• Resolving Problems

Guest Post – How to Patch Those Black Hole Relationships

Published: August 16, 2014 | Last Updated: September 25, 2023 By | 19 Replies Continue Reading
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Cindy La Ferle

Cindy La Ferle

Journalist and author Cindy La Ferle writes about “black hole” relationships, why they happen, and why they may not be all that bad.

When my son was a child, I often volunteered to help at his small parochial school. I supervised Valentine’s Day parties, carpooled for field trips, wiped sticky cafeteria tables, and baked countless batches of cookies and cupcakes for fundraisers. In the process, I formed some warm and lasting friendships with the other volunteer moms. Except for one.

There was one mom who just didn’t like me — a mom who had a knack for making me feel like a social outcast from Mean Girls. Even when I tried to extend my hand in friendship, she was as chilly as the Eskimo Pies we handed out to the third graders on Ice Cream Day. Had I known what I’d done to offend her, I would have apologized. Whatever it was, my transgression remains a mystery.

Even if you’ve never been a homeroom mom, you know exactly I mean. You’ve probably got your own social nemesis.

The woman who doesn’t like you might be the tetchy neighbor who criticizes your perennial beds or the paint color you chose for the front door.  She might be the toxic relative who snubs you at family barbecues. Or maybe she’s the competitive co-worker who can’t bring herself to pay a compliment on your new haircut or congratulate you on a hard-won promotion.

No matter what you say or do, you’ll never win these people over. Even when you’re as sweet as key lime pie, they’ll refuse to sit at the table of your friendship. Sue Patton Thoele, calls them “the black holes” in our personal universe.

Thoele is the author of a book of essays I keep at my bedside, The Woman’s Book of Soul: Meditations for Courage, Independence & Spirit (Conari Press). In one of the essays, Thoele recalls an awkward time when she wasn’t hitting it off with two women in her own social circle.

“The energy I put out to these women was merely absorbed as if it had disappeared into a black hole and none came back to me,” she explains. A psychotherapist, Thoele understood that the qualities we find annoying in others are often the same ones we unconsciously dislike in ourselves. But in this case, it wasn’t even that complicated. The cold-shouldered women in the author’s circle were simply lousy candidates for her friendship.

When I was a lot younger, I’d spend months trying to figure out why some relationships fly while others can’t seem to get off the ground. I struggled to understand why a simple case of envy can boil over until it scalds and destroys what could have become a mutually supportive friendship.

And I’m still in awe of the fact that most men, like my husband, rarely waste time wondering why some people don’t like them. They shake hands and move on. But many women I know tend to lose sleep devising ways to appease or impress folks who needn’t count so much. Some of us work twice as hard to avoid conflict and maintain the status quo, often at our own expense.

I realize now that healthy relationships are reciprocal — a graceful dance of give-and-take. And when I find myself feeling snubbed, neglected, or short-changed, I’ve probably stumbled into Black Hole Territory. I trust my intuition and quietly bow out.

Being authentic, after all, is a key requirement for true friendship. Being authentic means that we own who we are — and that we’ve finally stopped trying to adapt to what others expect of us. It can take years to arrive at that confident place. Meanwhile, it’s liberating to give up the notion that everyone has to uphold our political views or religious beliefs. It’s a relief to know that even our closest friends and colleagues won’t always share our taste in books, movies, food, or fashion.

As Winston Churchill once said, “Having critics or enemies means that you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.”  In other words, there’s no shame in the fact that some people we meet simply aren’t going to like us. As long as we remain civil and kind, we’re entitled to privately reciprocate the feeling.


Cindy La Ferle is a nationally published newspaper columnist and author. Parts of this essay were excerpted from her award-winning collection of home and family columns, Writing Home (Hearth Stone Books).

For more information, visit Cindy La Ferle’s Home Office.


Have you had the experience of a black hole friendship? 

