Returning to Therapy, Renewing Friendship, Starting Over, Fixing Things …


The holidays are a time of both fond and aching remembrance of those who are absent: an estranged family member missing from the celebration, a once close friend silent, a therapeutic relationship over.


Perhaps then is it time to begin again?

Our century is a “time vacuum.” You can buy everything except a 25th hour in the day. A lack of time combined with distance puts relationships at risk. Friends are more digitally available, but offer less physical presence. Gone are the school days providing hours of contact with our playmates and extra time together in the neighborhood.

Relationships beg for attention, but speak too softly to be audible in a world of carnival barkers pretending to be wisemen. The torch-carrier who wishes for human closeness might bring a spark, but lack the wood. The lonely woodsman hopes for a lightening-strike because he has no flame. Waiting comes and friendship goes … disappears.


Funny how much effort we put into the maintenance of things and how little into the feeding and care of friendship. Time is set-aside for routine dusting, sweeping, vacuuming, mending, and replacing. The days are scheduled: Saturday means washing clothes, Sunday stipulates mowing the lawn, Monday is for watering plants. We get absorbed and stop thinking, a human condition to which we are all subject and which we all need.

Dutiful honor paid to the numbing maintenance routine blinds us to the implication of the toll taken on everything in the world, including our affections. All man-made things need renewal. Just as in the old days when mattresses were supported by ropes which needed regular tightening (as in the expression, “sleep tight”) so must the unseen cords binding us to each other be tightened. The unseen is easier to miss, the seen can’t be ignored. Habit takes over.

Our attention to physical things can be trancelike, done without consideration. Experts, handymen, and service contractors are available when we don’t know how to do the fixing ourselves. You take the car for repair or you go to the Apple Store for a new computer. E-mail might remind you the auto needs attention with a “tune-up special.” The computer signals its unhappiness by running slowly. Your spouse tells you marital counseling is necessary.

Who speaks for friendship and its tender sensibilities? Who speaks for a return to therapy?

Actually, the friend or the therapist might. I would call old patients on occasion, far from everyone and far from often, to see how they were doing, especially those who I thought (a bit like a car) might need a tune-up.

I understand however, I was not typical. Moreover, as I say, I didn’t do this often. Yet possibility exists in taking action, breaking with the customary. As Carlo Maria Giulini, the great symphony conductor said of himself, “I am an enemy of routine.” Thus, his performances almost always were full of intensity, never “phoned in.”  Possibilities exist if we envision the world anew.

Most of us wouldn’t think about letting the house get too cluttered or dusty, the sofa too frayed. We stretch in the morning, exercise before or after work, and check the iPhone. Not to mention performing the job for which we are paid and caring for our kids.

Frayed feelings are invisible. Emotions are hidden. Therapists are not psychic, friends even less so, and counselors can become surprisingly obtuse after their workday is done. The smoke detector does its electronic whine when the battery needs replacement. Distressed friends usually don’t give the same decisive alarm.

We take care of what is observable. Most of us want to look nice, want our residence to be welcoming. We try to keep things as they are: attractive. If I wear a hole in my shoe, as Adlai Stevenson II did during his 1952 Presidential Campaign, I get embarrassed and take it to the shoemaker. Friends are usually quieter than unintentionally air-conditioned footwear. Some are like the old soldiers described by General Douglas MacArthur. “Old soldiers never die,” he said, “they just fade away.”


We assume the permanence of people and things. Marriage takes for granted our mate will remain young, fit, appealing. Yes, everyone understands age is a thief, but that is an abstraction. When the roses are in bloom and the kisses strike fire I dare anyone to really — really — believe the flesh is weak. Might we insist on better care of relationships if we thought they needed the same oversight that our sofa does, a piece of work whose fabric will wear out, whose springs will lose their spring?

My friend Nancy Pochis Bank is a chalk artist. She decorates chalkboard menus and buildings, creates murals — whatever you fancy. Nancy marries beauty to usefulness, making lovely things of the everyday. Many people wonder (and Nancy has heard this) why she employs such a temporary medium for her work, the effortful beauty she creates — knowing her magical product will disappear with the next day’s menu or a new rain?

The mistake we make, I think, is looking at Nancy’s craft as temporary and not realizing that our relationships (and all else) come with no greater guarantee of permanence. They are as vulnerable to destruction as Nancy’s outdoor art is to the weather. Like Nancy in creating her art, we are the art we create, we are the chalk ever-changing because it and we are exposed, vulnerable. Our friendships are, as well. Ignore them and they will be gone. Walk on them (like a sidewalk chalk-drawing) and you leave a mark. She says her work is a reminder to value that which is ephemeral.

Therapists are not identical to friends, of course. The form of contact is both intensified and limited. Counselors tend to require less special-handling than companions, though many patients fear not giving them enough. And, therapists incline toward welcoming you back, even if you left abruptly.

The desire for a second chance with estranged or neglected friends is driven by fond memory. With some you fell into an emotional ravine that hobbled and gobbled you up. Is another try worth the risk? Only you can say. Stranger things have happened than a joyous reunion. Perhaps you can sew your togetherness together anew.

Counselors discourage catastrophizing. Not everything is a matter of life and death and yet, everything is in the sense that it is temporary, as life is temporary. The holidays remind us that another year will end without some of those with whom we began it: work friends, close friends, neighbors, and yes, the irreplaceable people who fill the obituary pages.

You can take this as a dark message and flee or think about who you want in your life and what you can do; whether they are on good terms with you, out of your life, or drifting. The New Year is an ending and a beginning. The cycle round the sun ends. A new spin on the axis offers beginnings only if you make them happen.

