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How to Fix a Frayed — But Not Broken — Friendship

Here's why it's so important to do so.

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illustration of two friends back to back with cracking necks, frayed friendships
Melanie Lambrick
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My first friend as a new mommy was Ann. She lived across the street in our sleepy suburban Long Island town. Ann had three children when I gave birth to baby number one. I relied on her for just about every earache, diaper rash, fever and cough. Unconsciously, Ann had become the mother I yearned for since my mom died when I was 6 years old. This one-sided friendship, I imagined, would go on forever. She would never let me down. That is, until she did.

Her husband, returning home from a business trip, was killed in an airplane crash. This left her with three children, ages 6, 12 and 14, to raise, bills to pay and the need to find work to keep a roof over their heads. In an instant, Ann’s life turned upside down. She no longer had time to care for my many needs. How could she do this to me? Although I didn’t make the connection at the time — and for many years after — my perception of Ann as the uncaring one was a rerun of the devastation I felt when my mother died – alone and abandoned. Anger went full tilt. I was enraged at the loss of her mothering me.

To get even, I walked the other way when I saw her in the supermarket or at a school event. Years later, after countless therapy sessions, I came to understand how my childhood trauma was reactivated in my behavior toward Ann. I realized she was a friend, not my mother.

David Abrams, a psychologist in Boynton Beach, Florida, confirms how a big loss early on can make a lasting impact.

“Early childhood trauma such as a loss of a mother can affect our relationships to other significant people throughout our lives.” Abrams said. "With recent development of brain imagery, experts can better understand how early childhood experiences are encoded in our memories even before we are old enough to speak."

Throughout my many sessions with Abrams (a large box of tissues by my side), I learned to acknowledge the painful feelings of my childhood loss, emotions that had been buried inside me. Slowly, I understood how my unresolved childhood loss triggered my relationship with Ann. This insight helped me to know what I should have realistically expected from her — and from many other female friendships that had disappointed me over the years.

Years passed. My husband and I retired and moved to Florida. I heard through the grapevine that Ann had remarried and was living in a nearby community. I wanted to reach out to her not only to apologize but also to try to re-create that warm and caring friendship that was once so meaningful. No doubt I feared her rejection. (Why would she have anything to do with a friend who turned her back at the most devastating time in her life?)

Hands shaking, I dialed her number. Although she was shocked to hear from me after a 25-year hiatus, her response was warm and caring. I said that my apology was a long time in coming and was relieved that the bond we once had was not broken, only frayed.

Recently, the two of us, both widowed, and in our mid-80s, moved into an independent senior living community. Here we take walks with our canes, gossip about our neighbors and share memories of the years raising our children.

Because Ann now struggles with advancing dementia, I am grateful to be of help to her, the way she was to me decades ago.

No doubt it’s painful when a friendship ends. But if you want to resolve the issues, here are some helpful suggestions.

  • Before you face (or initiate) a difficult conversation, write down your thoughts. Focus on the good stuff you had in your relationship.
  • Suggest a get-together and begin the conversation with a kind and positive approach, psychologist Marisa Franco, the best-selling author of Platonic: How the Science of Attachment Can Help You Make — and Keep — Friends told me. For example, you could say something like: “I feel bad things have been off track since our conflict. I value our friendship and would love to get things back on track."
  • Be prepared to listen. Too often we interject with a defense. Hold off until it’s your turn to talk.
  • What if your friend rejects an offer to repair the friendship? “Remember you are not in control of other people, but be proud of yourself for acting with integrity,” Franco said.
  • Sometimes a friendship suffers due to a misunderstanding, but when the problem runs deeper, it’s a good time to reevaluate whether the relationship is doing more harm than good. As Franco put it: “If your friend is not rooting for your success, bullies you, is inconsiderate or you feel drained by them, it might be time to end instead of mend."

Have you ever had to fix a frayed friendship? Let us know in the comments below.

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