How To Turn Around A Damaged Relationship

Why are we so ready to walk away from people and never look back? What thinking has convinced us that people aren't as important as we thought?

When it comes to relationships these days, it seems just about everyone is packing around a lighter and a stick of dynamite.

“I’m just protecting myself”, our internal voice whispers. But all we’re really doing is shrinking our world one relationship at a time, living in an ever-diminishing sphere of our own “rightness”.

Without meaningful relationships, people can still grow, they just can't mature.

When we pause to consider what is truly involved in discovering meaning and purpose in life, wisdom teaches us that, in the end, the only things that have lasting, intrinsic value, are the relationships we have.

Closing that great deal, the “amazing” vacation, that extra 20 hours you spent in the office last week, that awesome golf swing . . . any or all of it eventually won’t matter. What will matter are the people who will be there to celebrate your victories and console you for the losses that life inevitably calls every person to face.

We need people.

We need each other.

I need you.

You need me.

It's a fact of the human condition – genuine, lasting joy can’t be found outside of relationship. And that is why the wisest of people endeavor to turn around even damaged relationships.

Let’s keep it real. Some relationships aren’t worth having. Some people need to get out of your life. And while it pains me deeply, I had to do this very thing recently. I had to tell someone who refused to change after five long years of my emotional investing, that I wasn’t (again) going to import into my family the relational and moral chaos he chose to live in.

But then there are the other relationships – those that have been damaged by us – a disagreement, a misunderstanding, a wrong action . . . our pride.

How do you humble yourself to repair such a quandary? How do you win back that person’s trust? In my experience, It won’t happen unless you make the first move.

1. Cross the broken bridge

Ask the person you’ve wronged to meet with you. Be aware of the wounds at play, don't go into details (when you're asking to meet) beside showing a heart of restoration, and be prepared for them to refuse.

2. Start with humility. Commit yourself to the soft answer before “going in”

Whatever happens in the conversation, never answer with a sharp edge. Speak with a gentle, humble tone. In the book of Proverbs, the wisest man who ever lived, King Solomon, says, “A soft answer turns away anger.” Answer softly.

3. Purpose beforehand that you won’t “take the bait”.

Every emotional relationship serves up more “bait” than a Bass Pro fishing competition. Don’t take it. What is the bait in this situation? Those comments and statements thrown at you in a way that builds your anger. They are going to happen in the conversation – guaranteed. Determine beforehand you won’t respond to them. When people are hurt they say all sorts of hurtful things they don’t really mean. Stay on message, point them back toward the solution, choose not to react.

4. When the accusations coming your way are true, humbly acknowledge that you’ve been wrong.

You can be defensive or you can be determined to win back the relationship. Take ownership of what belongs to you and acknowledge the truth of what is said. “You have every right to bring that up. I did that… and it was so wrong. I can see why that I really hurt you. I'm sorry.”

5. Don’t go into the conversation looking for the 50/50 deal.

It’s the relationship, not the scorecard that matters here. People often make the mistake of trying to get the other person to admit they are wrong, too. Or that the other person is more wrong than they are. You are here because the relationship is broken because you did something wrong. Stay focused on that.

6. Remember “Sorry” is never enough when trying to restore a relationship.

Lots of people say “sorry”. Instead, humble yourself by asking this question, “Will you forgive me for (fill in the blank).” And, if you did something that cost the other party money or damaged something of value, offer a generous restitution.

7. Don’t forget, some people need a little time.

Be satisfied that you did everything you could to rectify the situation. Give the other party time to collect their thoughts and get their emotions under control.

8. What do you do when the person refuses to receive your genuine apology?

Let it go. Remain polite and kind regardless of how they respond, and always hope for change. But, in the end, your conscience is clear. You’ve done what is right and that’s a good place to be.

It's steps like these that remove the dynamite/lighter mentality and hopefully, rebuild the damaged relationships we have. Remember this, a restored relationship is often stronger and sweeter than before the problem arose and what’s even better, it indicates we’re headed for a rich, fulfilled, meaningful life.

