May 21, 2023

Strained Relationships

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“I don’t know what I did. I don’t see how this could have happened.”

I have heard variations on this theme for as long as I can remember. In this case, the words were uttered by a well meaning, delightful human. Or so they reported about themselves! Specifically, this was in reference to one of her off-spring who had opted to fledge out the nest and now deemed her mother ‘unacceptable.’ Of her three children, all well into adulthood, she enjoys a good relationship with two but not this one, and it puzzles her. Deeply. The ironic part is that while it is an intensely lonely position to find oneself in, it’s far more common than you’d imagine. 

Variations on the theme are adult children being unwilling to talk to both parents or one parent, a parent being unwilling to have anything to do with one of their children, siblings who don’t speak, extended family members who aren’t even sure if a cousin/uncle/aunt/godparent is still alive. Whew! It’s a list! And we’ve not even thrown the grandparents in there or friends who up and just disappear.

Since the tendency is to view this in one of two ways, let’s take a look at them independently for a moment. Option one is to blame yourself; that somehow, your ability to understand or recognize some feature of the relationship has caused a major rift that is not easily repaired. “I don’t know what happened but everything I say is wrong and they don’t pick up the phone unless it’s to ask for money.” Option two is to lay all the responsibility at the feet of the person in question, “they just walked away.” 

In reality, it is much more likely that a series of hard to see at the time cracks which were caused over time, and never mended or healed. The resulting break looks often like it came from nowhere, when, in reality, it was building for years. This does not, however, make it feel any better. Nor does it take away from the feeling that others don’t know how painful and isolating it is.

How to remedy this? Well, if you’re reading this the chances are good you’ve tried to talk about it ~ and perhaps got no visible traction on the topic, if any ~ or you’ve spent hours in therapy, trying to figure it out. Would it help you to know that, in all likelihood, there’s not too much to do now? Well, that is if you’ve not done something terribly, horribly, obviously awful…so what do I mean by that?

I mean if you’ve been physically, emotionally or sexually abusive the chances are pretty slim that the relationship can or is best served in any way, to repair. Yes, there are circumstances under which some (and I do mean some!) of those are situations that can be worked through but that will require doing that work with a therapist. I’m thinking specifically of a substance use disorder that is now being addressed and treated consistently. Or, if false accusations were thrown around like leaves falling down in autumn, and there is no indication of their validity; relationships don’t often come back from such a place.

If you’re a regular old, run of the mill human who made human mistakes like the mother I mentioned earlier? The news is a little bit better. There are some ways to move forward so let’s take a quick look at them.

First off, if you can, take a look at your own patterns and behaviors to see if there’s a common theme. Did you fail to act when you were asked to do so? Or were your actions that of a ‘good human’ making very predictable, typical mistakes? Let’s be clear ~ we all make mistakes. We all would do things differently if we could go back in time. But we can’t. We can start here and shape what’s to come. 

Next you can decide if you want to keep the door for communication open or if it would be best to perhaps take a deliberate, short, break. By this I am referring specifically to a statement that might sound like this, “I love you dearly and understand that you’re very angry with me right now. I’m sorry we’re not speaking right now. If it’s OK with you, I’m going to take a short break, of about 2 weeks (or whatever feels good for you) and I’ll be back in touch after that. Perhaps we can take that time to just take a step back before we figure out what’s next.” 

But let’s say you want to keep the communication going and they don’t. They have moved around the corner and yet they could just as easily be on Mars. My suggestion for that would be to literally think of it as just keeping the lines open ~ your foot stuck in the door so that if and/or when, they opt to open it to scream at you, it’s at least cracked open enough that it’s not a ‘prying the painted over door open’ type of a situation. In real life, this might look like being careful to send ‘thinking of you’ cards (with nothing other than, “I’m thinking of you and hope you’re well”), or sending funny memes or even pictures of what you’re making for dinner. Anything to keep your toe stuck in the door so it’s not closed all the way.

Yet another option is to agree on what topics or areas are off limits and then, for the love of all things, honor those boundaries. This allows for some time to repair what was broken while still learning about the small but important stuff that might be going on for someone. For one of my clients, this has worked out well as they have been able to navigate the slow decline of their elderly mother with their sister while being careful not to bring up topics that enrage her sister. 

And finally, as hard as it may be, the best option for some might be to cut off and keep cut off, any communication with someone who has deeply and repeatedly harmed you. Is it sad? Yes, it’s brutal. That being said, it’s also a way to honor the past and begin to build new relationships rather than holding on to something that wasn’t working. 

As cliche as it sounds, sometimes, time does the work for us. Letting the issue sit, without picking at it or nudging someone, is a great way to begin the repair process, if one is going to start at all. 

Taylor Swift’s song, Karma, has a line about “keeping my side of the street clean.” What does she mean by this? In taking care of yourself, making sure you are doing all you can on your end of a relationship, then where it goes is out of your hands. It’s hard, and often it’s isolating because it’s difficult to know if the steps you’re taking are ‘the best’ ones but ultimately, if you do the best you can do, you’ve done a great job. Please don’t forget ~ you are not alone. If you’ve read this far it’s likely you’re in a place where you feel that whatever is going on with a particular relationship is never going to get better. It might. It might not. In the meantime, please take care of yourself first. It matters. 

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