04/29/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Big Hurts, Little Hurts and Apologies: How to Save a Friendship

"If I'd known how devastated she would be, I would have done whatever it took to get there," explains Karen, a woman now in her late 40s.

When Karen was 24, she opted not to attend the funeral of her best friend Megan's father, who had died suddenly of a heart attack. The funeral was being held more than four hours away from where Karen and Megan lived and Karen had no car. Public transportation was a real hassle and Karen wasn't even certain that she could find a way to make it to the service on time.

She made the decision to skip the funeral entirely, planning instead to spend "quality time" with her friend during the days that followed. When Karen contacted Megan to arrange to visit her afterwards, Megan was livid, no longer wanting to have anything to do with Karen. During the phone call, Megan was abrupt and said she was still grieving. She told Karen she was stunned when she heard that she wasn't coming to the funeral. Although it was never her intention, Karen quickly realized she had caused a big hurt.

No friendship is conflict-free and even good friends say the wrong things or make mistakes occasionally. Some hurts are big but most are relatively minor. If you've insulted a good friend or done something stupid, apologize immediately. Sometimes your friend will make allowances for your lapse because you share a bank of goodwill based on history and trust. But you'll need to be careful not to make the same mistake again.

However, if you've made a big blunder or blurted out something totally regrettable, all you can do is try to apologize although it may take some work to turn things around. In the case of Karen and Megan, with hindsight, Karen realizes that she probably should have made an effort to get a ride with someone else. Karen had never lost anyone in her own family and didn't realize how traumatic the loss would be to her friend. Her apology came in the form of "I'm sorry," said in a perfunctory way, because she felt too guilty and uncomfortable to say anything more. The two women, who had been close all through high school and college, never spoke again.

Now many years later, Karen's parents are gone and she still thinks about how she "blew" that friendship by not showing up when she should have. She also realizes that, perhaps, if she had made a better effort to apologize, she could have saved the friendship. Here are some tips for making apologies that matter:

Step back and think about what happened. You can't sweep it under the carpet and pretend it never happened because it will affect your friendship. Examine your own motivations, the consequences, and how you can undo it.

Take responsibility for what you did wrong. It doesn't help to provide feeble excuses (e.g. I didn't have a car) if what you did was hurtful or offensive, in both your opinion and your friend's. Make a clear-cut apology.

Acknowledge the effect of your mistake
. In this case Karen could have said, "I'm so terribly sorry that I wasn't there for you when you needed me. I wish I had been by your side."

Explain your motivations, assuming they were well-intended
. Karen might say: "I didn't realize how important my support would be at the funeral. I had hoped to be with you soon after."

Try to find some way to make amends
. For example, Karen might have simply asked Megan what she could do to support her afterwards. Could she help her address condolence cards? Bring her dinner?

If your friend doesn't immediately forgive you, follow-up with a personal note, restating what you said in person or by phone. This gesture will allow your friend time to mull over what happened and hopefully come to the decision that she wants to save the friendship too.

Be sensitive to timing. While you might be ready to apologize, your friend may still be seething or feel too hurt to respond. Give her time before you attempt to apologize again. Figuring out timing was particularly tricky for Karen. While it was difficult for Karen to approach Megan while she was grieving, not doing so may have fueled the fire.

Don't let too much time pass so that the friendship drifts apart. Ask her to get together to talk or to go to the movies to show her you hope for reconciliation.

If your friend is unwilling or unable to forgive you, don't lash out in anger. Step back and learn from the experience. At least, you've done what you can to clear your conscience. On the other hand, if you are unable to see what you did wrong, it is difficult to apologize because your apology won't come across as sincere. You need to talk to your friend about what happened so you can better understand what role you played in making her unhappy.

When there's been a big hurt -- even if a heartfelt and appropriate apology is accepted -- there's been a breech of trust. You need to seize the opportunity and work on strengthening the friendship.

Have a friendship dilemma that is bothering you? Perhaps I can help. Write to me at:

Irene S. Levine, PhD is a freelance journalist and author. She holds an appointment as a professor of psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine and is working on a book about female friendships, Best Friends Forever: Surviving A Break-up With Your Best Friend, that will be published by Overlook Press in September, 2009. She recently co-authored Schizophrenia for Dummies (Wiley, 2008). She also blogs about female friendships at The Friendship Blog.