How to Handle Friendship Conflicts Like an AdultBecause there’s plenty of middle ground between ignoring it and having a Bravo-reunion brawl.
Friends are the best. Having people who are there for you, support you, inspire you, and send you relatable memes (“lol it’s us”) is one of life’s greatest treasures. But that doesn’t mean you’ll never experience some tension (or, worse, a full-blown fight) with your friends. And that can be a major stressor in our lives, especially since most of us aren't experts at how to handle conflicts in our friendships.
If you’d rather stick your hand in an ant hill than bring up a conflict with a friend, we get it. Our culture tends to emphasize being “cool” and letting things slide. But that’s probably not helping your bond.
“When we turn toward avoidance, we turn away from healthier connections,” says Miriam Kirmayer, PhD, clinical psychologist and friendship expert. “The healthiest, closest friendships are ones where people will say, ‘Yeah, we have had disagreements, we've had arguments, and we've been able to work through those together.’”
Not to mention that addressing and resolving friendship issues is great practice for other areas of your life too. Navigating sticky friend situations can help you develop the skills to get through relationship issues with partners, colleagues, and even children, says Dr. Kirmayer.
But addressing problems with friends maturely and calmly takes practice, and you might feel a little (or a lot) uncomfortable at first. Take a deep breath, be brave, and try one of these techniques.
What to do if: You don’t feel like your friendship is being prioritized.
As with most beefs, you don’t want to assume you have all the information or that you know exactly what your friend is going through. One technique that therapist Chase Cassine, LCSW, recommends for these conversations: “Name the situation, say how you're feeling, and explain how you want to resolve it,” he says.
In the case of feeling like your friend isn’t showing up for you, that might look like: “Last week we had plans to hang out and you canceled. That’s happened a few times recently, and I’m feeling hurt. Can we talk about it?”
If this is a problem that’s been bothering you for a while, it might be worth getting a little more vulnerable about how it’s affecting your view of the friendship. Dr. Kirmayer recommends a phrase like, “The story I’m telling myself is…”
For example: “The story I’m telling myself is that you don’t want to see me.” This allows space for you to share what you’re feeling, while also admitting that your truth is only half of the story. This way, you’re inviting them to respond just as honestly without judgment.
What to do if: The friendship feels competitive.
If you both enjoy a little competition, then no biggie. Maybe they’re the Paris Geller to your Rory Gilmore and it just works. But if not, Dr. Kirmayer says to start with a little self-reflection. Again, it helps to hone in on the story you’re telling yourself, she says. Is there actual evidence that you two are competing in some way? Or are you maybe comparing yourself to your friend more than you should? You might just need to work on your own self-talk rather than confronting your person.
But if it does feel like an interpersonal issue—your friend can’t seem to hear your good news without trying to one-up it with her own accomplishments—address the problem as a dynamic rather than blaming your friend. “Frame it as something that's co-constructed,” Dr. Kirmayer explains. For example, you might say: “I've noticed that some of our conversations can take on a layer of competitiveness. Have you noticed that? Or does it surprise you that I’m saying it?”
Your next move will depend on how your friend responds. For example, maybe your friend might explain that they’re not trying to compete with you at all—they’re super, truly, and genuinely happy for you, and they brag about how amazing you are all the time. Hopefully that helps you reframe the crummy feelings you’ve been having about it, so next time it feels less like competition and more like mutual sharing. Or maybe they explain what’s happening on their end, and you find that you’ve been playing into the dynamic too (whoops). In that case, you can brainstorm possible solutions together, like making an effort to give words of affirmation or congratulations before diving into your own good news.
What to do if: Your friend’s comments feel judgemental or harsh lately.
First, avoid generalizing, which is a really easy thing to do when feeling hurt. Generalizing looks like, “You’ve been really mean to me lately,” or, “You’re always saying negative stuff.” Instead, get specific and try to keep your tone calm, Cassine says.
He recommends something like, “I want to talk to you about something that’s been bothering me. Last time we hung out, you said X. You may have meant it as a joke, but it really affected me.”
The goal isn’t to punish your friend but to give concrete examples rather than being vague or passive-aggressive, Cassine says. Your friend might have questions or want to explain what they meant. To avoid a constant back-and-forth of you-said-no-you-said, try to keep the conversation geared toward the future rather than rehashing the past more than once. After you’ve both said your peace, how can you avoid these kinds of comments (or misunderstandings!) in future convos? Maybe you agree to skip sharing feedback on something that you feel a little insecure about—or you just avoid that topic altogether.