Have you turned around a damaged relationship? What worked for you? Let me know in the comments below.

~Matthew L. Jacobson

About Matthew L. Jacobson
Matthew is a family blogger, husband to Lisa, father of 8 children, and a professional literary agent by trade. Matthew's mission is to strengthen marriages and families by teaching how to build and enjoy healthy, loving relationships. You can read more from Matthew on his blog or follow him on Twitter

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25 Responses

  1. Thank you Matthew for such an honest list. Being willing to admit you are wrong, without any expectation that the other person has to do the same, can be one of the greatest ways to strengthen a relationship. As you said, humility is key

  2. That is a very inspiring text. I recognized myself in some of the words…relationships truly are what makes our life complete, so we should cherish them and put some work in when the going gets tough, instead of leaving right away!

  3. “It’s a fact of the human condition – genuine, lasting joy can’t be found outside of relationship.” Just turned 40 with nothing to show for it…divorced and childless. Thanks for the confirmation I’ll die alone and miserable.

    1. Eliana, “relationship” refers to both romantic AND platonic relationships. You don’t have to be in a romantic relationship to find fulfillment in life, but we do strongly believe we need human connection, which comes in many different forms.

  4. Thank you so much for this. My boyfriend and I have been together for just over a year and I had lied to him about some stupid things, made up stories to make him care about me more and I’ve hurt him so deeply. We live together with his parents in an apartment and we are constantly fighting. It hurts me more to see how hurt he is than to know how broken I am and I am determined to fix this. I love him so much and today in particular I was beginning to feel like I will never be able to fix it no matter what I do. I’ve broken his trust and I am trying so hard to gain it back. Your words have given me just a little bit of hope. I thank you for that I really needed it today.

  5. If the “problem” in the relationship is so problematic that you feel you need to cut all ties away from the person then it’s never just one party that’s at fault. A relationship takes two.

    Maybe I’m a bit offended, considering that the relationship I was thinking of, we were both at fault. So the constant “remember, YOU’re the one that’s wrong” in the post wasn’t pleasurable for me.

    To the people reading this, consider: how much you really want the relationship if you have to completely humble yourself to that person, even if he/she might constantly remind you that you’re wrong, if you have to put more effort in to the relationship (ex: you put 70% in, the other person 30%).

    And consider: how much they want to fix/rebuild the relationship if they keep attacking you and then not put the effort in.

  6. I want to share my experience here with past and a recent relationship that went south. My personal relationships are blooming, but I can’t say the same about my romantic life. I guess the first step as is mentioned in the article is to take first initiative. Even you get no reply, you know you reached out and acknowledged your short coming. What happens after that is pure grace. If nothing happens then you know it is time to shake the dust off your feet and walk away. It might take years for that person to come back into your life. Don’t dwell on it. I am in a 7 year healing process with someone and it is only now coming to a point where we can look each other in the eye and nod. You know that nod? Romantic relationships are far more complex than friendships and professional relationships for me. I just have to work harder on myself and learn from my mistakes. It does shape you for that special person to come into your life.

  7. I’m just wondering why you haven’t done this with the wake of broken relationships you left among your staff at Sevenly?

  8. As a matchmaker, I see so many who could benefit from incorporating these practices into their relationships. Your intro really says it all about today’s mindset” Why are we so ready to walk away from people and never look back? What thinking has convinced us that people aren’t as important as we thought?” Yes, indeed. It’s time for all of us to show more understanding and forgiveness in our human relationships.

