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When There is Unexplained Distance in a Friendship

A few years ago, one of my friendships disintegrated, and it was largely my fault. For the world, friendship disintegration may involve screaming matches or slanderous accusations, but for Christian women, it typically means going radio silent or slowly distancing ourselves from relationships we once considered close. We think, in doing so, we're being "nice", because this route avoids gossip and stirring up unnecessary conflict, but in fact it is as equally hurtful as a spoken wounding word. In fact, it may be more hurtful, because in the silence, we leave others with many unanswered questions and inflamed insecurities.

My friendship disintegrated in this pattern, and I was the one who pulled away in the guise of niceness. This friend and I are polar opposites in personality, but we also have many commonalities: a love of Jesus, dreams for our families, and a passion for ministry to women.

She was, to me, sharpening iron, but she sharpened me in ways I didn't particularly want to be sharpened. Sometimes that sharpening hurt and I took offense, but I didn't say anything to her about it. I didn't ask for clarification, didn't seek understanding, and didn't give the benefit of the doubt, but instead I slowly distanced myself from her.

I was asked about this in various refrains from blog readers:

  • I have a friend who has drifted away and I don't know why. Do I forgive her and just let it go or do I tell her that I am hurt by our friendship drifting away?

  • I'm mourning a friendship. I've done everything I know to do to make peace but the relationship no longer exists in the deep and intimate way it once did. How do I continue to love her while mourning how it's changed?

In my friendship, I was the drifter, the one who left a mourner in my wake. Somewhere along the way, I gave myself permission to give up on our relationship. 

After much distancing between us, my friend came to me in gentle conversation to call me on it. If you want to know the truth, I wasn't ready for that conversation; I wasn't ready to listen. I still had my personal excuses as to why distance was okay. 

Several months later, through the simple yet piercing question of another friend, God convicted me that distancing was not "nice" but rather a willed wounding. After all, this wasn't a woman who had moved away or whose schedule made it difficult for us to see one another. That would be a natural distancing. This was an emotional distancing, a hurtful distancing, and I'd willfully chosen it, primarily because I didn't want to have a hard conversation. I hadn't wanted to share how her words had touched some sensitive parts of me, how I'd felt misunderstood, how I'd been hurt. I didn't want to have to go through the sharpening that working through challenges in our relationship might require. So I'd just walked away. 

I couldn't ignore the Lord's conviction, however, so I called her up and asked if we could talk face-to-face. She came over, sat on the couch with me, listened, and forgave. We confessed all the crazy thoughts, insecurities, and assumptions we'd made about one another in the silence between us, and I think we came to a better understanding of and a deeper compassion for one another. The only way to that point was through a hard conversation.

God put her in my life specifically for the sharpening. I learned that lesson almost too late, but I learned it nonetheless. I looked back at my life in acknowledgement that, typically, when someone in my life makes me feel uncomfortable, my knee-jerk reaction is to avoid them. I need to consider instead if God has them in my orbit for a reason. 

But the primary lesson I've taken away from my restored friendship is this: There are times when I need to have hard conversations. All of those many months of hurt could have been avoided entirely if I'd been open and direct. I've often believed that avoiding the hard conversations is the right way because it's avoiding potential division or will be unnecessarily hurtful. I've come to realize that avoiding the hard conversations is actually loving myself and my own safety and comfort more than it is loving other people in the way Christ would have me love them. 

Christians, especially in friendship, avoiding the hard conversations is far more wounding than having them! And I believe that our inability or refusal to have biblical hard conversations is one of our greatest weaknesses in the Church as a whole. In most situations that women come to me for counsel--a discipleship relationship is falling apart, a friend unintentionally wounded them, a relationship is causing them consternation, there is frustration over a church decision--my first question is, "Have you gone to that person and talked to them about it?" This is typically the last thing they want to hear; they want any solution that allows them to avoid addressing the problem head-on.

Yes, there are many instances when offenses must be overlooked. Not everything needs to be addressed. We are imperfect people in an imperfect Church. However, we can know that we need to have a hard conversation, as opposed to overlooking an offense, if we find ourselves having imaginary conversations with a person, avoiding them, or talking to everyone else but the person about the situation.

In the many months when I attempted to distance myself from my friend, I made many excuses for myself. I can't be friends with everyone. I don't have to be friends with everyone. This relationship is too challenging to be a good friendship. I should have recognized these thoughts as red flags. I have since gone back through them to consider if it's ever okay to walk away from a friendship, and I've come to the conclusion that there are very few times when that's appropriate. I believe God places people in our lives for our good and our sanctification and the people we often want to distance ourselves from are the ones we probably need the most. Of course, we can't be close friends with everyone, but we can certainly honor everyone and learn from everyone we encounter. Radio silence and distancing are not a form of honor and humility.

So for those asking questions related to this topic, here's what I've learned: 

If you feel distance in a friendship and you don't know why, consider having the hard conversation, but do so carefully. 

Do it in person, not over text or email. Do it only after much thought and prayer as to what specifically needs to be addressed.Do it--this is the hard part--for the sake of the other person and with a goal of restoration. That's what my friend did for me. She helped me see myself by showing me how I was wounding her. She did it out of love for me and in an attempt to reconcile our relationship, not from a place of expectation. Do it with a readiness to forgive but also a readiness to listen. Are you prepared to hear if the friend's distance is because of how you hurt them? Do it with your trust in the Lord, not in expectation of a specific response from your friend. The relationship may not be fully restored or may be different than it was before. The friend may not be ready for the conversation. Have the hard conversation with Romans 12:18 in mind: "If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all." Do what you can do, do what is right in the eyes of the Lord, and trust Him for the rest.

Is there someone you need to have a hard conversation with? Is there someone you are distancing yourself from emotionally? What would God say to you about it today?

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