Ask Alignor

How can I overcome past relationship problems?

Bad relationships can cause a lot of substantive problems. In addition, they can cause stress and make us feel bad even when they do not cause specific substantive problems. In short, bad relationships can take the fun out of life. Unfortunately, even when we recognize that bad relationships are damaging us in various ways, it can still seem overwhelmingly difficult to figure out how to improve the situation. One obvious choice we often make is to try to avoid the person with whom we have a bad relationship. Sometimes this is the best approach, particularly when we do not have compelling reasons to deal with that person. There are certain relationships–such as family relationships or relationships with co-workers–in which there can be a very high cost from simply trying to avoid the other person. In those situations, it can make sense to try to overcome or even repair the damage from past interactions in order to build a healthier relationship with the other person. Of course it can be very difficult to do this, both for you and for the other person. Some of the barriers that often impede us from repairing damaged relationships include: 1) emotional pain (theirs and/or our own); 2) asymmetrical power dynamics in which one person has dominated the other; 3) misunderstandings and impaired communication that contribute to a sense of alienation and injustice; 4) the involvement of other people who may act as provocateurs or spoilers because they feel they will benefit in some way if the bad relationship is not repaired; and 5) fear of change, especially when bad relationships have persisted for a long time. While there is no one way to overcome past relationship problems, there are some things you should consider doing. First, before you approach the other person in an effort to repair a bad relationship, you should think carefully about how the relationship went bad. Focus on your role in the relationship and whether you have played a part in damaging the relationship. Second, once you are prepared to talk with the other person, if you believe you have contributed to the problems in the relationship, you should consider apologizing to the other person about what you have done to contribute to the problems. There are few things as powerful as a genuine apology to help reset a bad relationship. (On the other hand, there are few things as unhelpful, and potentially incendiary, as an insincere apology.) Third, be prepared to listen carefully to what the other person says. The act of listening is a powerful (and underutilized) method for improving relationships. It can demonstrate your empathy to the other person and also enhance your understanding of their needs. Fourth, be open to finding new and creative ways to meet the needs of the other person. Consider options that are different from what you have done in the past and explicitly invite the other person to suggest more options. Finally, remember, bad relationships generally suffer from a lack of trust. In order to build (or rebuild) trust, we should make specific commitments that can be evaluated and enforced in the short term. The solid trust that characterizes healthy relationships is usually built one small step at a time.