blame

What is our Response-ability in Relationship?

While I'm in Cuba with a GirlFriendCircles.com travel circle, I'm posting this thoughtful guest blog from Susan Strasburger, an integrative counselor who works with individuals (and couples) who struggle with self-criticism, are in the midst of transition, or feel stuck in a decision process.  I requested permission to re-port this article of hers since it speaks so beautifully to what we've been talking about the last few weeks on this blog about dealing with negative friendships.

Thanks Susan for sharing your wisdom with us as we seek to grow more loving, healthy, and responsive!

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Two women were discussing recent experiences with their ex-partners: One had wanted her partner to be able to see that she had “turned a corner” in relationship to him, and felt frustrated that he engaged with her as if she hadn’t changed. The other woman was confused by her partner’s actions, and “wished he’d been more overt about telling me his perspective had changed.” Their combined question became:

Questioner: What is our responsibility in a relationship to get a friend or partner up to date on specifically how our perspective has changed?

Susan: The answers to this are actually embedded in the question. If there are “specific” changes about ourselves that we want our friends to know, it’s our responsibility to tell them (unless you have friends who can read your mind). And/but… if we are noticing something different about our friend, and they haven’t spoken to us directly, it’s also our responsibility to tell them our experience and ask to understand what’s going on for them.

At this point, you may be saying, “Wait, wait! You mean, either way, it’s my responsibility?!” Yup! Hopefully you won’t see this as a burden, though, if you’re willing to re-frame what “responsibility” means. The ability to be responsive, rather than reactive, is a cornerstone to our well-being, in any relationship. We want to make conscious choices about how we speak and act, rather than defaulting to defensive or accusatory behaviors. Having this intention means taking responsibility for the quality of our relationships. Of course, we get to feel disappointed if the other person isn’t taking as much responsibility as you would ideally like them to take. All we can do is keep modeling what it is we want, make requests of the other person, and see what unfolds.

Questioner: I really love the wisdom in your response. I find the connection between “responsibility” and “response” evocative, and sense that hearing a little more about this would be very helpful to me!

Susan: Ok, stick with me for a minute, while I dip into semantics: Dictionaries attribute many meanings to the term “responsibility.” I’m choosing: “the act of being answerable or accountable, as for something within one’s power, control or management” rather than other definitions that include words such as “blame” or “moral obligation.”

With this definition, we no longer default to: “You’re responsible for my heartache!” We may feel that phrase, and even want to say it! Yet that would be what I call “reactive” behavior.

Being “responsive” requires us to stretch beyond blame, shame-turned-inward, or just leaving without communication. We know that the other person stimulated something in us that we call “heartache” – perhaps we didn’t feel seen, respected, or loved in the ways we were hoping for. If we’re being “responsive,” we’ll find within us what is most self-caring to do next. That is, we claim responsibility for what we do with our feelings of heartache. It might still be to leave, yet first tell the other person “I’m feeling too overwhelmed to speak right now, I need a little space, and I’ll come back when I’m ready to talk.” Or it might be to engage with the person, knowing we’re “accountable” for what’s “within [my] power” which includes the words and actions I choose. This route of course takes skill, compassion and a lot of practice!

Are we then responsible for the outcome of that conversation? Ahh, semantics again: we’re responsible to each other, but not “for” each other. Perhaps another blog post?!  :)

Five Questions to Ask Before Ending a Friendship

Not all friendships last forever, in fact only about 1 in 12 friends end up being lifetime friends.  And even those friendships have to change and become something new many times over as we all go through various life stages and moves.  But all friendships are meant to enhance our lives and teach us new ways of loving people even if they don't last forever so we want to learn how to leave people better for having spent time with us. Very few people are actually "toxic" (a word we're throwing around waaay too easily these days!) but that is not to say that the friendship we co-created with them might not be meeting our needs anymore.

If we're starting to entertain the idea of our friend being toxic, then it is a good time to pause and answer the 5 questions below.  In many cases we're not so much mad at her for obvious "wrong-doings" she's done as much as we are disappointed at the unspoken expectations we have of her that she didn't live up to. We're just as likely to call a friend "toxic" for not calling us enough: "I always have to do all the work in our relationship!") as we are for a friend who calls too much ("She's insatiable!  She makes me feel guilty that I have a life and can't talk every day!

Seeing that it often has less to do with their actions and more to do with our expectations and current needs reminds us that there is room for mature conversations to help grow the friendship into something that brings joy to both individuals!

The Five Friendship Threats

The five friendship threats that I highlight in my book Friendships Don't Just Happen! are: blame, jealousy, judgment, neglect, and non-reciprocation.

