people who are like-minded on both of those characteristics. But, if one of you changes or tries to change, convert, or persuade the other too strenuously, God help you (pun intended)! I have a friend who has long found himself in the political and religious minority in the particular part of the country where he resides. He makes his way through the relationship thicket by keeping both his politics and his religion out of conversations with his long-time buddies. It works because his comrades have, at least tacitly, accepted this. And because he is satisfied to have relationships with these limitations.
  • Both you and your friend will change over time. You might enjoy playing and watching baseball less, he might enjoy it more. You might become more judgmental, he might become more accepting. For the friendship to survive comfortably, the changes will have to be compatible.
  • You friend may well turn out to be a less moral and upstanding person than you thought he was. Sometimes this isn’t really a change, but rather a growing awareness as you get to know him better. In any case, this could make you uncomfortable. Some people try to look for the best and look away from a friend’s moral failures. But, the most egregious of those flaws are not easily ignored, especially if it eventually turns out that it is not only someone else’s ox that your friend gores, but your own.

Before I go on with the problem list, let me tell you a story. The two men had been friends from age 14. That relationship had survived distance, when one of them moved 1000 miles away. It had survived time, about 13 years, not a lucky number as it turned out. Perhaps the back-breaking issue had to do with the wedding of one of them, which found the other being asked to be “best man,” only later demoted to a less distinguished position in the wedding party without an explanation that satisfied him.

There were other things, of course, and the fall-out from all of them left both parties unhappy, hurt, and aggravated. It took 10 years before they got back together.

One might say that the relationship never really ended even though it was suspended. Both missed the other. Indeed, it is said that it is hard to really hate someone you haven’t first loved. Hatred would be too strong a word for the animosity each one felt, but despite strong resentment, somehow each still valued qualities in the other that he discovered were irreplaceable: one person’s emotional generosity, the other’s serious approach to life; their shared memories, stimulating intellect, kindred spirits, and mutual interests.

The time away allowed them both to grow up, to understand more about the other’s grievances, to see themselves and their own errors more clearly, and to realize that the other was a kind of “second self:” someone who made life better and without whom (whatever his shortcomings) life would be worse. Their friendship restarted and was stronger for the pain that each of them suffered. More on how they reconciled in the section on solutions (below).

friendship dish

Back to the problems that can cause friendships to go bad:

  • Sometimes a change in life circumstances can create a stress on your relationship to your buddy. One of you might become fabulously successful and wealthy. Or perhaps, one of you has a number of reverses in life. We are all “hostages to fortune,” as Sir Francis Bacon said long ago. If your friend is having a tough time, your support is important. But, if his misery continues for years, the therapeutic slant to your new relationship might burden you and change the emotional tone of your time together; that is, change part of what initially brought you close. However much it would be honorable to continue to provide support, there are few friendships that would not be stressed and complicated by anything approaching this kind of relatively permanent alteration.
  • Friendships can be damaged when the two parties discover they are in competition with each other, whether for a woman, for a job, or for a trophy.
  • If you or your friend relocate or leave the place of employment at which you both work, the other may feel betrayed or abandoned. Yes, I know this isn’t “rational.” But feelings rarely are that.
  • Continuing on the subject of betrayal, a common source of friendship difficulties occurs when something told to the other “in confidence” gets leaked. Frequently there is a misunderstanding as to whether something is confidential or not. Other kinds of betrayals can happen, as well, particularly when a friend doesn’t stand up for you or takes the other side in a dispute.
  • Finally, friendships can sunder when one party feels that there is insufficient balance or reciprocity in the relationship. If friend #1 is always initiating the calling, texting, organizing of get-togethers, driving, giving the gifts, and picking up the dinner checks, the strain of imbalance and inequity can break the relationship. Similarly, friend #1 might come to feel “used;” that is, of value to friend #2 only when needed to do something, not for the sake of shared companionship.

