Strained Relationships


Strained relationships can be extremely painful events. This blog post is focused on relationships among adults (including adult children). Some principles could be applied to minor children, but the focus here is on adults who are capable of choosing relationships for themselves.

Perhaps a once close friend has gradually become distant…no big fight or disagreement, just a gradually growing apart. Maybe you have had conflict with a family member and the relationship has never been the same. The causes and circumstances involving strained relationships vary, but the outcome is that a once close and positive relationship has changed into something distant or negative.

Strained relationships are a sad reality of being close to other people. At times, you can point to a specific mistake you or your loved one made, but many times, it is difficult to pinpoint a specific event. Human behavior is unpredictable and you can’t control other people’s behavior. The only way to guarantee you won’t have a strained relationship is to never get close to someone. Healthy relationships are one of the best predictors of health (both physical and emotional). Healthy relationships are a gift and pleasure in life, but when they become strained, we experience tremendous stress and pain.

What can you do to recover from the pain of a strained relationship?

Recognize You Aren’t in Control

We are the cause of the majority of our pain in strained relationships — not the offending party. I know it is difficult to accept, but it is true. Our intentions are generally good. We want the relationship to go back to being positive for both parties again. However, we are only viewing the situation from our own biased perspective.

The need to control and fix strained relationships is a major source of pain. Understand that you are powerless to fix a broken relationship. You can hurt or push someone else away. You can do things to make the relationship worse, but you can’t fix a relationship if the other person is not ready (or perhaps not willing). Consider the following:

  • You can’t make someone understand, but you can do your best to explain.
  • You can’t make someone treat you with kindness, but you can be kind to them.
  • You can’t make someone spend time with you, but you can offer them an invitation.
  • If you don’t want to be contacted, you can choose to not answer the phone, respond to texts, or respond to emails. Today’s technology allows us to block people’s calls, texts, and emails, so we don’t even know they tried to contact us.

The point of the above phrases is that we must focus on our behavior and intentions, not the behavior and intentions of the other person.

Let Go of Expectations

We have many expectations for other people. So many that we often are not aware of them. We expect people who know us and have a relationship with us to:

  • Listen
  • Respect
  • Be kind
  • Understand
  • Behave a certain way

Violated expectations often lead to strained relationships. You deserve to be heard, understood, and treated with respect. However, we don’t live in a perfect world. Sometimes people are hurt and out of their pain, they lash out and hurt others. Sometimes people have an impairment of some kind (substance abuse, depression, trauma) — even for those closest to us, we don’t always know what is hurting them. Don’t assume you do.

If you want to recover from a strained relationship, it is important to let go of expectations. You don’t need to tolerate abuse — you can always end a phone call or walk out of a room gracefully. Regardless of your history together, recognize that the other person doesn’t owe you anything. Parents/guardians owe it to their minor children (or disabled adult under their guardianship) to provide a safe and nurturing home, but the point of this article is on competent adults.

Relationships are a gift. If you value the gift of the relationship with the other person, let go of any expectations you have and try to understand them in the present situation (which may be very different from the past).

Practice Forgiveness

For more information about forgiveness, see this past blog post. Forgiveness is letting go of your right to get even with someone else. Forgiveness is not easy and generally doesn’t happen quickly. Most of the time, forgiveness is a decision that is made each day to not hold the past against another person.

Forgiveness is not ignoring or forgetting what the other person did. It is not trying to repress or ignore emotions of anger. Anger is not a bad emotion. It motivates us to take action. When someone is actively trying to harm us — obviously physically, but also emotionally, such as spreading false rumors — anger can motivate us to take action to protect ourselves. Keeping ourselves safe is important.

However, when we are no longer in danger and continue to experience rage and bitterness, the emotions harm us rather than protect us. Taking revenge on another person (as opposed to protecting oneself or others) will not lead to healing. Forgiveness does not mean that anger is repressed, but rather appropriate expressions of these emotions.

Practice Self-Care

When we have been hurt by strained relationships, the pain can be intense. In some situations, we may become angry, depressed, or lose focus on how to stay healthy. Taking care of your health (physical, emotional, spiritual) is vital and no one can do it for you. Here are some reminders for self-care practices:

  • Nutrition-If you need more education on healthy eating, talk to your primary care provider or other qualified professional. Eating right is vital to your health.
  • Adequate sleep — most adults should get 7-9 hours of sleep per night on average. If your sleep is poor, make sure you aren’t doing things to make it worse, such as watching TV right before bed, using social media right before bed, or consuming too much caffeine. Sleep disturbance is a sign of health problems (medical, emotional, or a combination). Consider speaking with your primary care provider if you are having sleep problems.
  • Healthy activity — exercise is important for both physical and mental health benefits
  • Mindfulness activities and relaxation. A few minutes of relaxation each day will improve your health
  • Recreation — be sure to engage in your hobbies
  • Social support — connection with friends and family is important to your health.

If you lack self-care skills, consider counseling.

Be Hopeful: Strained Relationships Can Heal

Don’t expect strained relationships to revert back to what the once were. Relationships don’t always last forever. At the same time, relationships can heal if both parties are open to it and patient. Human beings make mistakes and hurt others — at times inadvertently and at times intentionally.

Be hopeful. Believe that you can learn and grow through this painful experience. While the relationship may not revert to what it once was, it is possible that what the relationship once was is not what it should be. Perhaps the relationship was not good for either you or the other person. On the other hand, perhaps the relationship will be restored, and not only survive, but become something stronger. You will not be able to predict what will happen, so please don’t let your well being depend on the outcome of this relationship.

You can experience happiness and peace regardless of the outcome of a strained relationship. Your choices in self-care will make a difference. Don’t struggle alone. Reach out to other people who care about you. If you continue to struggle, consider seeking counseling.

About The Author
Dr. Dave Spriggs

I’m Dr. Dave Spriggs. I have been married since 1996 and have two young adult daughters. I am an active member of the Wesleyan Church and volunteer in my community. Some of my hobbies include animals and nature, jazz music, technology, reading, and marksmanship. I have worked in the mental health field since 1994 and my focus is on outpatient psychotherapy focused on relationships and marriage, treatment of depression, and Christian Counseling. You can learn more about my work as a psychologist and contact me through my private practice website.