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8 Ways to Respond When a Friend Hurts You

... and how to tell that it's time to move on for good.

Key points

  • Most friends don’t set out to hurt us.
  • When hurt feelings occur, try talking about the issue with your friend.
  • Sometimes, resolving the conflict means simply waiting until you both cool down.
Antonio Guillem/Shutterstock
Source: Antonio Guillem/Shutterstock

Sam and Jake* were colleagues. They were also best friends. Jake knew that one of Sam’s career goals was to move into the position of director of their department after the current director retired. Jake’s interests were in another area of the company. So when the position opened up, Sam assumed he would have his friend’s support. Instead, Jake said to Sam, “Hey, buddy. You’ve got competition for the director’s position—me.”

Sam felt blindsided: “He’s my best friend. He knows I’ve been working toward that job for a long time. He never expressed any interest in it. What’s the story?”

Because they had been close for so long, Sam could discuss his feelings with Jake. But his friend’s answer only added to his pain. “Jake said friends should be able to compete, and that if I was having trouble with it, that was my problem.”

On the surface, Jake’s comment makes sense. In fact, competition is often part of men’s friendships, although it tends to be a much bigger challenge for female friends. For example, male athletes are often good friends with their biggest competitors, while female athletes seem to have a harder time with this. Vogue author Rebecca Johnson put it this way: “Roger Federer might have dinner with Stan Wawrinka after a match, but among the women, it’s mostly cold shoulders.”

Sam didn’t feel that Jake’s behavior was as much about competing as it was about backstabbing: “If he was really a good friend, he would have talked to me before he went after the job. Or he wouldn’t have gone after it at all.”

In the end, Sam did get the position but he lost his friend: “I just didn’t trust him anymore. He didn’t have my back. Actually, he tried to stab a knife into it.”

We all know about mean middle-school girls, who seem to intentionally hurt their close friends just for the fun of it. And we know about bullies. But what should you do when an adult friend turns on you?

1. Make sure you read the situation correctly. On her Personal Excellence blog, life coach Celestine Chua wrote:

Sometimes what we perceive may not be the truth. It may merely be our perception which would be based on a subjective belief system. For example, a while back, a friend of mine thought that I betrayed him by backing out on something I had promised. However, in my mind, I never made the promise. It was a difference in perception that led to the misunderstanding. After several talks and effort to rebuild the friendship, we finally buried the hatchet and mended the rift between us.

2. Try talking about the issue with your friend. This is obviously connected to the first step, since you can’t reality-test your perceptions without your friend's feedback. Many times this kind of discussion leads to a resolution. But sometimes, as happened with Jake and Sam, the resolution isn’t what you expect or want.

3. Discuss it with someone else you trust. If you can’t get your friend to talk to you, talk things over with someone whose opinion you value. But don’t play the gossip game. It might feel good to turn a mutual friend against a friend who's wronged you, but in the end it will just make the situation worse. Receiving advice from someone who is disengaged and neutral is not the same thing as talking about a friend behind their back.

4. Look for ways to resolve the conflict. Sometimes this simply means waiting until you both cool down. Daniel Goleman, the author of many books about emotional intelligence, says that we all need time cool off in order to manage conflict. Time out, physical exercise, or even a good night’s sleep can give your body and your brain a chance to reset so that you don’t repeat the same arguments and head toward a stalemate.

5. Know when not to talk. This may sound weird coming from a psychotherapist, but sometimes not talking about a problem is the best thing you can do for your friendship. As you may know from my other posts, I think a lot of popular mystery stories offer good psychological insights. One example is found in Sue Grafton’s character Kinsey Millhone, who, after an argument with a close friend, says:

The practice of baring all, analyzing every nuance embedded in a quarrel, is a surefire way to keep an argument alive. Better to establish a temporary peace and revisit the conflict later. Often, by then, both parties have decided the issue isn’t worth the relationship.

6. Know when to cut your losses. As Kenny Rogers says in “The Gambler,” you have to “know when to fold 'em.” Sometimes that means giving up a specific battle, and other times it means giving up an entire friendship. This is not always an easy decision, and it definitely needs to be made when you are calm. Don’t end a friendship in the heat of an argument; take the time to cool off. At this point, if there is clearly no chance of resolving things and you cannot simply ignore what has happened, then ...

7. Let it go. Whether you win or lose the fight, whether you decide to stay friends or not, find a way to let go of your hurt, resentment, and sadness. It takes time, but sometimes we have to actively decide to let go and move on. Holding onto hurt and pain doesn’t do you or your friendships any good. The best thing you can do when an argument is over is figure out what you have learned from it so that you can apply the knowledge the next time.

8. Don’t paint all of your friends with the same brush. Sometimes people who we think are on our side turn out not to be, for reasons we may never learn. If this happens, don't seek revenge, but move on and away from the hurt. Other friends can help with this.

How We Move On

Most friends don’t set out to hurt us. When we are hurt by a friend, the pain is usually accidental and the person who caused it feels sorry—even if they cannot bring themselves to apologize.

Some time later, Sam met Jake at a mutual friend’s birthday celebration. “At first he wouldn’t look at me,” Sam said. “But about halfway through the party, he came up to me and said, ‘You know, I’m sorry about what happened between us. I wish I could have had a do-over. I would take back everything if I could. When I realized that you were really hurt, I didn’t know what to do. I was being a smartass because I didn’t know how to tell you I hadn’t thought it out.”

Sam’s first thought was how long it had taken for Jake to acknowledge that he had made a mistake. “I wanted to walk away and never talk to him again.” Instead, he said, “Thanks, Jake. I know it took a lot of effort for you to tell me. I just wish you had been able to do it before now.”

Jake nodded, apologized again, and then walked away. Sam realized that he had actually stopped resenting Jake for what happened. “I guess I really had gotten over it,” he said. He felt much better about Jake as a person after this. He wasn’t sure if they could be friends again, but he thought it might be a possibility.

Have you ever had this experience? What did you do when a friend did something hurtful to you? How did it work out? What, if anything, would you do differently now?

* Names and identifying information changed to protect privacy

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Copyright F.D. Barth 2016


Goleman, Daniel (2005). Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. Bantam.

Grafton, Sue (2015). X. G.P. Putnam.

Rogers, Kenny (1978). "The Gambler"

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