  9. I recently broke up with my partner… we both wanted a baby together and spent months trying to conceive… he would say things to me like “the day you tell me you are pregnant will be an important day for me”. When I did finely become pregnant after 4 months of trying.. I was excited… but when I told my partner his first response was “How did that happen?” (we had been having unprotected sex for 6 months, trying for a baby)… “Is it mine?”… (I have not ever cheated on him or given him any reason to doubt me). He demanded to do a second test to see if it was true and then even corrected me on my dates.. even though my dates were right from my last period… he sat down with a pen and paper and tried to work out all the days we had sex. I was totally devoted to this man.. I shared everything I had with him, my home etc. The next two months of my pregnancy involved him going away – travelling alone most weekends.. no intimacy… poor communication – even though I tried talking with him… daily criticism and degorative comments from him to me.. he showed no interest in the pregnancy even though I tried to show him the babies development online, he didn’t enquire about my medical appointments and when I did try to talk to him he would tell me to “ssshhhh”. He didn’t want anyone to know I was pregnant (he said just yet), especially his parents! I felt as if I was walking on egg shells and that if this continued I would soon be in need of psychological help from a medical professional! I lost a stone in weight, I was very tired and being sick from the pregnancy, I became depressed and struggled to do normal everyday tasks.. I wasn’t coping very well, but yet I did my best to maintain a positive attitude, making excuses for his behaviour, thinking he will come around to the pregnancy.. its what he wanted, he’s just in shock etc. He had turned from a very loving, committed man to a none caring disengaged person over night. When I was 8 weeks pregnant I finished the relationship and terminated the pregnancy because I just couldn’t stand the way he was treating me.. I do not agree with abortions and this was a planned pregnancy.. it was a very hard decision for me to make… I had to attend a few appointments before and I even saw the baby on a scan.. I was heart broken… I even considered keeping the baby and raising it alone.. but it would have been difficult for me to manage alone financially I already had an eight year daughter from a previous relationship to provide for and I work long hours. I couldn’t get away from my ex partner quick enough.. I felt like an animal who had been caught in a trap and I had to graw my own leg off to escape! My body has taken weeks to recover.. for a while it thought still thought it was pregnant, sore boobs etc.. I am so upset that I couldn’t keep me baby it would have meant that I would have had to maintain some sort of relationship with that man and I just couldn’t stand the way he was treating me any longer – he was making me ill. My heart is broken!!! He has tried to contact me a few times by text saying “hey”. I have had to cut this man off completely so I can grieve my loss.

    1. So sad to hear this Susan. But take courage that you can cut your losses now than later. No doubt a pregnancy has been sacrificed, you can still focus your love on your daughter. This man is heartless. Move on and pray. Have hope that you deserved better and keep busy, stop grieving and reach out to God and people who cared about you.

  10. Hi Dale,
    I am struggling emotionally at the moment, In a way you could say i am in a damaged relationship. My husband cheated on me with my sister. How do you forgive someone whose done that to you. We have a 9 year old daughter and Iam 30 weeks pregnant, I do still have feelings for him inspite of cheating. Is this relationship still worth saving??? Ruth

  11. I am also in a broken relationship. Two years ago, I told my husband that I had gotten raped by someone while we were dating in college and our oldest son might not be his. He was devastated. He asked my why did I not tell him before and I told him that I was in denial that it even happened. I told him that I had confronted the guy about it and he acted like nothing happened. He called me some very foul names and we even got into a few physical altercations. We have two more boys together and they were really hurt by this disruption in our household. He told me that he did no think he would be able to trust me again. The last time we had sex was in March of last year and he told me that I repulsed him. We have not had any relations since. As time went on, we started speaking again and I was allowed to sleep in our bed again. Then he got insanely sick at the beginning of this year in March. He was hospitalized with a brain and spinal infection for a little over a month. He has since lost the use of his legs and we are working through it with physical therapy. His memory is not as great as it was and there are things that he does not remember, including our big blow out aver a year and a half ago. He has now started questioning me about it and he has gotten angry with me again. I explained to him what happened and he does not believe me. He thinks that I got drunk and had relations with this person and am afraid to tell him. He is so upset and I am not sure what to do at this point. I have even considered just leaving the relationship after he has gotten better enough to take care of himself again. I just can’t put our children through this again. The youngest was doing the worse in school after this happened over a year ago. 🙁

    1. Stephanie,

      Pray. Seek biblical guidance. Ask your pastor for marriage counsel. Continue to pray for him.

