(This blog is updated with links, but has officially moved to http://ellenbremen.com) A tenured professor of Communication Studies helps students correctly--not cluelessly--speak/deal with those who teach them. The outcome? Better student-prof relationships, improved grades, confident & competent communication skills for college & beyond. The opinions expressed are my own or those of commenters. All student situations described are real and carefully disguised to protect student privacy.
When Relationships Change, How Do You Know When to Let Go? Part 2
(Wow, so I guess I wasn't alone in thinking about changes in relationships! Part 1 garnered quite a response. I received some great notes on Twitter along the lines of making the difficult decision to let go, and, conversely, how to transform/transition a relationship into something different. Let's continue the conversation!).
When we left off last Tuesday, I discussed taking some time and listening to your feelings about your friendship, both physically and emotionally. That task is both easy and difficult:
Easy because you don't really have to do anything that involves the other person. Yet.
Difficult because once your eyes are truly open to feelings of dissatisfaction or discomfort, it's extremely hard to close them again and move forward like things are normal. (A good friend of mine has a wonderful saying, "You can't put the toothpaste back in the tube.")
So what's next?
Well, here comes the really challenging part: Sorting out your feelings, dealing with them, and taking some action. Here is an initial step that was a recent epiphany for me:
-If you believe you want to hold on, ask yourself why.
I'm certainly not the only one with parent issues out there, so I'll tread lightly: When a parent-child relationship has a challenged history, I have realized that the child may not give himself/herself permission to do the choosing in friendships.
I know that I have ignored my own desires to ask for certain needs to be met, or to reduce/cease contact with a friend, but I didn't listen to those signs. I didn't think I "deserved" to make such a decision.
Maya Angelou has a quote that I love, love, love: "When people show you who they are, believe them the first time." I have not always paid attention when others are sending me that message. Where does this blind eye come from? My past, for sure! If you have family of origin issues that made you feel "less than" as a child, as an adult, you have a right to choose relationships that make you feel, well, "more than" (for lack of a better contrast!). Think about if you are holding on to a friendship because you don't feel that you have the right to decide that it's no longer appropriate for you.
The next action step involves talking with your friend. I'll preface by saying that these are the conversations that no one ever wants to have, but have the greatest power for us as healthy and connected interpersonal communicators! As you bring up your concerns with your friend, you are going to learn a ton about yourself and about them. This conversation may help you transform your relationship more positively... or it may give you the facts you need to make a needed break. Here goes:
-Schedule a conversation to share your truths/concerns about the changes you're experiencing with the friendship.
Like I said in part 1, you've experienced a bunch of changes as a college student. Whether or not you've physically moved, you are exposed to many new things. I get this because I've been there. My husband and I have been married for 16 years, and I went back to school years ago as a non-traditional student. We experienced several relationship adjustments when I was in college because my experiences and even the makeup of my days radically changed. His life stayed the same. He wasn't exposed daily to the flooding of mental stimulation that is inherent on a college campus. My husband did end up going back to college later on, so the dynamic shifted again.
Even if there are no actual changes, but you are the change, this conversation is an important one. Find out the other person's availability and when they will have the time to devote to the conversation. Decide the same for yourself. This talk is also best in person or on the phone, not on text, e-mail, or Facebook.
You can start by saying, "I need to say some things that feel risky/scary for me. They may be uncomfortable to hear and they are also uncomfortable to say." Keep your feelings in "I" language: "I am struggling with..." or "I am noticing..."
Try to speak about what's going on for you... within you... rather than blaming the other person or telling them how they "make you feel." I'm a pretty firm believer that others can't put feelings inside of us that don't already reside within us. That said, if a friend is continually triggering you, you do need to examine what that's about for you... and if your response makes you uncomfortable enough to question the viability of the friendship.
Of course, you want to ask your friend if they've noticed changes in your relationship and how that's affected them. You may learn that your friend feels threatened about you creating a new life for yourself. Maybe they think you won't need them anymore. Your friend may feel worried about moving forward in his/her own life. Rather than looking at you for inspiration based on the changes you've made, your friend is unintentionally saying things that are not supportive. Like I said, you're going to learn quite a bit from opening up this discussion (and bravo, bravo, bravo to you for taking the step!).
Important sidebar: If the person refuses to talk with you, tells you they aren't capable of doing so, or changes the subject, this is critical information. When communication breaks down, the friendship, as a whole, will typically follow suit. For me, I believe so steadfastly in open communication that I know I can't have a healthy, trusting friendship with someone who is absolutely unwilling to "do conflict" or have tough conversations when they are necessary. That characteristic would render us as incompatible friends.
-Untie, rather than cut, if possible.
A dear friend shared this quote recently. I tried to find the original author, to no avail. In truth, I'm a cutter. If something feels badly to me, I can be very black and white. I am not good with riding out discomfort, although when I have, I realize that the shades of gray are rich with possibilities I would have otherwise missed.
You are in a significantly different phase of life. Your friend is also experiencing a different phase of life. Each of you is no longer connected in a way that was familiar. Each of you are growing... at your own rates... in your own time. Maybe you need some simple space to be who you are, to adjust to all of the excitement and possibilities that are before you... alone (or, rather, with the new people who are with you).
I have read many stories of people going through scares on airplanes and have been seated next to complete strangers who held their hand, supported them, and acted lovingly toward them in that moment. Then they never saw the person again. People are in our lives for various reasons at different times. Some relationships come to a natural conclusion. Others are meant to go on indefinitely. A break, or an "untying," can give you the space to figure it out.
Another sidebar: I believe that breaks are negotiated, rather than abruptly or covertly applied. If a friend has held meaning in your life, they deserve a little closure, even if the closure is temporary. It might feel painful to say, "I think we should take our own time for a while," but knowing is the full battle. We can deal with what we know, but wondering why someone is suddenly unresponsive or behaving differently is far more painful.
-Continue or end with love.
I know this sounds really cheesy, but I firmly believe it. If your friendship can withstand some boundary shifting and morph into a bigger, better bond, then acknowledge the courage that you both showed by talking things out and gaining a better understanding of each other. At the very least, you can say, "Thank you for your openness and willingness to talk this through with me. I appreciate you." I also recommend taking a "temperature check" from time to time to ensure that both of you are still feeling good about the way your friendship is progressing. This way, if things need a tweak, you can revisit the original conversation seamlessly without it being another big "We need to talk" event.
Certainly, if you decide that you need to cut ties completely (or if your break ends up being lengthy... as in for good), there is no getting around that this is a hard move. Once again, open communication is key, particularly if contact persists. Ending friendships in meanness and anger doesn't honor the history that was. You don't want to have a situation where you can't see each other in passing without dagger stares. It is more humane to say, "I think we need to reconsider remaining in each other's lives for now. I wish you all good things" and ending on as much of a positive tone as possible.
As I said in Part 1, I wanted to write this piece to reflect on some changes in my own relationships. I'm thankful that I had the opportunity here to do so and very appreciative that you've shared this with me. I'm always so thankful for your comments!
I'll be back next week with more student-professor communication goodness!