Building Relationships? Grab a Plank and Start Building Those Bridges!

My mother used to say, never burn your bridges. As a young child, I had visions of people running around setting fire to storybook wooden bridges spanning bubbling brooks. I was older when I realized she meant don’t destroy relationships over disagreements.

Apparently the saying comes from a military strategy; don’t burn the bridge you just crossed in case you need it when you are forced to retreat—a sensible suggestion, indeed! But, in modern terms, we know it means you should always leave situations in good standing.

Sadly, in our modern world, the default setting seems to be blow up the bridge and everything within a thousand-mile radius.

I am someone who dislikes confrontation, and so I have intentionally moved through life without any colossal knock-down, drag-out arguments. Of course, over decades, I have had disagreements, arguments, and quarrels. Some with family members, my husband, my children, friends, work colleagues and so on, but I never said or did anything that I couldn’t come back from; I always left the bridge intact, so our connection was never completely severed.

Only once did I reach a point where I walked away from someone hoping never to speak again—and I regret it.

We have all heard the story of the young man on his way to an important job interview. Having allowed himself far too much time to get to the office building where he was to meet his interviewer, a senior partner, Sam Brown, he stopped off to get a cup of coffee. His plan was to get to the offices and then enjoy his coffee in the car while he went over his resume. 

Into the coffee shop he goes and joins the queue behind a middle-aged woman. She is a bit slow, juggling a handbag, sunglasses, and car keys. She struggles with the App on her phone and then has to dig around to find her reading glasses. More fussing ensues when she realizes she needs her password. 

All this time, our ever-hopeful rising executive becomes more and more irritated. Eventually, he steps around her and, with a filthy look, shouts, some of us are in a hurry! He states his order and exits stage left. 

Later, in the office’s reception at precisely 3 pm, the receptionist takes him through to meet the interviewer, and there sits the lady from the coffee shop—Mrs. Sam Brown.

I am not sure how our fictitious man came back from that one, but it is a classic case of bridge-burning.

I am not saying I forgive every person every single thing, and yes, there are people who make my blood boil. But, when I feel I want to reject everything about the person and their behavior, I stop myself and run my “how-will-I-feel-about-this-in….” routine. 

For example, someone you know well says or acts in some way that makes you see red. You think I am furious with this person, so I will let them have it. You sharpen your tongue and let rip. Even if they are a stranger, you may think, this person is nothing to me, so I’ll give them a piece of my mind. It’s at this point that you should remember our coffee candidate—this may come back to bite you.

When I feel as though someone has driven me to this point, I pause and ask myself: how will I feel about this in 3 hours? Then I consider how I will view it in 3 days, and then 3 weeks, 3 years.  In every instance, I realize the heightened emotions I feel in the moment are fleeting. Usually, that soaring irritation/annoyance/hurt/anger is out of my system in hours. I walk back over the bridge and let it be; bridge still intact.

Suppose I had given in and blasted the person? I would have burnt the bridge never, ever able to cross it again. My connection between this person and myself would be destroyed. But what if, some point down the line, this same person moves in next door to me, or becomes my child’s teacher, or is the nurse standing at my bedside?

Would that momentary blasting—which, admittedly, felt great in the moment—prove worth it? Or would I wish I had taken the high road and walked away so that now I could lean on this very person? Our bridge would have remained whole thereby giving us our way to connect.

Of course, people sometimes behave truly abominably. They hurt us in a way that almost feels physical. But, I have found that in every instance, when this happens, start by trying to find a mid-point; meet in the middle of the bridge. If you find yourself standing there alone while they continue on as before, then demonstrate your unhappiness by simply walking away off the bridge and back to your own space. 

This leaves the bridge intact, ready to be crossed should you ever find that you or the other person need to get back together. 

It was only in my forties that I started to actively build bridges. Instead of waiting for others, I began to pick up the first plank of wood and set it in place. Almost every time, the other person would grab their plank and start building from their end. Even when friendships went separate ways—as they sometimes do—the bridges stayed in place. 

In my mind’s eye, I am surrounded by bridges, but there is one that is charred yet standing. This is the one I set fire to all those years ago, only to circle back years later to douse the flames when I realized how utterly pointless it was. This person and I have reconnected, but it will never be as it was before.

As we ease our way out of this pandemic, we are all hungering for connections. Grab your planks and get ready to build. 

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4 comments on “Building Relationships? Grab a Plank and Start Building Those Bridges!
  1. Diane Mac Mahon says:

    Thank you for this. Definitely something to use and remember.

    • Jane Paterson says:

      Thanks so much. The older I become, the more I realize it is all about connecting authentically, and we can be the ones to start making those connections.

  2. Maria Oskwarek says:

    I love this approach, Jane! I wholeheartedly embrace these ideas and though at times I wish I were better able to confront others, I would never want to burn a bridge. Even the shaky ones can be left intact, and maybe even fortified at some later point.

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