How to Repair a Friendship When You Were Wrong
I like to think of myself as a kind and thoughtful friend. But a few years ago, I did something rather careless. I invited a group of friends to celebrate a big birthday with me, but left out one member of the gang, whom I had known since childhood. It was a thoughtless (and, admittedly, a bit passive-aggressive) oversight, and when one of my guests posted pictures of the dinner on social media, her feelings were understandably hurt.
It took a long time to repair that relationship, and at times I wondered if we would ever be able to go back to the friendship we had before.
You Damaged a Friendship—Now What?
Whether or not you can repair a friendship that you were responsible for damaging depends on many things, says Beverley Fehr, Ph.D., a professor of social psychology at the University of Winnipeg. “One of the indicators of whether there's an opening to reconcile is the gravity of your offense.”
If you had a fling with your best friend’s partner, well, that’s a hard one to recover from. But if the friendship crime was more of a misdemeanor, there’s usually some hope. The length and depth of a relationship may also come into play, as it’s much easier to write off a new friend than it is to say goodbye to one with shared history and overlapping friends.
If, like me, you want to make amends after a mess-up and show your friend just how much you care, here are some tips.
First Things First: Take a Moment to Reflect
“Before reaching out, it’s important that you take time to think about your role in the friendship dynamic, what led to the breakup, and how you went about it,” explains Laura Whitney Sniderman, a coach and founder of the friendship app Kinnd. She recommends writing your thoughts in a journal so you can sort out your feelings—and your mistakes—as well as what you want to say to your friend.
Make a Sincere Apology—Without Making Excuses
“I’m sorry, but…” is not going to cut it.
“You can explain a little bit of what happened,” Fehr says, “but the more you try to explain it away, the more your apology starts to sound like an excuse for bad behavior. Most people are less willing to accept that.”
Here’s what not to say: “I meant to come to your mother’s funeral, but I got tied up at work, and then I couldn’t find the address, and then…” Instead, simply say: “I’m so sorry I missed this important day. I know how much it meant to you, and I wish I would have planned things better. I promise to never let something like that happen again.”
If your friend is not taking your phone calls, Sniderman suggests sending a thoughtful email, or even going the old-fashioned route and sending a handwritten letter. “In a subtle way, this displays more thoughtfulness, as it requires more energy and time,” she says.
Give Space As Needed
“When we’ve wronged someone, we often experience anxiety and jump into fix-it mode,” Sniderman says. “However, this usually doesn’t make things better; it often makes things worse.”
It may take weeks or even months for your friend’s anger and hurt feelings to soften. Only after that period is there an opportunity to begin healing. Keep that in mind and let your friend take a breather before bringing forth an apology.
Fehr also points out that friend apologies, while important, are not actually the norm. “Research tells us that in most friendships, people don’t like to talk about their transgressions—they like to sweep them under the rug,” she explains. So, it might take your friend a little time to digest what you’re saying before they’re open to accepting your apology and moving on.
Let them have that space. “You can say, ‘I am sincerely sorry, and I am ready to reconnect whenever you feel ready,’ ” Fehr suggests.
Remember: Actions Speak Louder Than Words
To prove to your friend that you are truly sorry and won’t make the same mistake twice, Sniderman advises being extra mindful of your behavior moving forward. “Even if things feel a bit awkward or distant, reach out regularly with curiosity about their life,” she says. “Keep trying to make plans. Accept that you might have to put extra effort into the friendship before you start to see reciprocity.”
It took more than a year of me sending birthday cards and emails to my childhood friend, with no expectation of hearing anything back, before she finally opened the door by inviting me to a big family celebration of her own. We reconnected there, and four years later, we are almost back to where we were before Birthdaygate.
Today, I treasure that friendship even more—and you can be sure her name is first on my list for any big celebrations in the future.
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