To enjoy meaningful relationships, you have to expose your heart. Unfortunately, this exposure sometimes leads to injury.
The first time I felt such suffering, I was so young I didn’t know my expectations about relationships were unreasonable. When I was in kindergarten, I became “best friends” with this little girl named Erica. At the time I thought a best friend was a constant in life. I didn’t consider that the logistics of friendships, like maintaining regular contact, was part of the deal.
So about a year later when we had moved on to different schools and different social circles, I ran into her again. In the course of our meeting, I asked her who her best friend was. She said some other girl’s name. I was shocked ... and disappointed.
Relationships Come with Eventual Disappointment
That childhood disappointment would only serve as a precursor to many more instances as I progressed through adolescence and into adulthood. When I got older and wiser, I came to recognize that intimate relationships, including friendships, only offer enjoyment on the on-ramp. The progression of the relationship from the early stages of getting to know one another through the later stages of establishing an intimate bond with deep-seated trust offers nothing but emotional upside.
But inevitably, as part of life, relationship disappointments eventually materialize. They become an interruption to the bliss of your budding companionship. Like the washing away of the perfect sandcastle, the disappointment causes you to realize that what once was will never be again. And the retreat from the relationship’s pinnacle just plain hurts.
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Nowhere to Emotionally Process Friendship Disappointment
What makes these episodes all the more difficult is the lack of socially acceptable means to express this special kind of grief. Talk shows can rage on about romantic relationship drama all day long. But nowhere is there a credible outlet to talk about friendship discord without it becoming a one-sided bitch-fest. Where can we go to share the sincere confusion, guilt, hurt, anger, and sadness we often experience when our friendships go awry?
We can turn to other family or friends for support, but we may fear appearing foolish for being overinvested in a platonic relationship. Their cursory reassurances may feel invalidating and may just make us feel more alienated. Nowhere, it seems, beyond the confines of a therapist’s office do we have a safe place to feel the depth of this type of disappointment.
So we’re left to process our emotions alone and in silence, vacillating between wondering who is in the right and what it all means. We second-guess our position and then sometimes conclude that we must be solely to blame for the frayed or ruptured ties.
Redefining Friendship After Disappointment
Like most other relationships, friendships and the complications that come with them show up in shades of gray. There are certainly infractions like a betrayal that breaks the bond. But more often they are smaller episodes that cause the friendship to bend.
Something has shifted, but we aren’t ready to give up just yet. We still feel committed to continuing the relationship but realize it must be on different terms. We may retreat to recalibrate our expectations and to define anew the role this friendship will play in our lives.
This was the situation I found myself in when a longtime family friend began to blow me off following the deaths of our mothers. Through the final months and weeks of our respective mothers’ lives, my friend and I leaned on each other, not only because of the shared experience but because of our long history together.
Once both of our mothers were gone, I thought our closeness would continue because we had shared so much. But unfortunately, it did not. My greatest disappointment came when my request for us to talk on the anniversary of my mother’s death went unanswered. She never acknowledged the request and instead popped up many days later with hardly an excuse. Her absentmindedness wasn’t fatal, but it did sting.
Following that and a few other similar instances, I concluded that our relationship would just look different going forward. But that was after turning the issue over in my mind a million times, questioning why our close dynamics had somehow gone off the rails. I wondered what my responsibility was in all of it.
Confusion When Friends Pull Away
The most frustrating thing about minor transgressions like these is often you never know the real reasons for the disengagement. You may decide it’s not a big enough deal to surface it with your friend. Or you fear doing so may run the risk of you looking insecure or paranoid. As this opens up an awkward dialogue, your friend could respond with denials or attempts to gloss over it with hollow, unconvincing reassurances.
The worst of this comes when your friend uncharacteristically pulls away and abruptly goes silent. It’s so common these days, there’s a name for it: being ghosted. In such instances you get neither the explanation of the absence nor the closure you need. What the hell happened?! It stays with you like a lifelong unsolved mystery.
This has happened to me more than a few times over the years. I always wondered, “Is it me?!” For instance, at my wedding I had a couple friends who never spoke with me again afterward. It was like the wedding was a clean break. There were no words, no tension that I could perceive. It was just like they faded out.
My attempts to connect later fizzled. To this day I have never found out what happened. To make myself feel better, I think I just eventually concluded that life goes on and sometimes paths eventually part. I did my best not to take it personally.
Changing Social Norms are Causing Disappointment
The disappointments that come with sudden and unexpected relationship shifts, such as being ghosted, are becoming more common. These days friendships are lacking the depth and longevity once enjoyed years ago. This is due in part to the new social norms of how we form and maintain our relationships. Social media has created a new model for us.
