5 Steps to Patch a Rocky Relationship
1: Accept Responsibility
It takes two to fight. Even if there is a right and wrong as far as the facts are concerned, you still have to decide, "I'm going to make a thing out of this." So, the first step is to admit that you did just that.
There's nothing wrong with being upset over something someone said or did.
The problem comes when you pretend everything is fine, either because you want them to read your mind, you like feeling righteous (that's me), or you are afraid to cause conflict and instead nurse a grudge.
When you let "being right" get in the way of your relationship, whether that's a friendship, a family connection, a professional collaboration, or a romantic partnership, you send the message that the relationship is only useful as long as it makes you look good.
If that's what you want from a relationship, that's great, but it won't be nearly as fulfilling as it could be.
2. Apologize for What You Did, Not How You Felt
You are who you are, no more, no less, and your feelings are part of that. Apologizing for being you is the definition of pitiful and it'll only make the other person uncomfortable.
People are attracted to confidence, even with people they are angry with, and if they do decide to reconnect because you were pitiful, it'll only be to keep you from guilting them.
On the other hand, we all make mistakes. Apologizing for being unclear about expectations, refusing to communicate, or nursing a grudge--especially if these things led to the conflict--takes courage and authenticity. It's inspiring, even as it exposes vulnerability.
Because people who are comfortable being vulnerable demonstrate confidence.
If you said hurtful things, apologize for that. Even if you meant them. It was still mean.
Note: NO BUTS! "I'm sorry I was jerk, but you were being a pain," is about as authentic as, "I love you, but..." It is an attempt to justify what you did, not apologize for it. It also includes an attack of the other person, and that is all they will hear.
3. Explain What You Could Have Done to Avoid the Conflict
If appropriate, you can explain what a better course of action would have been:
I should have explained how I felt instead of lashing out at you
This shows that you're not just throwing out an apology with no intention of remedying the underlying issues.
For long-standing conflicts, this might not be possible: you've both been throwing darts for so long nobody knows what's been said or done. In those cases, it's better to just admit you did some stuff, and it was dumb.
For specific incidents, especially among a team of professionals, this is really helpful, because it assures everyone that steps are being taken to make things run smoother in the future, helping to restore faith and trust in the team dynamic.
If the other person initiated the conflict, offering a way to avoid it in future is still helpful. If there had been communication structures and expectations to help them resolve their issues in more constructive ways, they would probably choose the less disruptive option.
4. Ask for What You Want the Resolution to Look Like
It isn't always clear from an apology that you want to make nice again. Be clear of the kind of relationship you want.
Conversely, it isn't always clear that an apology doesn't mean things are returning back to normal. If you are patching a relationship that you still prefer to end, as in a break-up, make that clear (just be very careful it doesn't come across as an passive-aggressive way to punish them).
It's up to you to decide on what you call the relationship. After having this conversation with my father a while ago, I explained that "I wanted my dad back." I'd been arguing and picking on everything he did, and the kind of relationship I wanted was one in which I could respect him as my dad again. Not in a "I want to be a little kid," kind of way, but definitely not two guys who happen to be genetically related.
And now comes the tricky part...
5. Allow Space for the Other Person
Your little speech might leave the other person a bit dumb-founded. Vulnerability is scary, both to reveal and to see, since it tends to bring up vulnerability in the other person too.
Allow them space to respond in their own way and their own time.
This is really hard. They might not be ready to move on, but it's very hard to have a one-sided fight. Let them air their complaints if that's what they want. Try to avoid getting defensive, since that will just provide someone to fight with.
In reality, though, every person I've had this conversation with has responded positively, even offering their own apologies. Even those who came looking for a fight.
The reason is that you aren't making it their fault, and you are being authentic and vulnerable enough to inspire them to do the same by showing them it's a safe space for that sort of thing.
It's also unusual for someone to refuse an offer of connection authentically given.
Here's a sample script that I have actually used to resolve conflicts painlessly:
Hey, the reason I'm calling is because I need to share something. I haven't been 100% authentic with you, and I want to apologize for that. When you did X, I felt really hurt and let down, and I took it out on you by cutting off communication, which wasn't constructive. I'm sorry about that. I should have made my expectations clearer and not held you up to some standard I didn't even share with you. That wasn't fair, and I am working on being better about that in the future. I'd like to start hanging out again if you do.
Straightforward, honest, and authentic. We didn't cry, but I didn't hold back either.
The first time I did it, I was surprised at the response, honestly. I'd been used to blaming and trying to convince people I was right and they were wrong, or playing the "poor me" card, so I didn't even think this sort of thing could work. I literally wrote a script and just read it robotically, and it still led to a joyful reconnection.
Give it a shot. You may be pleasantly surprised, and at the very least, you get to drop the burden of resentment you have been carrying around.