How to avoid making a bad situation even worse
October 26, 2009 10:47 AM   Subscribe

How do I navigate this situation without tears or fist-fights?

Three years ago I deeply upset a friend. I started dating her ex-boyfriend, who was also father to her two-year-old twin boys. They had been apart about six months before we got together. Initially, before he and I were officially together, I lied a couple of times about our sexual relations to spare my friend's feelings. When we decided to 'come out' as an item I told her at once. It did not go well - tears, threats of violence. I haven't seen her since. For the record, I have never done anything like this before, nor am I likely to again. I have learned a lot and grown a lot.

The relationship lasted a year, then fell apart on pretty acrimonious terms. He and I are no longer speaking, FWIW

So, big mess. The thing is, all of us have mutual friends. I have asked them not to feel they have to tiptoe around the situation. It is getting increasingly likely that I will bump into my former friend at a party, or wedding, or similar.

The question is - when this happens how should I behave? Should I pretend nothing happened? (this seems callous and weird). Should I apologize? (seems too little too late at this point). We are all in our late-20s, so supposedly grown-ups. What’s the right thing to do? I feel massively guilty I upset my friend, I miss her friendship, I’m nervous about seeing her, but I don’t feel guilty about the relationship. Our feelings were real, if ill-advised.

All advice gratefully received. I'd appreciate specifics on what to say and how to behave.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (17 answers total)
Call her and tell her what you've told us -- you miss her, you're sorry you hurt her feelings (and understand why she was so upset), that you no longer speak to the guy, and hope you can be, if not friends, acquaintances. A lot of things seem like water under the bridge after three or five years.

Alternatively, trust that she will act at least semi-adult like if you do bump into her, and look for a place to have the conversation then?
posted by dpx.mfx at 10:58 AM on October 26, 2009

Maybe send her a letter or email. Phone calls out of the blue don't usually go well, you never know if it's a good time and she's got five year old twins keeping her busy.

Don't ask anything of her - forgiveness, friendship, anything like that. Just apologize, wish her the very best and let it go.
posted by jerseygirl at 11:01 AM on October 26, 2009 [10 favorites]

Be humble, be honest, be apologetic.
posted by banannafish at 11:02 AM on October 26, 2009 [3 favorites]

I don't think it's ever too late for an apology. It might not go any further than that, the apology, but at least you'll feel better by doing it and you'll have left the ball in her court.
posted by cooker girl at 11:06 AM on October 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

Send her a letter. As Tracy Morgan pointed out the other day on Fresh Air, people sort of have to read letters (well, not have to, but it's easier to hang up the phone than it is to throw away a personal letter unopened.)

Then call her.
posted by Lutoslawski at 11:07 AM on October 26, 2009

The chances that she will ever trust you enough to be your friend again are minuscule. I would not call her under any circumstances. If you run into her be friendly, polite and somewhat distant. You don't need to apologize again unless you really feel like it is necessary - you're on step 8 or something - in which case I would advise you to do it in writing, not out of the blue at a neutral social gathering. Give her the courtesy and the space of deciding whether she wants to respond to you and don't force it on her.

(personal disclaimer: I had something similar happen to me in my early thirties and I will never, sixteen years later though it may be, consider that person a friend again but I am fully capable of encountering her at weddings, funerals, parties and the like without being an idiot about it. We just don't get into one on one conversations.)
posted by mygothlaundry at 11:11 AM on October 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

reach out to her in anyway you feel most comfortable . . .

. . . but don't feel too guilty about what you did. she felt betrayed, but I kind of believe that friend's exes are usually not entirely off limits (granted, children in the picture changes that whole deal). well, regardless, you are not a terrible person.
posted by Think_Long at 11:11 AM on October 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

Apologies never go out of style. That said, I don't think you should apologize until you've figured out what, exactly, you'd be apologizing for. It sounds like you don't think you did anything wrong (at least that's how I'm interpreting "but I don't feel guilty about the relationship"), and that the only bad thing that happened is that your friend got upset about you taking up with her ex. You say you feel guilty for upsetting her--do you think that she had a legitimate reason to be upset? Or do you feel bad that she is upset while at the same time believing that you acted blamelessly (and following this logic, that she doesn't have a legitimate reason to be upset at you)?

Apologies that boil down to "I'm sorry you feel the way you do" or "I'm sorry you got upset about what I did" while not acknowledging fault aren't really apologies; they're statements that you wish the other person had different feelings than they actually do. Being on the recieving end of an "apology" like that usually ends up making recipients even angrier than before, because now you're not only the person who wronged them but you also have the gall to tell them how to feel about it. If you want to avoid more bad blood, I'd strenuously recommend against making one of these fake apologies.

If you do feel that you acted badly and wish you could have handled it differently [for example: not lying to the friend, or checking in with her about whether there was any chance she and the father of her children would reconcile before deciding to pursue the guy yourself], I think you should apologize before you end up seeing her again. A letter would work well in this sort of situation, because it would give her the time and space to process your apology.

If you don't feel you acted badly, and you wouldn't change anything you did, and you mostly just miss your friend and wish she wasn't mad at you: I think you should leave it alone, be civil when you see her, don't bring up the relationship under any circumstances, and accept that she might not have any interest in forgiving you. That's just the way it goes sometimes.
posted by iminurmefi at 11:15 AM on October 26, 2009 [26 favorites]

Apologize for lying to her. It will help if you are actually sorry for lying to your friend.
posted by anthropomorphic at 11:24 AM on October 26, 2009

I had a friend do something similar to me and even though she apologized profusely later and said she would try and do anything to make up for it, I discovered that there really wasn't anything she could do or say that would make me feel better. I kept thinking that if she just said or did the right thing, I could move on. After a certain point she alluded to the situation in a random blog post about how she did something terrible, wouldn't do it again, but she had to forgive herself for the situation. That was infuriating at the time, but it makes total sense to me now. It took a while, but I discovered that the only person that could actually make me feel better about the situation was me. She just didn't have the power to do that.