Our lives are in flux, and so, too, are our relationships, causing them to be situational, even disposable. Like when your best friend at work suddenly has no time once you change jobs. Or your neighbor friends become scarce after you relocate. No one means any harm. It’s just everyone’s moved on without any emotional responsibility toward others.
As a result, we have developed social callousness. We aim for social quantity to make up for lackluster quality and longevity. So while we may theoretically appreciate emotional depth, we just don’t have the time nor the attention span to invest in it. With everything remaining on the surface, we have nothing really to show for our social connections. And that, in and of itself, may be a cause and an effect of our disappointment.
Keeping Perspective and Protecting Yourself
The challenge becomes maintaining a healthy perspective and not letting repeated episodes of disappointment corrode your heart with cynicism. Like many things in life, it has a lot to do with how you view things.
It’s important to recognize that you will probably never have the full view of the situation. Plus, the motivations of others are not always logical. If you approach your friendships with honest intent, transparency, and open communication, you can rest assured that you’ve done your part. There is no need to debate the conflicting voices in your head.
Here are six ways to process and recover from friendship disappointment so you can keep your head on straight and your heart intact.
1 - Recognize That Your Feelings Are Valid
Even though society isn’t rushing in with its empathy, realize that what you feel is real and justified. Human relationships of all kinds impact your heart. So sit with your feelings and give them the space to be. You’ll only prolong the heartache if you dismiss them or pretend they don’t exist.
2 - Give Yourself Time and Space to Process
Often when you are on the receiving end of either active or passive hurt, your instinct is to react. To fight, defend, cajole, rectify. But any immediate reaction usually doesn’t serve anyone well. Instead, take the time to let some things play out, including your emotions. This may give you the mental and emotional clarity to address it with more calm and decorum.
3 - Consider It From an Objective Point of View
Your relationships steeped in emotions can twist you up in knots. In times of conflict, your most impassioned position is your own. But can you try to see it from a different perspective? Try to set aside temporarily the raw emotion and examine the situation with the benefit of doubt. Search for an understanding of each person’s orientation and the bigger picture. What would the objective bystander conclude?
4 - Decouple Your Self-Worth From the Relationship
The most rewarding joys of any relationship are the recognition, acceptance, and inclusion you receive from others. When you feel deeply loved and cared for, you can sometimes unconsciously tie your self-worth (your loveableness) to the vitality of the relationship. But when even the best of these relationships falter, this linkage can leave you gutted. So you must instead learn to recognize your inherent worth as something only you dictate. It’s never derived from anything outside yourself.
5 - Find Your Closure
Because society hasn’t elevated the value of platonic relationships to that of romantic ones, you can’t count on the same rules of disengagement. That means when your friendship paths part, you sometimes aren’t given the courtesy of formal closure (i.e., the friend breakup). So you must create it for yourself. Take steps to create your own ritual to signify the relationship’s end. For example, you can write a breakup letter and then burn it. It’s helpful to be philosophical about it, then offer a release with an honest heart.
6 - Turn to New Support
And lastly, whether the friendship is redefined or concluded, it’s important to care for yourself to heal the disappointment or loss. Don’t socially retreat. Instead, surround yourself with others who are supportive, encouraging, and uplifting. This can be old friends or new acquaintances. Try not to be gun-shy, and instead see other relationships as a mark for new social beginnings.
When You’re the One Who Disappoints
As we ponder how to recover when we’re on the receiving end of hurt, it’s only fair to consider when we are the offender. Whether or not we know it, it is highly likely we have caused harm to another. Whom have we ghosted? Whom have we let down? Whom have we offended? It may not be practical to make amends for every misstep of our lives, but a good step of redemption is to have more mindfulness about how our actions affect others.
Consider your speech, your actions, and even your inaction. Be conscious of how your friends may interpret things, especially if they have a tendency to be sensitive. It’s not your responsibility to overaccommodate a sensitive person, but a good rule of thumb is to be more considerate with everyone.
When rifts happen either by your actions or another’s, have the courage to call it out in kind and diplomatic terms. Seek clarity and understanding to see the situation from every perspective. And while you can’t ultimately control the decisions and actions of others, you can signal to yourself and the world that you believe friendship is worth fighting for.
Take the time to journal about an episode in your life when you felt let down by a friend. Process the emotions of the experience. Then try to consider the other person’s perspective or motivations. What do you think an impartial bystander would conclude? If the issue was never resolved, think of some ways you can get closure and find your peace
How do you typically handle disappointment from a friend? Do you speak up or do you let it lie? How do you find a resolution?
Please share your experiences in the comments.