What to do if: Your interests and opinions kinda conflict sometimes.
Hey, friends don’t always agree on everything. Maybe it’s about what you like to do for fun (the party friend and the introvert friend), where you enjoy living (the city friend and the suburb friend), or how you approach finances (the friend who drops thousands on concert tickets and the friend who…doesn’t). When you have mismatched interests in these areas, it can be awkward to work out, and you might both end up feeling like the other one is criticizing your choices whenever they don’t align.
Dr. Kirmayer’s recommendation: Don’t take their preferences personally, and remember that neither of you is wrong—or, rather, you’re both right. “Whatever tension arises isn't something that the other person is doing to you, it's something that they're doing for themselves,” Dr. Kirmayer says. Next comes compromise—but don’t freak out. Most people assume that compromise means one person totally loses out on what they’re looking for, says Dr. Kirmayer. But that’s a bad deal. Instead, compromise should be about brainstorming ways you can both get as much of what you want as possible.
Let’s imagine you’re on vacation and you want to spend all your time at the beach while your BFF wants a museum buddy. There are lots of ways to solve for this that involve both of you winning. Maybe you split your time evenly, or maybe you come up with a third idea that hadn’t been on either of your radar—like a guided walk that gets you out in the sun and your friend immersed in culture. Or you can try to look at the history of the friendship and see whose “turn” it might be to pick the plan. “The important thing is that you talk about not just what the solution is but how you're coming to that solution together,” Dr. Kirmayer explains.
What to do if: You fundamentally disagree on something major.
You probably have some friends that feel like they’re an extension of you walking around with a copy-and-paste of your exact brain. And then there are friends that you love and appreciate despite not being on the same page about some big things—like politics, religion, science, whatever. It’s absolutely possible to have friends with different viewpoints on these subjects, but if those viewpoints or actions feel discriminatory or unsafe for you or your loved ones, that can be a lot harder to work around.
Depending on how extreme the situation is, you might be able to preserve the friendship by upping your boundaries. This might look like agreeing to avoid a certain topic, or it might mean deprioritizing the friendship so that you’re only seeing each other in larger group settings and keeping conversations more surface-level, says Dr. Kirmayer.
But friendship should feel chosen, reminds Dr. Kirmayer, who offers a few key indicators that it might be time to choose to step away: “When the friendship comes at the expense of your well-being, when it’s a clash in values that leads you to feel chronically unsafe or unseen, [and] when you have done all you feel you can do and there doesn’t seem to be a change.” If that sounds like your situation, it might be time to let the friendship go.
We’ll be blunt here: These conversations are rarely easy. Dr. Kirmayer recommends explaining what feels broken about the friendship and why the subject of this disagreement is important to you. Remember, the goal isn’t to convince the other person that your viewpoint is correct. You’re offering your perspective, acknowledging that they may have a different one, and expressing how you feel about the state of your friendship in those circumstances.
What to do if: You’re caught in the middle between friends.
Social media and buddy comedies might make big friend groups look ideal, but they come with their own set of issues. Like… if two of those friends are fighting, and you’re having to hear all about it.
The good news? It’s a great time to practice boundaries, Dr. Kirmayer says. First, you’ll want to figure out what’s making you uncomfortable. Are they asking for advice? Are they forcing you to (or implying that you should) pick sides? Is it that they’re sharing information not meant for you? Is it that you just don’t feel comfortable hearing about it at all?
Once you figure that out, it’s time to tell your friends—probably separately. Be sure to remind them that you support them both and are neutral in this matter. Then explain what you are and aren’t comfortable with. For example,“I know you’re going through a hard time right now, but I’m not comfortable giving advice about our mutual friend.” Or you might say, “I love you both and I’m really not comfortable being in the middle, so I’d prefer we didn’t talk about what’s going on between you two.”
Your friends might have follow-up questions, and together you can navigate what is and isn’t on the table. For example, one friend might want to know if they can talk more generally about the falling out (like that they’re feeling betrayed or isolated or lonely, but not giving you a play-by-play), and you’ll have to decide whether you’re OK with that.
You might have to remind your friends a few times what you are and aren’t comfortable with before it sinks in, and that’s OK, Dr. Kirmayer says. “Set and reset” boundaries, she says. “The truth is it often takes people a few times to not just hear something but really listen and be able to follow.”
Wondermind does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Any information published on this website or by this brand is not intended as a replacement for medical advice. Always consult a qualified health or mental health professional with any questions or concerns about your mental health.