The subject of relationship renewal brings to mind these T.S. Eliot lines from Little Gidding, the last of the set of poems he called Four Quartets:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

Sometimes we learn things the second time around.

Friendship and therapy can be like that.

The top photo is of German Manga artists Asu and Reami,  known as DuO, at the Comic-fest in Munich on September 3, 2005. The next image is called Morning Fog at the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco. Both of these were sourced from Wikimedia Commons and are the work of Fantasy. The photo of Adlai Stevenson II won the 1953 Pulitzer Prize for Photography. William M. Gallagher, the photographer, wasn’t aware at the time he took it that it revealed a hole in the shoe on Stevenson’s right foot.


Criticism — in Therapy and Out: More Things You Want to Know About Your Therapist

500px-Kgpg_frown_of_disapproval.svgOne of the worst things you can do to a friend is to tell him an awful truth about himself. One of the best things you can do is identical. And one of the most self-injurious landslides you might trigger in your direction — like launching a large rock down on your mountainside home  — is to inform a friend of an opinion he doesn’t want to hear and for which he makes you pay.

I should know. I’ve been the person who heard the worst, even as boyfriend to an early beauty who stung with accurate and unflattering observations. I’ve also been the older guy who said things — however necessary I thought them to be — at least one buddy couldn’t bear. The blowback, though delayed, was furious. Ironically enough, I grew from each of these experiences and a few others like them.

Therapists are wise not to inform clients of their faults, but to enable the patient’s gradual development of insight in a subtle fashion. Shrinks tell you the counselor should almost never offer criticism, instead waiting for self-directed self-awareness to arise spontaneously in the course of treatment. Moreover, a quick way to cause your client’s flight from you is to contribute to his discomfort or trigger an epiphany for which he isn’t ready.

Here is an example of feedback I received as a grad student: I was informed of being intimidating by a supervisor. This came as a surprise. I am not physically imposing, nor did I walk around with a scowl on my face. I pictured myself as unthreatening. Self-confidence was not then an area of strength, but something in need of a growth-spurt.

My initial reaction was the usual one to uncomfortable truth:

The SOB is wrong, he is a jerk. He’s the one with the problem, dammit!!!

I am, however, the kind of person who will take a step back and reflect. Not the same minute or the same day, but soon. The best opportunities for learning come in moments of discomfort. I realized the senior psychologist who diagnosed my flaw, however undiplomatic in so doing, was right. The comments, delivered in a training group, were no fun to receive, but I was eventually grateful for the information.

What did he mean? While friends would tell you I’m a pretty funny guy, I’m persuaded I give the aura of a serious, intense person who might be smarter than you are. I don’t say this to blow my horn (many men and women enjoy greater intellect), but I apparently give the impression of being a big thinker. My youngest daughter said I intimidated her little friends before I said a word. They sensed an unintended, imposing, judgmental vibe. Knowledge of this made me work extra hard at making clients comfortable.

Whenever you care about someone you make yourself vulnerable to his opinion. The tender underside of my psyche continued to be exposed for much of my 20s. Other events, too, offered essential albeit excruciating information. I was thus enabled to learn more of what I needed to know about myself. The good news was that I tried to take what I could from the messenger’s words to better myself. I’m talking only about a handful of situations, not the larger number where I permanently dismissed comments as “their problem,” not my own.


To those who believe, like Bambi’s mother, one never should say anything critical, here is a defense of the brave or foolish handful who do so on occasion: no human sees himself as he is. Zero. We lack a vantage point from the outside — the perspective of a therapist, friend, or acquaintance. All we can do is make inferences based upon the reactions of others. Our conclusions are imperfect. Intuition, however good, is not mind reading. Most of us don’t want to know the worst and thus live with a protective measure of self-delusion. If we are to learn about ourselves we need someone to break the conspiracy of polite silence.

I am not suggesting anyone harm another. A relationship usually requires a long history of goodwill if pointed comments are ever to be appropriate. Sometimes, though, when you observe a friend injuring himself in a chronic fashion, an opportunity — Aristotle suggests perhaps an obligation — exists to help. You take a terrible risk by describing something vividly enough to do good. Chances are, you won’t. A blistering retaliation might be in the offing. Your buddy may dismiss your meaning, your motive, and you.

I suspect that I’m better than most at hearing through criticism to the value I can extricate from the shards of the message. I’ve learned, however, I am guilty of doing harm in offering unwanted and unsolicited opinions outside of therapy, in part because I exert less care with family and friends than I did with patients. I take no pride in this. In counseling clients I tried hard to say less if I anticipated the injury that might come from saying more. “First do no harm” was the mantra.

For those of you who wish a therapist’s friendship, consider yourselves warned. The kid gloves are worn only for the patients.

Based on all this you may think I’m a danger to those closest to me, like a wrecking ball directed by an intoxicated crane operator. Yet I have many friends, several of whom go back a long time. Unless my vision is occluded, they do not wear protective goggles and a suit of armor when I approach.

I cannot say enough of the danger here. Honesty may well cost you someone you love who hoped and trusted you would not do the injury you did. But, as far as being on the receiving end is concerned, I encourage you not to dismiss every critical message, even when the missive is like a rock thrown through your bedroom window. In school I learned much more from the teachers who were “hard graders” than from those who praised every idea I offered and each line I wrote.

Criticism was needed.

To my friends, relatives, and acquaintances, I can say the following: test me. If you believe I have more to learn about myself (and I do) please tell me. I suspect, in the long run, you will have done me a favor.

The top image is called Sign of Disapproval by hobvias sudoneighm. The photo is a Frown of Disapproval by Zeke Essiestudy. They are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

When Friendships Go Bad and How to Fix Them


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.


  • 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.



  • 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.


  • 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?


  • 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.