Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Build Others Up

A few months back, I read an article on divorce, and one of the clearest predictors of marital success is how the partners speak to each other. Couples who stay together use courtesy words (please and thank you) and say kind, supportive, positive things to each other often. In couples who divorce, one or both partners often speak rudely, hurtfully, or insultingly. Doomed couples go negative with their words and stay negative.

While this research applied to marriage, I believe it applies equally well to friendship. When someone starts tearing a friend down with words or using the "parent" voice with them, the friendship might be doomed.

Parent voice used between friends is insidious. While there are very rare instances when it might be justified, when one adult uses the parent voice on another adult, he or she is putting himself or herself above the other...scolding, judging, insulting, ordering, and humiliating. Parent voice does not invite response because complaining about it puts you in the position of a whining child. If you respond in anger, well, you're just two grown-ups acting like toddlers who need a nap. Trying to reason with parent voice doesn't work, either; it escalates the situation.

Parent voice, when used one adult to another, is an exercise of power that silences the victim.

Years ago when I worked in a corporation, my boss took a few sick days during a critical time in an important project. She wouldn't take calls, and told me and another employee to "handle it." Working with our boss's boss, we did handle it, and quite well. In fact, we had fun pulling the project together with upper management, a gentleman who was a true team player.

When our boss came back to work, she called the two of us into her office and asked what we'd done. We showed her, but instead of praising our efforts, she started tearing us down. She adopted a parent voice, gave us a condescending lecture on Advertising 101, and told us we'd made a mess she would have to clean up.

There was simply nothing we could say to her in response. It was awful, uncomfortable, and embarrassing. We also felt angry because we knew her criticisms weren't at all valid.

Later that day, she was removed from management, shunted sideways into a dead-end position. She hadn't realized that her own boss had taken such an active roll in helping us out...until it was too late.

So the moral of the story is this: don't ever use the parent voice on your boss. And it's not a good idea to use it on friends, either.

I know what it's like to be torn down by a friend, and it sucks. I also know what it's like to be built up by loving friends, and it's awesome. I want my friends to know the awesomeness of being built up, not the suckiness of being torn down.

Friendships end for all sorts of reasons, some of them quite natural and normal. People grow apart, grow at different paces, move away, move on. After spending 20 years married to the military, I became sadly accustomed to letting go of my civilian friends who didn't have time to continue reaching out to people who moved away.

Only very rarely have friends used unkind words with me, and even then, mostly the friends were just in a temporary bad mood. When they snap occasionally, my instinct is to either build them up or simply ignore the situation. I know I sometimes lose control of my better nature and lash out in frustration or hormones. Real friends understand and cover each other with grace and love.

Unfortunately, some people enter a state of perpetual negativity, pouring out parent voice and other meanness repeatedly on a friend, pushing that person further and further away over a period of time. Hurting people hurt...and they often hurt the people it's safest to hurt, those they trust to love them through anything. Perhaps it's an attempt (conscious or not) to force a confrontation to end the friendship. Perhaps the person is suffering from depression or other mental illness. Perhaps they simply want to move on and don't know how.  Whatever the reason, the friendship weakens and might even fall apart in a nasty friend divorce if the meanness continues unchecked.

As with marriage, friendship takes two people who are committed to each other working together and being kind. When one or both give up, there's not much that can be done. As long as there's hope, working on manners, offering kind words, and building each other up...well, who knows what sort of healing might happen? Grace and love do sometimes win.

And when they don't, let the lost friend go with as much good will as you can muster. Divorce can be messy, but it can also sometimes be a relief.

Have you ever used parent voice on a friend or had it used on you? Did your friendship survive the ugliness? Why or why not? What were reasons for friend divorces you had? Do you think you could have behaved differently for a different outcome, or was the friendship doomed? How can you, today, show a friend some small kindness to build them up?


  1. How true!! As I was reading your post, I realized that I have often unknowingly used 'a parent voice' with my sister and friends. What I meant for good was delivered in a hurtful manner. Words have consequences. They have power to create or destroy. We must speak with love and kindness. Let us all be more diligent in guarding our tongue.

    1. It takes a wise and humble person to recognize when they've used that parent voice! You are absolutely right...we ALL need to guard our tongues!

  2. Interesting how your timing coincides with my life! ;)
    One of my better friends (since Jr High - which should give you an idea of my age!) has been an on again/off again relationship for decades. Mostly it wasn't really a divorce - more of a distance - with a couple of notable exceptions. Recently I think we are in the middle of a divorce and I don't think she's noticed. About 6 months ago she got a divorce (a real one! :) and moved in with her new boyfriend. At the same time she's been going to AA, NA, personal therapy, and women's group counseling. She now lives closer to an hour away (her excuse) and rarely has time to spend with me (either in person or on the phone). Honestly, I think it's fantastic that she's straightening her life out. And I've been as supportive and caring as I could possibly be for the last year.
    Thing is, she's my son's favorite person. She used to be a fixture at our house, literally having dinner with us 2 or 3 nights a week - now we might see her once every 3-6 months. It's been really tough for this mama to watch him miss her (and she is not keeping the commitments that she makes with/to him) and put things off so he can "wait for Robin".
    When she finally returned my calls (literally 3 months after I had last spoken to her) I was as honest as possible. I told her that this behavior wasn't acceptable. I wasn't going to watch my son be crushed when she didn't follow through. And I wasn't interested in a nonreciprocal relationship for myself. We talked for a long time, and while I didn't believe that it was "fixed", I was hopeful. She came to visit, made plans with my boy, and then didn't follow through again. *sigh*
    I feel like I've already said everything that I needed to say. I've heard the "I'm sorry" and the excuses. And while I'm sad that this cycle of friendship has come to an end, perhaps it will cycle around again. That's okay. I just wish my boy wasn't the one I have to explain it to. :(


Thanks so much for taking time to comment!