Those five threats are the umbrella that every specific story of friendship frustration falls under, whether the judgment stems from us thinking she's dating the wrong guy or that we interpret her canceling our plans as "selfish."  And, unfortunately, they can't all be avoided.  The truth is that we're human, we have expectations of each other, and we have needs we want filled so we're bound to experience these threats from time-to-time.

What we can do is be aware that some frustration and disappointment is normal in relationships, that we're just as likely to be the subject of her annoyance as she is ours, and that the most important thing in these moments is deciding how we can best respond in ways that grow our friendship.

Five Questions to Ask Before Letting the Threats Lead to Demise:

Here are five questions that maturity invites us to ask before getting so frustrated with someone that we're at risk of walking away from them instead of being willing to repair a friendship to something more meaningful than we've ever before experienced:

  1. How can I show up a little more thoughtfully? Let’s first assume there is something we could do to enhance this friendship even if we feel she is the problem—what comes to mind?  In other words—she may be jealous and we don’t want to play smaller to avoid her jealousy, but could we affirm her more?  If we feel neglected, can we write her an email and say, “I miss you.  Can we schedule some time together?” Go past asking if she deserves it, and just simply brainstorm what could be done if you had to do something?
  2. Have I asked her what she needs?  While the next two questions are super important in helping us articulate what we need, I sometimes find that providing space to ask her what we could do in our relationship to bring her more happiness is a fabulous way to often change the dynamic. If we sense she's jealous or that she expects too much of us, sometimes simply allowing for that space to ask her can diffuse the problem, helping both of us navigate a path where we both feel more heard.  Maybe some form of, "I'm sensing that you're pulling away a bit (or feeling frustrated when we talk).. maybe I'm imaging it... But, I wanted to check in with you to see if there was anything I could do differently in our friendship to make it more meaningful for you right now?"  We often skip this step out of fear of hearing that we're not meeting a need or fear that we can't, or don't want to, meet the need we'll hear, but I've found that there is way less anger on both sides after she feels like we care enough to ask.  And it's completely acceptable to respond with a "Oh how I wish I could be that for you, but honestly I can't give that kind of time right now.  I am so sorry! Does it help that I'm still willing to x?"
  3. What is it I actually want from her?  For example, if we feel that we’re always the one giving more than the other (non-reciprocation), then pause and ask ourselves—what is it I actually want or need?  If she just noticed what I gave and thanked me, would that be enough?  Or is there a specific area I need her to give to me more?  Or do I need to know what I do for her that means the most so I don’t waste my time or money giving to her in ways that aren’t all that important to her? When I'm upset that I'm over-giving, is it because she's asking for too much or because I'm simply giving too much? What do I think I really need from her?  And try to answer it with specificity, but also with knowing the root reason.  In other words, instead of just saying ,"I need her to be there for me more," try to say, "I need her to call me at least once a week... because what I really need is to know that I matter to her and that she's thinking of me...."
  4. Have I already asked her for what I need? We so often end friendships without taking the time to let the other person know what we need or how we feel.  It doesn’t always have to be some big and difficult conversation as much as just some guidance where we can tell the other what’s more meaningful to us. If we feel frequently feel judged when she gives advice or opinions, then it’s appropriate to say, “I just need a friend to listen right now.  I don’t need anyone to try to fix this.”  If we feel like she's jealous of our activities and feels left out, then we can follow-up her silence or passive-aggressive statement with, "Are you okay? I just had this feeling like maybe I've upset you somehow?  I'd be so open to talking about it!"
  5. What could forgiveness look like in this situation? Sometimes, forgiveness means letting go of how we want someone to be in our lives and learning to love and enjoy them just as they are, trusting that they’ll keep growing and maturing along the way.  But sometimes forgiveness also means setting boundaries or limiting our exposure to those who have hurt us.  In this case, if it doesn’t have to be all or nothing, what kind of friendship might we still be able to enjoy?

If we feel we've owned our part, shown up with compassion and love for her own needs, and asked for what we've needed from the other and not gotten it-- then it may be time to let this friendship drift apart a bit.

Facebook is Not the Problem: Friendship in an Online World

When I'm interviewed by reporters about friendship, I'm often asked about my feelings about Facebook.  And then they seem surprised, and a little disappointed, when I simply answer, "I love Facebook as one of the tools we can use for our friendships."

Facebook Is a Tool, My Friends

I have read many others rant and decry how Facebook is ruining our relationships, but I don't agree.

Can Facebook ruin a relationship? Yes, I suppose so.  But I wouldn't say that it is the fault of Facebook, but rather the responsibility of the people who are using Facebook.  After an awkward face-to-face conversation with someone, we don't then declare that we should never meet a friend for dinner.  After a phone call ended with someone in tears, we don't then say that phones are the demise of friendships.  And the same is true of Facebook. It is a tool that we can use to maintain (or damage) our friendships.

