How do I manage a friend break-up in a small community?

Dear Bear,

Is there a way to deal with a friend break-up if the friend just slowly but completely excludes you from their life instead of acknowledging something hurt them and discussing it? I don’t know what’s going on. This person has not responded to three different attempts (text, email, phone message) to talk about whatever their issue is and I legitimately cannot think of anything. Also there’s a shared community involved and it’s not a big community and we both work on events within this community. I would like to know what’s up and resolve it or address it or even just actually know wtf about it, but I guess I will settle in the meantime for a way to at least be in the same room or email thread and not have it be exhaustingly awkward. Help?


Dear Brave Correspondent,

Ouch. These are good questions, and this sounds challenging on multiple levels. There is, in fact, a very good edited volume about this, in part – it’s The Revolution Starts At Home, edited by Ching-In Chen, Jai Dulani, and Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, and I recommend you read the relevant parts. These kinds of situations really require a lot of consideration and engagement, and for everyone to frock up and engage in some method even if they’re feeling hard feelings, and what I’m getting from your email is that there’s something standing in the way of that.

The questions of what that might be is reasonable. So, let’s take your question in two parts – first, trying to figure out what’s up with your (former?) friend and then how to share space without bringing conflict into that space.

I can think of some reasons why Former Friend (FF hereafter) might not be ready to engage directly about what happened. From easiest to hardest, they are – FF has a hard time with conflict and can’t engage it directly, FF has somehow gotten engaged in someone else’s conflict with you and can’t discuss it because they don’t really feel it’s their place or know enough about it, or FF has trauma or is triggered about something related to you and cannot discuss it with you directly for their own safety. Let’s think these through in order.

If your Former Friend has a hard time dealing with conflict and prefers to avoid, letting things rest for a while while their feelings dissipate and become less acute is a good strategy. Just like a rabbit won’t poke its nose out of its warren when there’s a dog sniffing around, or the word that’s on the tip of your tongue returns when you stop racking your brains to remember it, conversations around hard issues become easier for conflict-avoidant people when they can feel released from the expectation of discussing it. For this to work, you might just need to set a reminder on your calendar for three or six months from now and send another message, to say hey, when or if you’re ready to talk about why you’re upset with me, I would like to hear it. You can reduce the stress-level even further by inviting this person to write you an email or a letter about their feelings and promising to take a period of time (two weeks?) before you respond, so they can let go of the worry that there will be an argument of some kind. While these aren’t perfect solutions, they have the twin values of being kind and of being more likely to satisfy your need for some answers by lengthening the timeline. Guaranteed? No. But a better shot.

Now perhaps this is complicated and you’re not getting answers because FF doesn’t have any to give, really – they’ve been conscripted into being upset with you by someone else who has big feelings about you with whom they are close. That’s hard but it happens, and all of us have been in a situation where we have felt, or thought, some version of “that person really hurt me so if you’re nice to them it’s like you don’t care about me.” I struggle with this a LOT, and I try not to engage in feeling that way or trying to conscript someone into my personal feelings about a third person, but holy gosh is it difficult. And what’s worse is that small-community triangulation might mean you never really get the full story.

(Notable exception: sometimes this is a real and important part of allyship against oppressive behavior. “Tim didn’t call me after he said he would,” is objectively not the same as “Tim won’t stop telling racist jokes,” or “Tim voted against benefits for same-sex couples.” You don’t have to give comfort or companionship to people who consistently engage in oppressive behaviors, even if your sister says they’re otherwise so nice or whatever. That’s a real thing you can choose, to not engage with people who demonstrate oppressive behaviors even one angstrom more than your livelihood allows, and if they don’t like it they are free to stop being racists or trans-antagonists or whatever AT ANY TIME. Ahem.)

Last, Brave Correspondent, we come to the third possibility – you have really fucked it up in a way no one is yet prepared to discuss with you. I don’t know how, but the most common things are boundary violations or consent violations. I don’t know anything about your gender or sexual orientation from your letter, but I do know that it’s ultimately immaterial – people of any and every gender identity and sexual orientation violate boundaries, intentionally or thoughtlessly. If that’s the case I hope someone is prepared to talk to you about it soon, and I hope when that happens you are able to do your very best to listen non-defensively, hold on to your reaction while you think your way to a thoughtful response, and figure out how to improve your behavior and make amends. Also maybe this is a good time to remind you, and the internet (hi!), that “I didn’t do that,” and “That’s not what I thought I was doing,” are not the same statement at all.

As to what you should do to make things less awkward? Identify a time period – say, three months – and apply every useful de-escalation tactic to your community participation. Say hello or nod when you run into each other and if they don’t return the greeting move along quietly. If you have a sense of what events are important to them, maybe give a little space if you can – for example, if you would show up as an ally for something where there identity is centered, maybe give it a miss this time. Keep an eye on where they are in a room and try not to overlap too much. Don’t be ostentatious or performative about it, just keep a little distance and see what happens, Brave Correspondent. I don’t know what will shake out. But I can tell you for sure that leaving a little room for them to have their feelings is generally both strategically useful and kind, which is as good a combination as there is in this world and so I recommend it. Good luck to you.

love and courage,

Bear

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