  12. I am so glad I found this article. I recently confronted a dear friend about their drinking problem and ten days later they ended our friendship over a text that I sent that was unrelated but happened to be bad timing. I apologized for the text but did not expect my friend to accept the apology. There has been no contact since then other than unfortunately I work with this person and they continue to give me the cold shoulder. I don’t think there is anything else I can do other than wait to see if my friend valued our friendship at all and is willing to take a step to repair our relationship. I am not holding my breath.

  13. My ex-husband and I were married for 7 years. He said it was a long time coming and didn’t know how to approach me, what to do or how to say it. He didn’t want to hurt me. I will admit our realtionship wasn’t the best and we had our ups and downs. What relationship is perfect? His best friend was getting married. I was supposed to go with but I elected not to go because his best friend and I had our differences and I wanted my husband to have a good time without me being a burden. Plus he was one of the groomsmen and I would’ve been a loner in the crowd. From the looks of it (pics) the rehersal ,wedding and reception was perfect. It looked magical and I can only imagine how much “love & happiness” was in the air. Well, I found out later, after he told me he wanted a divorce, that he was unfaithful the weekend of the wedding. My life already had felt like it was crumbling beneath me because of his divorce request. Then to find out another women was involved was another stab in the heart. He admitted he would have never told me if I have never found out. He said the divorce had nothing to do with her but I knew better. A month later he filed for divorce and then two months later it was final. Within 4-5 months my life had changed 360 degrees. I moved out and I had to force myself to move on, not because I wanted to, but because I didn’t wanted to keep drowning in my own sorrow and tears. I needed to find myself because in the midst of the 7 years I have realized I lost myself loving him more than I should’ve loved myself. 5 months have past and I was doing great. I felt revived and happy to be alone. I enjoyed my own company and I made a lot of meaningful relationships. He contacted me and wanted a 2nd chance. Boy do I have a soft spot for him. I gave it to him. I forgave him and let him back in my life. Taking him back meant that I was willing to look past the mistakes and move on from them. Well, it’s easier said than done right? It always is. I have been really trying to let go of the past and the pain it has caused me. My anxiety is through the roof. I can’t trust him no matter how much I try or really want to. He says it’s like walking on egg shells being around me and I believe him because it’s true. I am now more jealous than I have ever been. He says that he took me for granted and I’ve been nothing but good to him and I’m always there despite what he’s done. I forgave him not for him but for me. But did I really? I feel sick. I feel crazy. I dont foresee myself living like this in the future so why am I living it now? How do you mend a relationship that has been so damaged? I’m lost and I feel like I am damaged…mentally and emotionally. How can I change my mindset to not be this crazy jealous person? We both know our relationship isn’t healthy and we are both scared and lost. We love each other but we are both suffering. I feel like it would be easier to walk away so I don’t have to worry about being a depressive burden to him. I’m always sad. I don’t want to drag him down but it’s so ironic. I feel I am the way I am because of what happened. His actions changed me. I’m stuck. I just want to live a simple happy life. If that means being alone (not being in a relationship) then so be it. I’ll be ok with that. I’m just so tired. Tired of feeling so drained and in constant pain of worry. I am not proud of the person I have become at this point. I feel crazy. Can we turn this around? How?

  14. You know this text is exactly home my relasenship is. And because i didnt listen to him i messed up bad like every word you said thats how i messed up and i love my partner to the end of the world but some how im not getting it in my head. But i got to find my happnes for myself and hope he will still take me back after how my behaver was. LOVE is a strong word but its worth it all if u trully love that person. You got to work hard for that trust again its hard to do but it will work in do time.

  15. A truly beautiful post. It is so humbling, and so genuine, a true roadmap for building broken relationships. We all need this, at least I do.

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