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Dealing with a broken relationship

Updated: Aug 17, 2021

I asked you all for suggestions for things for me to write about here, and you came through big time. I’m so grateful!

But where to start!?!?! I think I’ll start here. A woman wrote me:

I am in a point in my life where I need ideas about putting my "relationship" with the woman who brought me to life, in a new frame. I opened the skeleton closet for her, by handing her a letter with how much damage her upbringing did to me. She didn't even refer to my issues, she was just occupied with how it denigrated her (as expected). Thank you very much!

Wow! Situations like this are among the most painful and complicated we can face.

First of all, all I have to go on here are the words you see. So, for example, I don’t know exactly what the words “putting my ‘relationship’ with the woman who brought me to life in a new frame” mean. But that’s okay. We can work with what we have.

I guess the point I need to start with is that when you confront a person from your past, you have to think about everything you say from the point of view of the response you want to elicit, the outcome you’re looking for.

Lots of times we’re so full of anger and hurt feelings that we pour them out to the person who we feel caused them. Why not? We want them to know how we feel! Look at what you’ve done!, we say.

But it is inevitable that the other person will take our expression of feelings as an accusation, even as an assault.

So we don’t get what we’d hoped for. The other person doesn’t respond by saying, I see how much you’ve suffered, I see how much I’ve hurt you. Instead, they talk about feeling attacked, and they defend themselves. It almost always goes this way.

This is why in family therapy only a clueless beginner therapist would open things by asking the family members to tell each other “how they really feel.” It just opens the floodgates of hell in mutual recriminations.

Instead, we’d begin by asking the people there to talk about what they want, what they’re hoping will happen here.

So. If you just want to express your feelings, that’s fine. But now you know what to expect. But if you want reconciliation, then starting off with a statement of hurt and anger is probably not the best way to go. In that case, start by saying what you do want: healing and re-connection.

And that brings me to putting the relationship in “a new frame.” As I said, I wish I knew exactly what “a new frame” meant. They could mean anything from separation to getting closer. They could also mean a redefinition: “I’d like us to be no longer this, but I would like us to be that.”

This is all okay. You are entitled to want the kind of relationship you need for your emotional wellbeing. But here’s the thing. You can create separation all by yourself. For anything else, it takes both people working together to make it happen.

So if you want to break off connection with this woman, and you’ve really thought it through, you don’t need permission and you shouldn’t ask for it. You don’t even need to declare it if you don’t want to. You just no longer respond to her overtures, if she makes any. You don’t have to supply any explanation or justification. If you feel you have to say something, you can just say, “I prefer that we no longer communicate with each other anymore.” And that’s it.

You may feel guilt over this, but it’s hard to imagine anyone taking such a step without ample cause. Of course, your action may cause pain. But you’re fully justified in taking care of yourself.

As for all the other “new frames,” the best approach is to talk about your history, seeing things from the other person’s point of view as fully and clearly as you possibly can. People respond best when they feel seen and acknowledged.

Then say what “new frame” you want. Be clear what it is exactly that you’re talking about.

Then say why you think it will be a good thing for both of you.

Then say that this is just your opinion, and you’d love to get together with the other person to discuss this and hear their ideas.

And what if what you want is healing and re-connection? Then you need to accept what this will mean: you're listening to each other as you talk about the ways you’ve felt hurt by the other. But NOT in an atmosphere of accusation. Instead, in an atmosphere of mutual understanding. Where it’s clear to both of you that the only response needed or asked for is where the other person shows they understand that what they did caused pain, they see the dimensions of the pain they caused, and they’re sorry for that. If you tell me how I hurt you, my response should take significantly longer than what you said and should go into considerable detail.

Then you move on to talking about how you can move on. You each say, “What do you need from me so we can move on?”

It may be that this can’t work. That what each of you needs are things the other can’t deliver. And that’s okay. Sad but okay. At least now you know.

But if it can work, then you’ve achieved a huge victory against the forces of darkness.


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