Sunday, September 13, 2009
How to Mend a Broken Friendship
Growing up across the street from each other in Twin Falls, Idaho, Lisa Fry and Paula Turner never doubted their friendship would last forever. But after Fry married, moved to New York City and had a baby, her letters to Turner suddenly went unanswered. "Do you think I've somehow offended her?" Fry asked her husband.
Turner, meanwhile, had convinced herself she was no longer important to Fry. "She's got a family now," she told herself. "We're just too different to be close like before."
Finally, Fry summoned the courage to call her old friend. At first, the conversation was awkward, yet soon they both admitted that they missed each other. A month later, they got together and quickly fell into their old habit of laughing and sharing confidences.
"Thank goodness I finally took action," Fry says. "We both realized we were as important to each other as ever."
There are good reasons to cherish our friendships. Some years ago a public-opinion research firm, Roper Starch Worldwide, asked 2007 people to identify one or two things that said the most about themselves. Friends far outranked homes, jobs, clothes and cars.
"A well-established friendship carries a long history of experience and interaction that defines who we are and keeps us connected," says Donald Pannen, executive officer of the Western Psychological Association. "It is a heritage we should protect."
Ironically, says Brant R. Burleson, professor of communication at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., "the better friends you are, the more likely you'll face conflicts." And the outcome can be precisely what you don't want -- an end to the relationship.
The good news is that most troubled friendships can be mended. Here's what experts suggest:
Swallow your pride. It wasn't easy, but that's what Denise Moreland of Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii did when a friendship turned sour. For nearly four months, Moreland, 45, had watched over Nora Huizenga's two young daughters, who were living with their father on the base, while Huizenga, 40, completed training as a dental hygienist in Nevada. "I felt honored to be asked to step in," Moreland says.
When Huizenga returned at Christmas, Moreland recalls, "I had so much to tell her, but she never called." One daughter had a birthday party, but Moreland wasn't invited. "I felt like I'd been used," she says.
At first, Moreland vowed to avoid Huizenga. Then she decided to swallow her pride and let her friend know how she felt. Huizenga admitted that she'd been so worried about being separated from her family that she'd been blind to what her friend had done to help her. Today she says, "I would never have figured out what happened if Denise hadn't called me on it."
When a friend hurts you, your instinct is to protect yourself. But that makes it harder to patch up problems, explains William Wilmot, author of Relational Communication. "Most of us are relieved when differences are brought out in the open."
Consider Other Points of View
Apologize when you're wrong--even if you've also been wronged. No one should allow himself to be emotionally abused by anyone. But over the course of a friendship, even the best people make mistakes. "A relationship can grind to a standstill if the offender refuses to make the first move at reconciliation," Wilmot explains. "Under these circumstances, it may be best if the wronged person takes the initiative and apologizes -- for getting upset, for not understanding the friend's circumstances. When you apologize, give your friend the opportunity to admit that he'd screwed up."
That's what happened to a 29-year-old salesman from Deerfield, Ill., when a dispute over unpaid rent threatened his friendship with a college pal. Because the salesman and two roommates all signed the lease, each was responsible for the debt. After graduation, the salesman tried to cajole his friend into paying up. Finally, when the landlord threatened to sue for the arrears, the salesman called his friend, yelling, "This is no joke! You're ruining my credit."
Later he regretted his outburst. He knew his friend was not trying to hurt him -- he was just being irresponsible. "Even though my friend should have apologized first for the aggravation he had caused me, I shouldn't have lost my temper. I didn't want this to destroy our friendship," he says. When the salesman called to apologize, the friend admitted he was wrong. He apologized and paid the debt.
Experts agree that one of the worst things you can do when you're upset is to start a fight. "We don't think clearly when we're arguing," says Michael Lang, a professional mediator in Pittsburgh. Instead, says Lang, ask: "What's going on? This doesn't make sense."
See things from your friend's point of view. Sociologist Rebecca Adams of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and Rosemary Blieszner, professor of gerontology and family studies at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, interviewed 53 adults who each had many friendships lasting decades. "We were curious how these people managed to sustain strong friendships for so long," says Blieszner.
Tolerance is key, the researchers learned. The subjects also didn't let problems get blown out of proportion. "It's surprising how often a dispute results from a simple misunderstanding," adds psychotherapist Anne Frenkel.
Jan Yager, author of Friendshifts: The Power of Friendship and How It Shapes Our Lives, recalls what happened after her father died and a close friend didn't attend the funeral. "I felt hurt and disappointed," she says.
Later Yager learned that her friend hadn't come to the service because she was still distraught over her own father's death. "My perspective changed entirely," says Yager. "Rather than feeling slighted, I empathized with her."
Accept that friendships change. A few years ago, Cindy Lawson, 34, of Chicago, and a close friend decided to co-host a friend's bridal shower. The two women agreed to share the work and the cost. Then the friend, an attorney, took a new, more demanding job. Total responsibility for the shower fell to Lawson.
On the Saturday of the shower, Lawson did all the party decorating, then prepared dinner for 35 guests. Her co-host did not arrive from her office until shortly before the event. Later her friend complained about the cost.
Lawson was furious. But deep down, she did not want to break off ties. The two women were in a book club together, had many common friends and enjoyed dinners out together with their husbands. Instead, Lawson decided to remain friends -- but not close friends.
"Friendships change as our needs and lifestyles change," Wilmot observes. "It's healthy to have a host of friends and to sometimes shift the status of one or another."
Making friends can sometimes seem easy, says Yager. The hard part is keeping the connections strong during the natural ups and downs that affect all relationships. Her suggestion: Consider friendship an honor and a gift, and worth the effort to treasure and nurture.