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Healing relationships


December 4, 2013
By Erick Lauber PhD

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Maybe you have a broken leg at work.

Maybe you have a broken leg at work.

I don’t mean the physical kind; the type where you see a doctor and try to stay off of it for a while. I mean the broken relationship kind; the type that’s much harder to heal, keeps you awake at night and can end up making you unproductive for years if it isn’t fixed.

Unfortunately, the risks of not treating your broken relationship are also like having a broken leg. It can become an ever-increasing problem or infection. It might change how you act in the future, making you a bit gun-shy and eager to avoid another broken leg. The broken relationship might even wear you out emotionally and physically, so much so that you just want to escape.

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You might think that it makes sense to go back and examine how your leg or relationship became so broken. But how it broke isn’t nearly as important as how you respond.

So, what can you do about your broken relationship at work? Is there a way to avoid being one of those martyrs who in some weird way seems to enjoy having a broken relationship? Fortunately, there is. But, like a broken leg, it will take some uncomfortable work.

The first thing that must be done is to approach the situation correctly. You have to make a choice: is this thing going to heal and get better or is it going to be a pain forever?  This choice is completely under your control and it really matters which option you choose.

For example, martyrs won’t listen to any advice, even from professionals. They don’t believe the relationship will get any better so they won’t try anything. They stick to complaining as their only “therapy”. But healers work toward a solution. They try things, they ask for advice.

For example, those who don’t believe a relationship will get any better start to work around it. In medicine, such activities are called compensatory behaviors because the patient is compensating for the deficient limb or process. This can be a problem; first, because it puts extra strain on the other parts of someone’s life. Long-term problems can develop in those relationships that have to bear the extra weight. Second, compensating behaviors don’t allow the original broken relationship to fully heal. They simply hide it.

On the other hand, doctors do prescribe crutches and other aids when damage initially occurs. It is not unreasonable to keep weight off a relationship for a bit while the anger subsides. Importantly, doctors prescribe crutches so you can still function normally – not so you can avoid putting any and all weight on the foot. In real life, we still have to function even with a broken relationship. The proper temporary aids, like having a third co-worker present, or alerting a boss to keep things operating smoothly, is allowable – but only temporarily, and only in extreme situations.

Many a close friend and spouse have wished a loved one would put a broken relationship out of mind. Stop picking at the wound. If you wish, think of it as allowing your subconscious to work on the problem while your conscious self gets some time off. Either way, put it up at night. It will actually heal better if you don’t obsess and worry it constantly.

Eventually, every broken relationship, like a broken leg, demands exercise and real use. This is the part that most people are afraid of. What if it hurts? What if it doesn’t feel exactly like it did before it was broken? 

Go slow and gentle at first, listening for when you might be pushing too hard and then easing up a little. Every doctor knows waiting too long is a much more common mistake than jumping in too early. Avoiding pain is a built-in characteristic of all humans. There’s a reason the phrase “going outside our comfort zone” is such a common expression in management and business. The difference between success and failure is sometimes just the difference between those who succumb to our natural human tendencies and those who climb above them.

Did you know that a healed broken bone is often stronger than the original bone? It’s true! The biological processes that stitch bone back together produce stronger bones than the originals. Is that possible with your broken relationship? Actually, it is.

Consider that in our life, accidents will happen. There will be miscommunications and misinterpretations. Sometimes people will misbehave around us for reasons we could not possibly fathom because we are truly not inside their heads, so bumped and bruised relationships are inevitable. Fundamentally, people are to some degree a little bit scared and insecure. They are worried other people won’t like them or will somehow be out to get them. They are also very, very worried that they can’t predict what other people will do. Somehow bad things will come their way, unexpectedly.

The best human relationships eliminate these two fears.  A good friend is fundamentally someone you know will not purposefully do things that damage you and someone who will act in ways that you can predict. We call this trust in our normal, social lives. Our relationships at work require the same thing. And a healed relationship is one where there is trust.

Healing a broken relationship at work is perhaps harder than healing a broken leg, but it can be done. All broken relationships will require us to go outside our comfort zone and “put some weight” on the relationship, perhaps while we are still afraid and even when we know it might be painful. In the end, a healed relationship, perhaps one so healed it is even stronger than before, is better than a broken relationship. •


Erick Lauber, Ph.D., is an applied psychologist and faculty at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. He speaks and consults on leadership, personal growth and development, and taking charge of our own life stories. He has won 19 educational TV/film awards and has published in numerous psychology journals and book chapters.  His video log is located at www.LifeFraming.org . Contact www.ErickLauber.com or call 724-464-7460.


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