• Anger and conflict in relationships can be really hard to deal with, especially if the rupture seems irreparable

  • Dr Ryan Martin has solid advice to help you assess the situation

  • We have therapists who specialise in working with anger – find them here

A client, Anne, once came to talk to me because she had alienated a friend and didn’t know what to do about it. It had started over something small, but had escalated into a bigger fight. Her friend then completely disconnected from her. She stopped responding to any contact and when they bumped into each other on her college campus, the friend just walked past her without saying anything or making eye contact.

Anne was devastated. She missed her friend and felt bad about what she had done to alienate her. What made things more complicated for her, though, was that she didn’t actually think she was fully responsible. She told me that they had both gone too far with the argument, that they both had said hurtful things to one another, and that they both had good reasons to be angry. Anne didn’t feel it was entirely her responsibility to try and save their friendship, but she also knew her friend wasn’t going to put forward any effort. This last piece made her feel even worse.

The situation between Anne and her friend is a relationship problem, obviously, but it’s also an anger problem. At the core, we have two people who are angry at one another and one of them is expressing that anger by cutting off contact. Anne interpreted that shutting down as a lack of interest in continuing the friendship, and that may have been true, but it also might not have been true.

What’s driving it? 

It doesn’t have to be as dramatic as Anne’s situation. Sometimes it is. Sometimes the person just flat-out avoids you. They don’t respond to calls, emails, and texts, and they ignore you when they see you in person. Alternatively, maybe they have just pulled back on their involvement with you, but not cut you off completely. They might still respond to you, but it’s become increasingly impersonal and your interactions are largely superficial compared to how they once were. Their anger toward you has had long-term negative effects that derailed the relationship.

But the cause might not be what you think. Yes, it started with a disagreement that led to anger, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that the reason they have cut off contact is just that anger. When people stop communicating the way Anne’s friend did, it might be because they are mad at you, or it might be something else.

1. Embarrassment 

Sometimes people shut down like this out of embarrassment over the way they acted during the argument. They might not realise it or even do it intentionally, but contacting the person they had the fight with means facing the situation again in a way that makes them uncomfortable. They are ashamed and self-conscious and avoidance is the path of least discomfort. 

By cutting off contact with you, they don’t have to revisit what they said or did.

2. Sadness, hurt, or depression 

Sometimes, the lack of contact is motivated by deep feelings of sadness or even depression. Their initial anger has given way to now feeling hurt by something you did or said. It might not even be that you did or said anything specific, but simply the fact that you disagreed has led to some emotional pain for them. 

Contacting you would exacerbate that hurt so they are avoiding it.

3. Discomfort with conflict 

Conflict is difficult and it makes some people very uncomfortable and even anxious. When people shut down like this or avoid contact with you, it might simply be because they are trying to avoid dealing with something that’s very hard for them. 

Avoidance is a natural and common reaction to fear and anxiety so the distress they feel over the conflict encourages them to avoid the relationship.

4. Passive-aggressive manipulation 

Shutting down like this might be motivated by a passive-aggressive attempt to hurt the person they are in conflict with. They know that cutting off contact with the person will hurt them and that is their intent. 

It might even be a way of gaining an upper-hand in the relationship, by sending the message that they don’t need the relationship. They want the person to apologise and even beg for forgiveness.

5. A genuine desire to end the relationship 

It’s quite possible that cutting off contact reflects a genuine desire to end the relationship. They might simply be done with the friendship and want to move on. This might not be the most mature way to handle things, but it happens often.

Attempting to reconnect  

So what do you do in a situation like this? Here are my tips.

1. Make sure you understand the reason they have cut contact

A person who has cut off contact because they are embarrassed by something they did or said might require a different response from you than a person who is quite angry with you but is avoiding conflict. Both might require gentleness from you, but the later might also need to be given some permission and coaxing to say what they want to say.

Frankly, knowing the source might actually lead you to not want to do anything at all about it. If you realise, for instance, that the person is being manipulative or passive-aggressive, you may decide that this is not a relationship you want to invest energy in. Even the person who is avoiding conflict might not be someone you want to do anything about.

2. Consider what you are willing to do for this relationship

By definition, repairing a relationship where someone is refusing to communicate with you requires effort on your part. At a minimum, it will require that you break the silence by reaching out. Preserving the relationship could mean you need to apologise for something you did (maybe even something you don’t feel completely responsible for). It might mean you need to swallow some of your feelings to protect the other person’s feelings. You need to decide what this relationship means to you and what you are willing to do to preserve it.

There are a lot of things to factor into that decision. Who the person is in your life (such as friend, co-worker, family), the relationships they have with other people in your life, the power they might have over you, your feelings, and so on. These added dynamics will play into the situation in a significant way.

3. Decide what is most important

If you are going to reach out to someone who is angry with you and has cut off contact, what is your goal and how can you obtain that goal? Do you want to preserve the relationship? Do you want to make sure they understand your position on whatever the dispute was about? Do you want to get the last word in and say goodbye? 

Each of these goals likely requires a different approach. To preserve the relationship, you might need to stop yourself from saying some things you really want to say. To make sure they understand your position, you’ll need to be honest in ways you and they might not be comfortable with. Be thoughtful about your goal and how to get there but also be flexible about what they might want.

4. Put the ball in their court

If and when you decide to reach out, do so via a channel that will work best for both of you. Regardless of how you reach out, let them know how you’re feeling in a direct but non-hostile way, and empower them to take the next step (for instance, “I think you must be angry with me and I would like to talk about it with you. Please let me know when you’re ready”).

5. If/when they respond, be open to feedback

Listen to their position with an open mind. It is natural and normal to get defensive in moments like these. You may feel attacked in response to something they say and it’s best to prepare for that possible feeling in advance. 

Go into the interaction with a plan for what you want to communicate, consistent with what you have already decided is most important, but be prepared for the possibility of things going a different direction than you expected. 

Solving whatever problem may have led to this situation will necessarily be a joint effort, so you’ll need to be prepared to work together on identifying solutions.

6. Know when to give up

You may not want to hear this, but there may come a point where you just need to give up. Remember that one of the reasons why they may have cut off contact is because of a genuine desire to end the relationship. If that’s the case, it may be impossible for you to do anything to change their mind. 

In fact, continuing to try and rebuild the relationship after they have made it clear they don’t want to is disrespectful to them. Listening to them means respecting their wishes and backing away when that is what they want.

Alternatively, you may decide that you no longer want to have a relationship with this person. You may decide the relationship is too much work or simply not good for you anymore. You may start to see unexpected emotional consequences of being in a relationship with them that don’t seem worth it when you consider the big picture. That is ok too.

7. Take care of yourself

It is undeniable that this sort of interaction will take an emotional toll on you. If you do have the conversation, it can be emotionally draining and uncomfortable. Be aware of the fact that you might need a break or that you might even need to call it quits for the day in order to get some rest and some distance from the situation.

At the same time, if the person doesn’t respond and you never have the conversation, it can be emotionally draining and painful in a different way. Them making the decision that they no longer want you in their life, regardless of what led to them making that decision, will likely be hurtful and distressing. You might blame yourself and feel ashamed and responsible for the problem. It’s important to do what you can to take care of yourself, stay resilient, and learn from the experience.

Dr Ryan Martin is the author of How to Deal with Angry People

Further reading

What do my female therapy clients have in common? Anger

How to break unhealthy patterns around anger expression

7 steps to resolve anger in relationships

How group therapy helped me understand my anger

Watch Dr Ryan Martin's earlier interview