Did you know that we naturally lose friendships every seven years? This can happen for various reasons, but hopefully, it gives you some relief that it’s not just happening to you. Facing conflict in a friendship or relationship? Don’t know what to do next? We hope this article will guide you on how to work through a conflict and respond in a way that is helpful and productive but also learn when it’s time to move forward.
When facing relational conflict with a friend, we more than likely assume the worst. Have you experienced thoughts such as “This friendship is not going as I imagined” or “conflict keeps happening with this person, so what is the point?” The same internal thoughts might occur in relationships when partners experience differences. It’s normal to ask yourself how did we get here? It can be daunting, especially if it comes out of nowhere or if the conflict was experienced frequently in past relationships. However, it’s all about how you respond in these moments that make the difference from your last experience to now.
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Relational conflict can threaten emotional safety and trust. Most people think conflict is an opportunity to leave, but in hindsight, relational conflict is an opportunity. It is an opportunity to learn about yourself and the other person. Relational conflict gives you insight into the way you manage anxiety and what resources you occupy when you go through an unexpected stressor. What are your thoughts about people? What do you believe regarding how friendships should be? It gives you a deep dive into your expectations and core beliefs about friendship that can be really telling about you and your needs. When I talk to my clients, I learn about their family-of-origin experiences that often shape the expectations, beliefs, and desires of others.
Sometimes our core beliefs about relationships can rule our behaviors, and if not healthy, they can hurt people. We think about how people are harming us and place unrealistic demands and expectations on people that eventually push them away. Other times we have realistic expectations and don’t know how to communicate well or have yet to develop the tolerance to sit with the discomfort of being disappointed or let down.
In most relationships, we are looking for our needs to be met. We get into relationships for many reasons, but at the heart of it is to find a sense of community, belonging, or safety. We trust that this person will honor and protect our feelings. Maybe we’ve chosen to be in friendship with someone with whom we have never experienced these things. I’m going to be the oddball out here and suggest you don’t leave at first sight of conflict unless there is something completely unnegotiable for you. INSTEAD, take notes of how you and the other person are responding. If you are experiencing conflict with a friend or partner, consider these approaches:
- Talk directly to the person involved and acknowledge your feelings. This requires vulnerability and transparency. What came up for you? What emotion was connected to the event? What were you initially expecting?
- Seek clarity. Sometimes things are not always what they seem. We can partner in getting our perspective flushed out and ask a few questions before pointing the finger.
- Be patient when looking for change. When we named a need, we imagine change happening automatically. It takes time to learn a new skill and/or to see if someone is willing to commit or not.
Conflict does not have to be combative – although it naturally can be tense and uncomfortable. It can be handled gracefully when accountability, ongoing communication and patience is practiced. Conflict also gives you an opportunity to learn who the other person is. What they do they believe or expect from others? Do they have the capacity or the willingness to meet certain needs? How do they regulate their emotions? That’s right! I said it loud and clear: It’s not just about you! We must think about what might be happening within the other person too. The conflict itself will give insight into where you and the other person are emotionally and learn if that is aligned or not. If you find you are misaligned in any area, you still don’t necessarily have to end the friendship. You can be open to practicing these steps if you both agree you want to work through it:
- Be open to having ongoing conversations about what happened or agreeing to that as a rule as future conflict emerges.
- Be open to forfeiting your assumptions about their behaviors until you get clarity.
- Be open to being challenged on your views.
Resolving conflict must be an active and intentional process. Both parties need to agree this is what they want, and efforts must be made on both ends. It takes two. If one is assuming the other will do the leg work, this will not end well- assuming both people contributed to the breakdown. Even if one person caused the rupture, the other person must be willing to respond- so whether that is expressing they are not ready to move forward and/or need more time, it requires participation.
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So how do you know when to move forward? Throughout a friendship history, where reciprocity, awareness, accountability has been hard to achieve from the other person- you can weigh your options to end the relationship if communication is not received or met with willingness. I would encourage you to consider your context, frequency of conflicts, you, and the person’s responses overtime, and talk to a trusted counsel as needed. Sometimes when you know it’s time to move on, you know, or it will happen naturally.
If you have the opportunity, I will also suggest communication to avoid ambiguous loss. There can be an internal reward in having a clear, direct open conversation where both people know why the friendship is coming to an end. This is helpful skill to develop for other working relationships. Don’t forget to acknowledge what was good and what worked. Sometimes we focus on what didn’t work and forget to focus on what was successful. It’s necessary to identify so you know what you desire in the next friendship/relationship.
In therapy for Black Girls podcast “Cultivating friendships in Adulthood”, Psychologist and friendship expert, Dr. Marisa Franco identifies 6 ways that cultivate friendship: initiative, vulnerability, authenticity, affection, productive anger, and generosity. I really liked these because it normalizes our emotions in intimate relationships. Take a listen if you can!
The gag is we all have “stuff” that can limit the health and growth of a relationship. If we can make efforts that prioritize practicing the things we desire from others, we will be better friends that cultivate emotionally safe relationships with ourselves first and others.