In last month’s column, "Letting Go of Bad Relationships," we looked at the “why and when” of making the difficult decision to walk away from a toxic person or relationship in your life, and how sometimes deciding to simply give up on someone – as painful as that choice can be – might be the wisest and most emotionally healthy choice you can make.
In some relationships it’s possible, in fact, that neither of you individually are all that toxic. It's possible that the maladaptive relationship you have with someone else doesn't reflect on any other of your relationships. Sometimes people find themselves in those “oil-and-water” situations that just will never work. It happens.
But sometimes you find yourself in a good, or mostly good, relationship seriously suffering from stress or neglect, but that you aren’t ready to say goodbye to. You know the bonds still have life in them, and their potential benefits are well worth the hard work of restoration. If this describes any of your important relationships, whether with a family member or friend, this article is for you.
What follows is a is a 5-step plan designed to begin the process of reconciling failing relationships (and also to help existing, good or “pretty good” relationships improve or keep going strong).
The easiest part of any relationship breakdown is to place blame on the other of how they wronged, hurt, offended or betrayed you. It's easy to come up with that list. What's harder, but more crucial, is to look in the mirror first and foremost to in order to take ownership of what you contributed to the conflict. Looking at our own faults, imperfections, immaturities, anger and how we failed the other person takes courage and a willingness to change.
For instance, marriage counselors know it's not a single event that usually leads a couple to contemplate a divorce, but a series of events and the breakdown is caused by both people, not just one. Even when one person has an affair then, yes, that affair is a reckless betrayal that cuts to the bone, but it's also a symptom of a much bigger problem. There were often many events on both sides of the relationship, such as emotional abandonment, unsafe communication, small frustrations that built to resentment, etc., which led to one person having the affair.
All the dynamics need to be examined and each person needs to take ownership as the first and most crucial step for a relationship to reconcile. Marriage and relationship therapists also know, based upon empirical research, that if one person refuses to take ownership of their part the relationship is destined to fail.
This can be one of the most difficult parts of repairing a broken relationship because it requires great vulnerability. Simply pointing out what may be the elephant in the room – we’re not doing well – leaves you susceptible to a wide range of unknowns. How will your partner or family member or friend react? Will you be rebuffed? Rejected? Emotionally pummeled? Will they even give a damn about the prospect of your relationship collapsing or having collapsed?
This can be a hard step for anyone to initiate, and for cops – who are supposed to be emotionally and mentally tough – it can be even harder because it requires you lower walls and defenses carefully constructed over the years. Nonetheless, it's crucial if you're serious about fixing what is broken.
And so is bringing solutions to the table. Merely pointing out what may be quite obvious about how things have weakened or broken isn't enough. Having a plan and suggested solutions demonstrates you're seriousness about rebuilding what’s been lost.
Develop a Plan, Follow Through
Creating a strategy to restore the relationship – first unilaterally, in what you will bring to the table as possible solutions, and then together with any refinements to those solutions, additions the other party may have added, and a sense of teamwork – greatly improves the likelihood of your success.
The plan may or may not be elaborate. If busyness, the passage of time or neglect has caused you to lose touch with your former circle of close friends and you’d like to restore some or all of those bonds, it may be as simple as pledging to get together in person or by phone quarterly to catch up, a conscious effort to include them on your holiday card list or making time to stay connected via social media.
But if you're trying to save a foundering marriage or bridge a familial estrangement, the plan will certainly require far more intricate and vital details. The significance and depth of your potential loss, and the seriousness of what caused the estrangement, will dictate how elaborate your plan must be
And follow-through is critical! No matter your intentions’ sincerity, without follow through they'll be for naught.
Give it time
Patience is a virtue. Remember this when repairing a relationship gone wrong because you'll need lots of it!
When a relationship is hurt or broken it takes multiple conversations before repair truly begins, and we also need to be willing to listen more than we speak. Listening is a skill that involves patience to hear everything the other person needs to say. It's only when the other person feels they've been truly heard that healing begins to take place.
Take as much time as the relationship needs to fully mend, which may be years, not days, for two people to reconcile.
Law enforcement types are often loath to seek the help of a counselor. You’re tough-minded, self-reliant sorts who solve other peoples’ problems, right? Well, sometimes you just need to get over it!
The fact is, when relationships – especially our closest, most intimate relationships that should be lasting a lifetime – have collapsed under the weight of anger, betrayal, distrust and dysfunction, you’re probably just not going to be able to fix them on your own. Some of the prior steps we’ve listed are more easily accomplished with the help of an experienced counselor who can both help you and hold you accountable. Working with someone who does this stuff all the time makes it so much easier to accomplish your goals.
And just because the help your seeking has to do with relationships and relationship-mending doesn’t mean you have to seek professional help together; it’s nice, and maybe helpful, but not always possible. Focusing on yourself and what personal foibles you may bring to your relationships is helpful in its own right, and can keep you focused and sane as you work through the difficult task of restoring a relationship.
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