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Category: Mean girls, RESOLVING PROBLEMS

Comments (19)

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  1. Earl says:

    whoa!being twenty years old. with fibro pain I have been trying to do much job at my two previous jobs,
    unfortunately to say all my employers and comrades so me as a burden.
    all my efforts to win my bread over my pain was getting tossed into black holes.
    I even did extra duty than my colleagues, with so much fibromyalgia pain eating me mercilessly.
    but I have been just putting in black holes.
    They even looked for excuses to eliminate me from my job.
    since my country Kenya dosent know about fibromyalgia much and there is no law that protects that. I just lost the job, being considered a high school Leaver they didn’t want to give me a softer role.
    Though am growing stronger and used to this black holed relationships even to family level

  2. CC says:

    …She was someone tbat worked in our company… For months I couldn’t understand her “attitude” toward me. Then, I found out shs’s having an affair with my husband. I don’t know what came first, her dislike toward me then the affair, or vice-versa. Nonetheless, I will forever be “guarded” should I end up in a black hole situation in the future.

  3. Viviann says:

    All my life I’ve experienced these kinds of relationships and I’m glad to see that there is actually a name given to them which kind of helps. Typically, I would blame myself for not measuring up to the standard that apparently I fell short of in the attempt to befriend the other individual(s).
    Today, I see it quite differently. Over the decades I’ve noticed that the “tribes” that feel comfortable with me are those who relate in some way to what I relate to. These tend to be curious, open minded people, who actively pursue lifelong learning. Those who tend to be wrapped up in a smaller world tend to feel threatened with the unfamiliar.
    I try to be pragmatic and look elsewhere for the friendships. Of course, it isn’t easy because we all want to be accepted. When I feel I’m not accepted, I DO get defensive and want to put the fault on them for their narrow-mindedness. Once the emotional indulgence has passed (wounded child archetype), I feel more balanced, pragmatic, optimistic and move on.
    The universe is full of black holes and we need to learn to navigate around them.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Two thoughts:

    Is there anything wrong with defending oneself (with words!) when the black hole is rude?
    I find it impossible to just stand there and take verbal slurs.

    I agree with others it is extraordinarily difficult to endure black hole relationships at work, especially when it’s nastiness by an upper echelon person, your company is small and there isn’t anyone to “report” the person to, and you are too old to quit and find another job.

  5. Lauren says:

    Cindy,

    Thank you so much for this excellent post! It really strengthens me to read about your experiences, your thoughts and philosophies.

    Unfortunately, as you say, there will always be those people who for no apparent reason, actively dislike us and openly show us their pernicious dislike.

    I love the way you described these situations as black holes, and how you deal with them socially and psychologically. I am going to buy the book that you spoke of, A Woman’s Guide to Soul; and I’m going to check out your columns in Writing Home. Also, I love the quite from Winston Churchill.

    Cindy, thank you again for this wonderful and insightful post.

    • Lauren,
      Thanks so much for your kind words. I can’t take credit for “black holes” — that term was borrowed or coined from Sue Patton Thoele’s essay in “A Woman’s Guide to Soul.” But I think it’s a great way to describe those dead-end relationships that we all deal with at some point in our lives. I do hope you’ll pick up a copy of Thoele’s book, as well as mine, if you get the chance 😉 Thanks again!

  6. Alex says:

    I’ve encountered this and well, I didn’t handle it so gracefully then. Now I can. The mom-cliques at my daughters school are ridiculous. I keeps distance but I’m cordial. Some have said this behavior is fake but I don’t believe so. I don’t feel the need to be rude. Maybe it’s deemed fake because they can’t tell whether they’re getting to me or not. LOL! But in the past I would wonder, question, go out of my way to prove myself then get angry at myself, which then turned towards that person. I realized that whatever they were feeling had nothing to do with me. I’m sensitive enough towards others to know whether I offended or not. And I’m mature enough to have a conversation about an issue to resolve it. Also, I realize some will be offended based upon their perception of the world and again, that has nothing to do with me. It’s difficult to master but it can be done. Now I choose to love through the world with dignity and grace and knowing that what’s for me will remain and what isn’t, I can gracefully let go of.
    Thank you for this affirmation.

