Missing an Ex-Friend? Here's How to Restore a Friendship

If you have found yourself spending a lot of time reflecting during this coronavirus pandemic, you are not alone.

In fact, moments of reflection or contemplation are very normal responses to any significant event you go through, including something like COVID-19.

Psychologists say all that time we have spent cooped up has created a lot more space and time for thinking — but that is not necessarily a bad thing.

"Reflection is one of the things that is a positive by-product of us all being a bit isolated and having more time to ourselves, more time to think," clinical psychologist Nicola Palfrey from the Australian National University said.

"And, this space we have now means that those niggles that are easy to push down when we've got more going on, come to the surface."

For many, those "niggles" take them down the road of past relationships; oftentimes, it is to friendships that have broken down, and people who are still missed.

So why is that the case?

"People often do reflect on past relationships and friendships when something significant happens in their life," Vivienne Lewis, Assistant Professor in Psychology at the University of Canberra said.

"It could be the death of a loved one, moving interstate or changing career … that makes people start to reflect on who they've been close to, and who they could connect with at that time.

"Now, because of COVID, we've been isolated from our friends, and grieving through the loss of a whole pile of things — loss of freedom, or job loss, or loss of connection.

"It's this loss of social connection that naturally makes us reminisce about past relationships which might have ruptured, which we might still be grieving."

Indeed, the pain of having a friendship break down is well-documented; it has been likened to a romantic break-up, to having a limb cut off, or even to experiencing a death, hence the notion of grieving.

When thinking about why friendships are such a special, fundamental relationships, Dr Palfrey said it was because friends filled a hole others often could not.

"We already know the importance of connection for our mental health and wellbeing," she said.

"Friendships offer a perspective on your life that other relationships don't — your friends know you in a different way to your mum or brother or partner."

A friend is, after all, the person you are more likely to seek solace from after saying something silly on a Zoom meeting, or giggle with after binge-watching several episodes of your favorite TV show.

"Shared history is another big thing," Dr Palfrey said.

"Friends can help you get back in touch with another side of you — if you've lost some of your spunk, a friend can remind you that you used to be feisty. It's often a friend you call when you're absolutely done.

"It's a distinct relationship that can be quite formative."

So if your mind keeps wandering to that friend you've lost touch with, or to a friendship which has broken down, how should you reach out?

What to do if you need to apologize to a friend

One of the hardest relationships to mend can be one where you know, deep down, that you were responsible for the fracture. It requires a bit of humility, a bit of patience, and a bit of bravery.

But whether it was a bad word spoken, a pattern of taking someone for granted or a fight over a love interest, Dr Palfrey has some wise advice.

"The first thing to mention is that you don't want to get stuck in beating yourself up," she said.

"Perseverating on something bad you've done in the past is not a good use of your time.

"There are relationships that wax and wane over time, that happens to all of us.

"If your friendship has fallen off in a natural way, that's not necessarily a big deal. But if it's bothering you, you miss them, or if you don't like how it ended, if you want to restore or repair, that's where there might be some benefit in reaching out."

If you feel like you need to apologize for something that happened during your friendship, both Dr Palfrey and Dr Lewis suggest an initial sounding out of your friend to see if they are willing to talk with you.

That means no cold calling to blurt an apology out over the phone, no matter how well you have rehearsed what you want to say.

"Most of the time, when you've had a rupture in a relationship, the best way to mend that rupture is to reach out slowly," Dr Lewis said.

"Sometimes we were ready to repair, but we don't know if the other person is. We don't know what everyone else is going through, and we can't assume the other person is in a good place.

"Send a text or an email first, saying you'd like to chat. Give them the opportunity to think about their response."

If your friend does agree to talk with you, it is always best to try and apologise in person. But, if coronavirus restrictions mean that is not possible for you right now, Dr Lewis said chatting over the phone or by video call would work too.

"With things like email or text, often people will fire something back which may not be very thoughtful, and it's a little less personal," Dr Lewis said.

"In person, people are more likely to be able to communicate more effectively. You can gauge their response, you can hear it or see it, whereas in an email you don't get that."

Make sure you check your motivations

When you apologize, it is important to do so without expectation.

"You need to take ownership and responsibility for your place in what happened," Dr Palfrey said.

"Don't say 'I'm sorry, but …' — don't make it conditional. You have to be willing to own your stuff, and aware that you might not get the same back.

"Part of the notion is being willing to offer an apology, and accepting that that's enough.

"You need to check yourself a little bit — if you're trying to get an apology out of them, or trying to prove you're right, rethink getting back in touch."

Dr Lewis said that you should also be wary if guilt was your sole motivation for reaching out.

"Are you doing it to feel better for yourself, or to make someone else heal?" she asked.

"For all of us, we can feel an enormous amount of guilt when we've done things or hurt people. Often apologizing or reaching out is a way to resolve your guilt. But that is about you.

"Sometimes you actually have to live with that guilt, so you have to assess what you're trying to achieve by apologizing or reaching out to that person, and if it will be constructive for them."

If you realize you don't have the best motivations for reconnecting with your friend but your mind keeps coming back to the break down, there are some things you can do.

Dr Palfrey suggested sitting with the situation for a little while "if you think there's stuff that needs to be said but you can't do it in a way that is productive at the moment".

"Wait, and try reaching out again in a little bit when you're feeling a bit better about it," she said.

Or course, seeing a psychologist can be helpful; you can also try writing a letter you will never send.

"Write about how you feel, acknowledge what you've done, say it was a mistake, that you feel bad, you wish you hadn't done it, you're sorry," suggested Dr Lewis.

"You could also write a response back to yourself, as a way of healing.

"You may never get that forgiveness from someone else, but you can give it to yourself."

When you've simply lost touch

But what if there was no bust up, no dramatic story to tell, and the friend you keep thinking of is a friend you have just drifted away from?

Well, this is the easiest kind of relationship to restore.

"Online platforms give us much more access to people whose friendships have been in the past," Dr Lewis said.

"You can usually find them on Facebook or through another friend, and that's a perfect way to do it.

"Once you've made that contact — 'Hey, how are you going? Been thinking about you, I miss you' — then you can go deeper."

Adds Dr Palfrey: "People are usually happy to hear from a blast from the past! Telling someone they've been on your mind is a nice introduction".

And, if it is you who is being reached out to, don't be surprised that someone wants to reconnect with you.

Take your time to digest the text or email — especially if it is addressing something that has hurt you in the past — and don't feel pressured to respond right away.

"People often question why they have been made contact with, but clearly they thought you were important enough to reconnect with you," said Dr Lewis.

"You are valuable, important, special in their life, and that a wonderful thing to realize."

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