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Strained Relationship? Focus on the Future, Not the Past

Learn the lessons of the past without having to rehash it.

Key points

  • There can be more to gain by trying to save damaged relationships than there is by giving up on them.
  • Reaching out and being willing to listen to the other side is the first step.
  • You don't have to re-litigate the past to move forward.

Many of us have had close relationships that have become strained or estranged, whether it is due to a specific hurtful incident or a final last straw from wounds accumulated over time. We may cut ties or pull back. In these relationships, we stop talking, or talk "cordially" but never again are fully engaged or trusting.

But if you are still obsessing about that big wound, miss not having any relationship with someone important to you, or you don’t want to limp along and keep living in this downgraded relationship, it may be time to do something else.

Where you get stuck

Maybe you've told the other person what was hurtful, and now the relationship seems to have turned into a face-saving blink contest with each waiting on the other to make the first move, whether it be to make contact, to apologize, or to say that you miss each other. Or maybe you haven't spoken up, only backed away, but you somehow expect the other person to read your mind and know how you feel. Or maybe it's less about a standoff or mindreading and more about your own belief that healing the past means having to drudge through the past, sorting through details about who said what to get to a story you both can live with. Thinking about doing this feels overwhelming and scary, making you even more reluctant to reach out.

But you don’t have to do this. If you want to do your best to close these old wounds, consider doing the following instead:

Reach out

Okay, time to end the standoff. This can mean opening the door, not caving in. Here you send off an email, a text, you make a call. If you've cut off the relationship, say you've been thinking about the other person, that you've like to reconnect; if you've been pulling back, acknowledge that, but indicate you want that to change. This is your opening move, see what response you get. If you get nothing back, maybe follow up one more time. If you get a negative reaction—defensiveness, anger, a launching into who said what—restate your goal of wanting to move forward, healing the rift. If you get a positive response, the door is open; step in.

Talk about the hurt

Help the other person understand why you stopped talking or emotionally pulled back. This is about helping them understand where you are coming from. Talk about soft emotions such as hurt, worry, fear, rather than anger, resentment. Avoid rehashing the past by getting into the weeds of facts, which will only trigger an argument over whose reality is right and actually make a point to say this. You don't want to drudge through the past but instead use the past as information to help both you and the other person know what you each need most to move forward.

See how they respond

You've now done the best you can do. See what they say next. If they push back, remain calm, allow them to vent about their own hurts, ask what gets in the way of you both moving forward. Listen to what they say and see if it is something you can do. And if you get anything positive in response, for instance, that they too would like to reconnect, reinforce it with thanks and emotional confetti. Talk about the next steps: a visit, weekly phone calls, catch-up texts. You've accomplished your goal.

The message here is that healing comes by being proactive, being assertive without being angry, by focusing on the big picture rather than details of the past. It's about building a future rather than holding onto the need to be right.

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