    • Alex says:

      *now I choose to move through the world Sorry for the typos. 🙂

      • Alex, I love your attitude, and the fact that you’ve chosen to be cordial and gracious when you meet up with those black hole relationships. You’ll never regret taking the high road with the people you meet, the way I see it. Thanks for writing!

    • Lauren says:

      Hi Alex,
      I just want to say that being polite and courteous to one of those mean-spirited , blackhole type of people isn’t fake, but it is the essence of diplomacy. Without diplomatic people, our world would be a hideous mess of negative emotions, fights, never ending wars and horrible social situations.

      Courtesy and diplomacy are the salve which smoothes out potentially war-like situations and continuous in-fighting. Don’t ever let anyone tell you, or convince you that being diplomatic is being fake and phony. Being diplomatic is exercising control and displaying an elevated code of behavior.

      I commend you for your dignity, grace and diplomatic behavior.
      Best,
      Lauren

  7. Tanja says:

    I worked at the Delta Hotel in Mississauga Ontario. I met a girl who did not like me at all. She would do anything to get me in trouble, you name it, she did it. I was kind. I know it was nothing I did, because her response towards me was right away before she even knew me. I was bullied. Management was afraid to talk to her as well. She was a bully and she bullied others into submission. At first, I questioned myself. Was it something I did? Am I just not likeable person? But, I eventually quit. I have come to learn, she must have been jealous. She was angry within herself. It could have been any newcomer to that work place and she would have done the same. But, I try to walk away if I ever were to come across that again. Sometimes, in a work place, unfortunately, all you can do is quit!!!

    • Tanja, thank you so much for sharing your experience. I am sure many people can relate to what you shared with us here. I am hoping that personnel and human resources departments will take these issues seriously, as they are not uncommon in the workplace.

  8. Dani says:

    I have had the experience of realizing that sometimes people need a place to direct negative energy, and they direct it at others for no logical reason. They may be mean-spirited or unhappy with their personal lives. They may be secretly so insecure they need to hurt others to feel superior. Either way, they aren’t worth the effort that it takes to accommodate, please or befriend them. I experienced this myself at work several years ago and ended up distancing myself from the woman when our desks were moved. I then made a point of avoiding her for as long as possible. When a baby shower was held for me when I was pregnant with my daughter, she presented me with a beautiful hand-made baby blanket. I found it to be a terribly weird gesture but thanked her anyway. Somehow, distancing myself from her had turned her opinion of me around. My daughter encountered this with another child in her first years of elementary school and I had to get the school counselor involved. Thankfully, we received a lot of empathy and she wasn’t placed in the same class with the girl again.

    • Thanks for sharing your experience, Dani. I also find that distancing myself from an ongoing relationship problem can bring new perspective, if not a change for the better.

      Also, some people are extremely shy, or lack communication skills. They may fear rejection, so they appear to be arrogant or standoffish. Or sometimes, as you noted, they’re just mean and they need a place to direct their negative energy. Either way, it’s important for each of us to spend as much time as possible with supportive people who want to get along.

  9. bronwyn says:

    It is easier to disregard such people in personal situations. When you en counter someone like this in a work relationship, it can become unbearable.

    • “Bronwyn” — you’re right, it can be very difficult to deal with “black hole” relationships at work. They’re common in families too, which are equally awkward and painful. (Been there, done that too.) Whenever I encounter those black holes, I remind myself of the good relationships I have. It helps.

  10. Amy F says:

    Love this article. When I finally realized that no matter what I did, everyone wasn’t going to like me (and I wasn’t going to like everyone) felt free and unburdened. Sure, having people like me is easier and preferable to disinterest or dislike, but it’s not realistic.

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