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How to Fix a Friendship

When friendships start to unravel it can really throw us for a loop. Learn how to set things right and make a fresh start.

By Ginny Graves

Mom friendship illustration
Enlarge Image
Illustrations by Caroline Hwang

Not long ago, I was browsing through a friend's Facebook page when I saw a discussion she was having with some mutual buddies about a party they were planning. It sounded like a lot of fun. The only problem: I wasn't invited. Should I call them? Ignore it? Do something sneaky, like ask if they were free for dinner on the date of their big bash? The incident reminded me that even though I'm no longer in middle school, my friendships are as important—and almost as emotionally charged—as they were back then. "Connections between women are so intimate that any bump in the road can make us feel vulnerable, hurt and betrayed," says Irene Levine, Ph.D., author of Best Friends Forever (Overlook Press). We asked the experts to weigh in on five of the most common friendship flaps—and how to solve them.

You've become good friends with the mom of your daughter's best friend. But the tweens have had a serious falling out and aren't speaking. Both of you feel it was your girl who was wronged, and now you're on the outs too.

When moms get involved in their kids' conflicts, bad feelings can escalate quickly because we all tend to be blind to our children's faults. So proceed with caution, says Karol Ward, a social worker and author of Find Your Inner Voice (New Page). "Call your friend on the phone or, even better, meet in a public place so you'll both have an incentive to control your temper," she suggests. "Start by saying, 'I'd really like to understand what's happening between us and our kids. I want to hear your perspective and give you mine.'" Bear in mind that for the conversation to be productive, you've got to hear each other out, talk about your feelings and, above all, stay calm. Discuss her child as little as possible; if you must rehash the girls' interactions, state only the facts or events you personally witnessed. Finally, it'll help to remind yourself that she's going to be as protective of her child as you are of yours. The ideal conclusion? You'll shake your heads, acknowledging that kids will be kids. And you'll agree to stay out of it and let them solve their own troubles.

Your BFF recently had major surgery, and while you were very concerned, you were so busy you forgot to call. She lets you have it in an angry, accusatory e-mail, and now you're steamed at her too.

E-mail and texting are great ways to stay in touch, but they have the same pitfalls for grown-ups as they do for tweens and teens—in the heat of the moment, it's all too easy to indulge negative emotions and let them get the better of you. "So sit tight and chill for at least 24 hours," advises Ward. "That's the only way to be sure you don't say something you'll regret." A prolonged silence could also worsen things, especially if your friend is used to a quick response from you. So just send a short note saying that you'd rather talk about things on the phone or in person in a day or two. Then, after you've both had a chance to cool off, explain why you didn't contact her and apologize. Lay some new ground rules by saying, "Going forward, let's try to give each other the benefit of the doubt and talk on the phone before blowing up online, okay?"

After your friend got laid off last year, you helped out by lending her several hundred dollars. Now she's got a new job, but she hasn't made a move to pay you back. Though you feel had, you're hesitant to bring up the subject.

Financial disputes can create rifts in even the closest friendships. "We all love the idea of doing good deeds like loaning money, but if we end up feeling taken for granted or taken advantage of, it's hard to talk about for fear of seeming petty," says Jacqueline Olds, a psychiatrist and author of The Lonely American: Drifting Apart in the Twenty-First Century (Beacon Press). Indeed, many of us would rather write off a loan—and sometimes a friendship—than confront the issue. Don't let that happen. Remind her of the debt in a way that won't make her feel guilty or put her on the defensive, advises Susan Newman, a social psychologist and author of The Book of No (McGraw-Hill). "You could say, 'I know you forgot about this since we're all so busy, but you owe me money and it would be great if you could get it to me as soon as possible,'" she suggests. If she still doesn't come through, ask yourself whether she's self-centered or disrespectful to you in other ways as well and assess how much you value the relationship. You'll have learned a valuable lesson, Newman adds: "In the future, if a friend asks you for money, it's all right to say, 'I'd like to help, but I just can't right now.'"

Mom talking illustration
Enlarge Image
Illustrations by Caroline Hwang

She recently got divorced, and she's morphed into a different person. She used to be involved in her tweens' lives but now she asks you to babysit all the time and picks them up hours late. You're shocked by her lack of responsibility.

Try putting yourself in her shoes—maybe she's going through a postdivorce crisis and needs extra leeway and understanding. At the same time, you've got to address your feelings of resentment, says Katherine Yost, Ph.D., a marriage and family therapist based in Bellevue, Washington. "Just don't launch into the problem right away," she advises. "Inquire about her life first and give her time to vent and pour her heart out. After you've paid your listening dues, you can gently raise the issue and try to come up with ways to share the load more evenly." Your other option: Back away and be less available, at least for a while. Keep the channels of communication open with an occasional phone call or e-mail, and you may be able to reunite once her life is back on track.

Your friend won't stop bragging about how well her teen son is doing at school—advanced placement classes, honors, awards and the like. Meanwhile, your boy is struggling and needs regular tutoring. Her insensitivity is creating a lot of tension.

Even with good friends, it's all too easy to get competitive about your kids' achievements. "We identify deeply with our kids, so hearing about another child's success creates tension, especially if yours is having a hard time," says Newman. It helps to remember that a braggart who otherwise treats you decently is most likely just being insensitive. "They're either boasting because they're insecure or they're just feeling proud and want to share their happiness with someone they care about," says Ward. To make yourself feel better, remember any given mom can brag at any given moment—there's always something to be proud of, like how hard your daughter worked on her paper or how sweet your son is with his little brother. If a friend repeatedly has to one-up you, try saying, "I'm not sure you're understanding what a tough time I'm going through with my son. I was hoping we could talk a little about that." If you're both motivated to maintain the relationship, that almost always helps to clear the air, says Ward.

Are You Really That Into Her?

We all know that some friendships, no matter how strong, don't last forever. A recent study found that most of us change half our good buddies every seven years. But that doesn't make breaking up any easier. "We tend to cling to friendships long after they're worth keeping, partly out of habit and because we feel guilty about ending them," says Irene Levine. There are, however, some red flags signaling that it's time to cut the cord:

Speaking Up

Not every slight requires a heart-to-heart chat. But if you score 3 or above on the emotional scale below, it's time to schedule a friendship summit.

  1. You know she didn't mean it and didn't intend to hurt you.
  2. You're annoyed but philosophical—everyone screws up sometimes.
  3. Every time you see her you get angry because of things you've left unsaid.
  4. Simmering with resentment, you keep talking about the situation with your husband, other friends and anyone who'll listen.
  5. It's keeping you up at night.

Originally published in the November 1, 2011, issue of Family Circle magazine.

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