So what I'm saying is that I don't think there's anything you can do that will help her so the best thing to do is to focus on you. Apologize if that will make you feel better. If you see her at an event don't try and barge in on her, but don't actively avoid her. Be really nice, be honest and sincere. If she's still mad at you, then she's still mad at you and you can't really control it, but give her some slack and avoid any anger or passive aggressive retaliation on either of your parts etc. Even though you don't regret the relationship, it sounds like you regret hurting her so by all means tell her that if the opportunity arises, but I wouldn't bring it up myself if I were you.

And by all means diffuse any drama that other people try and create around the situation. The best way to do that depends on the situation, but if you avoid talking about it a lot, but be honest and sincere when it comes up that should help.
posted by Kimberly at 11:44 AM on October 26, 2009 [2 favorites]

Just chiming in to agree that sending a letter is probably your best bet. A handwritten, heartfelt letter, and then give her time to process it. She should be the one to decide when she is ready to resume contact (or if she even wants to at all) but make it clear that you hope to hear from her.
posted by bahama mama at 12:09 PM on October 26, 2009

I'd just leave things alone. (So yeah, just pretend nothing happened.) I really doubt that after 2-3 years your friend is going to cry and/or get in a fight with you over this. She has probably moved on with her life.
posted by chunking express at 12:23 PM on October 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

I think a simple, no excuses apology in a letter or email makes sense. Don't try to explain, rationalize, or justify your actions. Don't mention anything about the ex-boyfriend or the relationship. Lastly, don't ask anything from her like friendship or forgiveness or a sit-down. Simply say you are sorry, you miss her and the friendship, and while you realize it may not be possible to be friends ever again, you hope you can be cordial when you encounter each other and avoid any discomfort or awkwardness at shared social events. You can let her know the door is always open if she wants to discuss it further (if that's how you feel), and end it by wishing her well. As cooker girl said above, it is never too late for an apology. I guarantee an acknowledgment later than one would have liked, is better than no acknowledgment at all.
posted by katemcd at 12:46 PM on October 26, 2009

You can see with hindsight that you probably shouldn't have lied to her, since it hurt you both in the long run. But, lying to spare a friend's feelings is one of the right reasons to lie. If that is really why you did it, do not feel too bad. If you lied to save yourself trouble or delay an impending fight, (which, honestly, seems equally likely to me), then that is not so honorable and you have more reason to apologize.

I see nobody has mentioned that six months after a breakup, the boyfriend can date whoever he wants. Also, you, no matter who is your friend, can date whoever you want. I don't think either you or the ex owes an apology for this. If you want to apologize anyway, you certainly can. But dating someone or being friends with someone (or having kids with someone) does not give you veto power over all their future relationships.

I suspect she doesn't want to be friends with you anymore. You should try talking to her, since it sounds like you want her friendship back. But if she wants to hold on to the drama instead of having you as a friend, be prepared to let her do that, with no hard feelings or regrets on your side.
posted by fritley at 12:55 PM on October 26, 2009

Nthing sending an email or hand-written letter apologizing, again, as I'm sure you did when the situation was still fresh. Be open, humble and own your behavior. You should also be clear as to why you're contacting her. Is there an event coming up soon that you both will be attending? Maybe contact should wait until then. The fact that you haven't seen each other up until this point means you've been avoiding her....and she you. It's no mistake. A letter out of the blue could be just as alarming as an accidental run-in or phone call (trust me) you should be clear as to why you're contacting her and potentially dredging up something she'd rather forget. I would even add something along the lines of you will defer to whatever SHE feels comfortable with whenever you see each other in a public setting. BTW-the reason to send the letter is so the both of you understand the serious damage this experience caused and even though you are no longer friends due to your (and his) behavior, you respect her as a person enough to put yourself in her shoes and try to not cause anymore damage.

I wouldn't just act like nothing's happened if you run into each other because that is not the truth. Not to mention could feel like further disrespect. And, even if she may think she's over it and moved on, seeing you may cause her to relapse into past feelings of hurt and betrayal that you don't want to be on the business end of (trust me again.) I mean, she potentially sees him all the time given he's her babies' daddy so it's possible that she has processed this experience in a wonky way. Be thoughtful and be kind (to her and to yourself.) I wish you much luck and sorry you're in a messy sitch.
posted by Hydrofiend at 12:56 PM on October 26, 2009

when this happens how should I behave?

I'll answer this core question, rather than talk about how to heal the wound, in case you're more interested in behaving like a grown-up than in going out of your way to re-establish your friendship.

You should be friendly, you should be polite, you should smile, and you should not mention the incident or volunteer any information about it. You should not go out of your way to avoid her, nor go out of your way to ingratiate yourself to her. In short, treat her like an acquaintance.

After all, that's what you are; you had a friendship based on trust, and that's gone now. She might be totally over it, or still vent about it on a daily basis; she may miss you, or hate you, or never think of you. You're starting over, in short, and you just don't know who she is (as a person, or to you) any more.

So you're really taking your cues from her just as you would anyone new. If she brings it up and wants to talk, certainly the advice above is very good, and if she never brings it up, there's probably no point in you bringing it up either.
posted by davejay at 1:31 PM on October 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

I am not implying above that going out of your way to re-establish the friendship is NOT behaving like a grown-up; I worded that badly. They are not mutually exclusive.
posted by davejay at 1:32 PM on October 26, 2009

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