POSSIBLE SOLUTIONS (NO GUARANTEES):

WHAT NOT TO DO:

  • Take a deep breath. Do not — I repeat — do not make an irate phone call in response to the offense. Indeed, the more you feel that you must react immediately, the more likely that you should wait until a time when you’ve cooled down a bit.
  • Consider other reasons for what your friend did or didn’t do. Don’t immediately assume the worst. There are, at least sometimes, perfectly acceptable explanations.
  • If your friend is with a woman you can’t stand, there isn’t an easy remedy. But, whatever you do, don’t go to your friend and start to criticize the woman he loves! You are in a weak position. If he has to make a choice between the two of you, he will almost certainly choose the person with whom he is having sex and having babies. You may have to accept the circumstances as they are. You might have to work hard to find something in her to like and do your best to make friends with her, especially if she is jealous of your relationship to your buddy. You might have to limit your time with the two of them together, and spend more time with your friend alone. Unfortunately, it is possible that she will try to prevent that.
  • Don’t try to solve this by writing, if at all possible. Absolutely don’t handle it via text messages. There are a thousand ways that your missive can be misunderstood, since it lacks tone of voice, body language, and facial expressions to help the other person understand you. In a world of immediate and impulsive full disclosure, there remain some things that must be done slowly and carefully. Find the time to have a face-to-face conversation that is long enough to settle things down. But even before that, consider the other items I’ve listed below.
  • Remember that you can’t make your friend love you, but you can make him dislike you. Don’t turn yourself into a scold: someone who complains harshly and regularly. No one wants to be around such a person.

WHAT TO THINK ABOUT:

  • Now that your heart rate has slowed down a little, think about the history of your relationship to your friend. What attracted you initially? How has your friend shown you kindness or generosity? What would your life be without him? When did things start to go wrong? What have you done to make it better? What have you done that made it worse?
  • The list of solutions must begin with self-examination. We almost all see the other’s flaws more acutely than our own; and weigh our pain more heavily than that of anyone else, at least compared to the other party in a grievance.
  • Who is your buddy, anyway? What motivates him? Is he a good person, or perhaps have you misunderstood who you have been dealing with? Is he even aware of your hurt feelings? Have you expected him to read your mind? Even therapists are poor at that. It is possible that he doesn’t know the extent of your unhappiness, hurt, and/or anger.
  • How important is your friend is to you? Would you miss him if you dumped him? Would he be easily replaced? Are there still significant qualities that you like about him? In the example I gave above, the friends in question both realized that they didn’t want to be without each other, even if it took 10 years to figure out!
  • As you reflect on who your friend really is, ask yourself if the changes you’d like are possible. If you’ve been through some version of the same problem with this guy numerous times, it might be that the two of you should part ways. Either you will have to change or he will; or both of you will. Don’t discount those possibilities, but don’t ignore your experience and hope for a miracle, especially if your “friendship” is a regular source of unhappiness.
  • You are going to have to accept some things you’d rather not. No two people are perfectly compatible. If you want perfection in your comrades, expect to lead a very lonely life.
  • Do some major soul-searching. To what extent might you have contributed to the problem? Do you expect too much from people? Are you assertive enough to set limits, or do you let others walk over you and disappoint you until you finally explode, break down, or summarily end relationships? Is there a repeating pattern of relationship problems in your own life? What part of the current dilemma has your name on it? What do you need to change about yourself?

WHAT TO DO:

  • Write down what you’ve learned through your analysis of yourself, your friend, and the situation.
  • At some point in the process of reflection, write a letter to your friend that you don’t ever mail or email. It can help you get perspective and externalize or neutralize some of the intensity you are feeling.
  • Whatever the friendship problem is, talk to someone about it. Get an opinion and perhaps advice from a person you trust. Look for a confidant who is wise, but is willing to tell you what you need to hear, not just what you want to hear.
  • If your analysis of the situation determines that your friend is actually a scoundrel, then writing him off, however painful, is probably necessary. But remember, most people aren’t that bad.
  • If you are to save the relationship, you are going to have to talk with each other, if at all possible, face-to-face (but, again, be hesitant to criticize his spouse). Remember to use “I” statements, as in “This is how I felt when you said X” rather than, “Look at what you did, you SOB!” Be calm. Remind the friend of what he means to you and the parts of him that you admire and appreciate. Figure out beforehand what you will need from him to put things right and be sure this is part of the discussion.
  • Apologize for your part. The two friends I mentioned earlier both accepted responsibility for the things that caused the 10-year break. Both vowed to be more direct so that resentments didn’t fester. Both saw the hurt in the other and the value in the other. Each one felt genuinely sorry for the injury he had inflicted on the friend. Both let go of the past and went forward. Not every last detail was discussed and resolved. They didn’t have to be. To put it simply, love triumphed.

How do I know all that? I’m one of the two people.

That is what you call a happy ending.

For a discussion of the real meaning of friendship, this may be of interest: A Friendly Discourse on Friendship.