You’ve met them — your friend who hasn’t talked to his brother or his father for years; the oldest daughter who out of all the siblings no longer talks to her mother; those best high school or college friends who had some weird, drunken falling-out and are not only no longer friends but enemies. Modern day Hatfields and McCoys.
And like the famous Hatfields and McCoys, these emotional feuds usually start from something small — some offhand inconsiderate remark at a funeral or wedding; being left out of a Thanksgiving invitation; not being appreciated or acknowledged, being left out of some money. A slight, a hurt, a wound that then somehow snowballs becoming the tip of the iceberg, the last straw, the “always,” the “never.” Instead of apologies, there is the hurtful comment back, the bringing up of the past, the rant or the disregard. It’s over, the cutoff.
Cutoffs work in that you decide that you no longer have to deal with this person on an everyday basis; they get locked away into the back corners of your mind and past. Some people use this as their go-to means of handling any difficult relationship problem. Their lives are littered with a series of hurtful, never-repaired relationships — everyone is their best friend until they make that wrong move, say that stinging comment — and then they fall into that old Godfather relationship status: You’re dead to me.
But dead doesn’t really mean dead. Psychologically, they’re not put to rest; it’s more like a blanket has just been thrown over a smoldering mess. It takes energy and vigilance to make sure it all doesn’t flare up again. Your brain becomes hotwired for any injustices and slights; your tolerance of others goes down; you become evermore wary and suspicious of others; the world is less safe. You adopt a bunker mentality where your pool of good relationships becomes ever smaller and perilous.
And even if it doesn’t spiral down this far, if cutoffs haven’t yet devolved into an ingrained coping style, but instead is limited to a one-person-one-relationship falling out, it still can become a huge emotional pothole that you’re constantly having to be alert to walk around. What you’re often left with a tangled mess of pride and stubbornness where you’ve painted yourself into an emotional corner, where you’re engaged in the ultimate blink contest that requires that the other guy make the first move forward before anything ever change.
Sometimes it’s time to be the person to make the first move.
Reaching out doesn’t have to be about swallowing your pride; it doesn’t mean the other guy wins, that you’re the doormat, that you grovel. It’s about putting the past to rest so that it doesn’t contaminate your present. It can maybe be about healing and getting back a relationship that was once important.
Here are some suggestions for trying to bridge that gap:
Write. Giving the person a call out-of-the-blue after you’ve had some liquid courage usually doesn’t work even if you’ve prepared a speech. The other person is caught off-guard, likely to be stunned by anxiety and with that will reflexively fall back on railing against the old wounds and resentments. It probably won’t go as you imagined.
Instead write an email or letter. Forget texting — too easy to misread, misinterpret, stoking the smoldering fire rather than putting them out. Write and start by saying the obvious — that it may seem strange or surprising to hear from you after all this time.
Talk about your purpose. Say why you are writing — to mend fences, to close the gap and break the cold-war silence after all this time, to see if there is possibility of repairing the relationship that was once important.
Apologize. Whether you believe you did anything wrong or not, whether you believe the other person blew things out of proportion or was too sensitive, whether you meant what you did or said or didn’t, it doesn’t matter. Their reality is that you did hurt their feelings, and that is what you are apologizing for. Simply say that.
Resist the temptation to go down the road of blame and but — “But if you hadn’t said that,” ”because you did this.” This is just jabbing at the wound, fanning the flames. Talk about you and your apology. The less said the better. Let the other guy take this in and figure what it means.
Talk about next steps. Go back to purpose — that you would like to move beyond this, put this to rest, see if wounds can be healed. Say you’d like to hear from him, her, when they are ready. Feel free to give me a call, send me an email; I’m ready to hear what you have to say.
Your goal is merely open communication, stop the standoff, begin what may be a longer process of reconciliation.
Realize that you’ve done the best you can do. Send it off and then see what happens. Say to yourself that you are proud of you for taking this step, offering this olive branch whether or not it is accepted or responded it. Pat yourself on the back for being a compassionate, rather than anger-filled adult. Have no expectations.
You are doing it for you.
Are you ready to reach out and heal the past?