To say that Facebook can be an amazing tool to help our friendships is not the same as saying that it's the perfect tool for every setting and situation and person.  But that's the responsibility of the people using the tool, not the fault of the tool. (see my link at the bottom for a post about some Facebook limitations.)

Facebook is Not to Blame for Your 5 Complaints Here are the five most common complaints I hear from people who have either closed down their accounts in protest or have refused to ever join:

  1. "Facebook is too shallow--everyone seems to only brag about the good in their lives or talk about inane things like what they ate for dinner."  Yes, that can be true.  But how is that different from most of life? Many family get-togethers, high school reunions, networking events, and dinner parties can fall prey to that trap as well. But those events are still valuable for other reasons. There is still a level of bonding and connection that can happen in this realm.  We may not be hearing all aspects of someone, but we're still learning about them.  We can't just refuse to engage with everyone unless it's really intimate and meaningful-- truthfully we can't maintain more than a handful of those relationships and we need more support in our lives than that.  Rather than blame Facebook for simply capturing what we do in real life, react the same way you would if you were at an event-- find a couple of people you want to get to know better and engage with them.  Comment on their photos, write them a personal message, ask them a follow-up question to their status update.
  2. "Facebook makes me feel bad about myself." No,that shows you your areas for growth.  A tool is not responsible for your feelings. Yes, Facebook may show us how many more people are having babies, retiring, going on vacation, or hanging out with friends, but the goal isn't to shut out everything that makes us feel insecure as much as it is to do the work of feeling secure and happy.  That is not Facebook's fault unless we only find our worth in comparing our lives to others.  And that is not the life we want.  We want to be people whose peace isn't dependent upon what someone else is or isn't doing. Rather than blame Facebook for making us feel bad, we can use it as gymnasium for our souls to practice cheering for others (give thumbs up, say congrats!), gather information about what we want more of in our lives, and get clear about how we can show up online and offline with more self-worth.
  3. "It's offensive to find out big news from friends through Facebook." While I do think there are some conversations and friendships where Facebook may not be the best choice of tool, I will say that when it comes to a friend announcing something-- that is her moment, not yours.  You feeling offended means you're making this about you when it's about her.  If she gets engaged and just wants to shout it on the Facebook rooftops-- then let her. Let her have her moment and express it however it feels best to her. That isn't about you or your friendship-- be very careful that you're not taking personally what isn't meant to be taken personally. Rather than blame Facebook, I'd suggest that we remember that the way we find out doesn't limit the way we respond. Be sure to comment and celebrate her when you see it on the wall-- she undoubtedly wants people to know.  But if your friendship is deeper than that, be the one who drops a card of congrats in the mail, leaves an enthusiastic voice mail telling her you can't wait to hear all the details, or shoots off an email to schedule a time to take her out and celebrate her.
  4. "I hate seeing my friends out doing things without me." Okay, I get it-- it's never fun to feel like the uninvited person or an outsider. But, again, getting off Facebook doesn't mean it won't happen, it just means you won't know about it.  And you're stronger than that. It's the meaning we give to those moments that hurt us.  If you believe your worth is in being her only friend, then we have bigger issues than Facebook. I always champion that the healthiest friendships are where both women have other friends.  It would be nice to get to a place where you could be cheering for her as she builds up her support system, and where you know you're doing the same.  Rather than blame Facebook, be appreciative that you can use Facebook to get ideas of fun things you want to invite people to do, be inspired by her making new friends, and do what you can to keep contributing to that relationship with her.  Giving her the space to make friends will benefit you in many ways down the road-- she'll demand less from you and soon enough she'll be able to introduce you to the people she's meeting.
  5. "I got my feelings hurt when she de-friended me."  The number of articles written about this just astounds me. In my opinion we are being way too dramatic about this de-friending option. If you are de-friended-- this isn't your new title, doesn't reflect your worth, nor does it speak to the future of the friendship you can still have with her. What it does say is that the two of you having something going on between you that isn't resolved and forgiven. Rather than reacting from your wounded ego, what can you do to help repair this friendship? Facebook is not to blame for our petty fights, disagreements, and frustrations with each other.  Every relationship has them whether we're on Facebook or not. Being de-friended is the equivalent of needing some space-- it doesn't need to be permanent. Much like the shutting of a door or the hanging up of a phone-- it simply says that we have work to do in this relationship.

So there you have my thoughts on this subject! (Not that you asked me! LOL!) I'm looking forward to your comments and reactions... (I think?!)  :)

And, if you're up for it, be a friend of GirlFriendCircles on Facebook.  It will keep you updated with friendship articles in the news, updates on my books, alerts to friendships events in your area, etc.  And we'll never de-friend you.  Promise.  :)

On a similar note: A couple of years ago I wrote a blog about the five best purposes of Facebook and the inherent limitations.