How to Tell a Friend They’ve Let You Down

Friendship, like any relationship, is a fickle beast. You support your friends yet can feel jealous of their success. You enjoy being around them but sometimes need a little space. You can think the world of a friend while still knowing they’re capable of letting you down.

And if you stay close with someone for long enough, they inevitably will let you down at some point, whether that means spilling a secret or leaving you to fend for yourself in a stressful time. When you feel wronged this way, it’s important to advocate for yourself — for your own sake (research has shown a positive link between assertiveness and self-respect) as well as for the health of the relationship.

Pulling it off takes some careful thought and preparation — otherwise your friend can feel attacked, you feel frustrated and unheard, and everyone’s unhappy. Done thoughtfully, though, an airing of grievances can strengthen a friendship.

“Good relationships don’t usually thrive conflict-free, but healthy relationships can deal with conflict in a healthy way,” says Suzanne Degges-White, a professor of counseling and counselor education at Northern Illinois University. “That’s why it’s important to let a friend know how you’re feeling. They can’t grow if they don’t know where they’re falling short.”

Here’s what that looks like.

Evaluate the relationship — and yourself

Before you broach the subject of your hurt feelings, perform what etiquette expert Elaine Swann calls a “friend-entory,” or a friendship inventory, to determine if a difficult conversation would break the relationship or strengthen it.

“Recognize that after a serious conversation, someone’s feelings will possibly be hurt and someone may possibly be offended,” Swann says. “You have to know whether your friendship can weather that storm.

If the answer is no, that tells you something valuable about this person, and perhaps it’s best to avoid the drama altogether and slowly phase them out of your life, Swann says. But if your relationship is a mutually enriching one, you should feel comfortable taking steps to preserve it by mentioning your hurt feelings.

Turn the lens back on yourself, too. Try your best to think critically about the reason you’re upset. Is it a fair grievance, or are you just annoyed that your friend skipped out on the past few happy hours? Be realistic with the standards you’ve set for your friends and ask yourself whether what you expect of them is reasonable. If you’re still unsure whether your hurt feelings are warranted, Swann says, seek the outside opinion of a wise, uninvolved friend or family member.

Take a beat

A highly emotional conversation rarely yields the results you want. Give yourself time to cool off after the offense and before having a conversation with your friend.

But don’t wait too long, says psychologist Andrea Bonior, author of The Friendship Fix, or you might find yourself stewing — and compiling a list of your friend’s past misdeeds. “In general, the sooner the better. That way it’s not festering,” she says. “You can both remember clearly what’s being talked about.”

Create a game plan

Give some thought to the logistics. You’ll want to have the conversation face-to-face at a neutral location, like a coffee shop or on a walk, Degges-White suggests. Make sure not to initiate the discussion during a group outing or where other friends are present.

This is not a talk to have during a lunch break. Make sure both you and your friend have enough time to devote to the conversation and aren’t feeling rushed, says Bonior.

Clarify your intention

Then, zero in more concretely on what led you to feel wronged. Is your friend chronically late to every hangout? Have they divulged information about you they swore to keep private? Walk into the conversation with a clear idea of what you’d like to discuss as well as an idea of what you hope to glean from the chat.

“Your game plan is to seek resolution, not to dump on the person,” Swann says. “Say, ‘What can we do differently?’ or ‘In the future, how about we do this?’ to make sure you have a framework of a resolution as opposed to a statement of what they did wrong.”

Use “I” statements

Again, the goal here is to find a resolution rather than to accuse or punish, so avoid combative phrasing like, “You didn’t invite me to that party,” or “Why have you been avoiding me?” which puts the other person on the defensive.

Instead, enter into the discussion through the context of your own needs. Try saying, “I was hurt when you said…” to a friend who made an insensitive comment, or “I feel like I’m not a priority when…” to a friend who you see as flaky.

“When you state your own emotional reaction, you’re not automatically sounding like you’re accusing them of something,” Bonior says.

Be specific

Generalizing here won’t help anyone, Degges-White says: “If we say, vaguely, ‘You’re never there for me when I need you,’ what does it mean? You need to have a concrete example when you bring it up.”

Instead of telling your friend, “You aren’t there for me,” offer an example of a time you felt unsupported. Research has also found that specifying your desired outcome is a key component of effective self-advocacy, so tell your friend what you need from them — a sensitive, un-dismissive ear to vent to every once in a while or a little reassurance in their ability to keep a secret.

Listen

Now that you’ve said your piece, give your friend time to respond. “You’ve got to listen to what your friend has to say,” Degges-White says. “A million things could be going on in that person’s world that are demanding her attention.”

Offer affirmations that you’re hearing what your friend has to say and respect their position, even if you don’t necessarily agree with them, Swann says.

If your friend goes on the defensive, Bonior advises backing off within the conversation, perhaps even offering an apology — “I’m sorry if I caught you off guard. I didn’t want this to be something that’s upsetting for you.” If things become combative, it’s fine to take a break. Degges-White suggests hitting pause the moment anyone begins to tear up and picking things up later when everyone has a clearer head.

Move forward

Once everyone has shared their views, think of the relationship as entering a new, better phase. Not only have you set the groundwork for how you’d like to be treated in the future, you’re setting a precedent for future communication. “When you advocate for yourself, you help regain the balance,” Bonior says. “[And] you model good behavior for them to advocate for themselves.”

Don’t expect your friend to change overnight, Swann says. And if you feel over time that your concerns haven’t been addressed, she added, you may need to revisit the conversation: “Don’t allow things to gradually get back to where they were before.”

All Rights Reserved for Allie Volpe

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