We’re still deep in the midst of editing–still finishing the final chapters to send off to our substantive editor, while simultaneously polishing the chapters we’re getting back from him to send to our copy-editor. The book is turning out to be quite a, er, substantial piece of work: currently at 160,000 words and counting, 25 chapters covering every poly scenario you (or at least we) could think of. (For comparison, The Two Towers is about 155,000 words). And it’s good. Really good (if we do say so ourselves). Alan, our substantive editor, agrees: he gave us a very flattering mention over at Polyamory in the News earlier this week.
We’ll be announcing our pub date and launch parties soon–as soon as we get the rest of this book to our editors. Which will be soon.
(See how we got to 160,000 words? Thank goodness for editors.)
But by special request, we’re setting the book aside for a moment to address another question from one of the people who backed our Indiegogo campaign last fall. This one comes from a backer who asks: What are some strategies for successfully “de-escalating” relationships, say from romantic or sexual to friendships?
We’re doing this post as another dialogue, this time with a special guest–Franklin’s sweetie Joreth, who has posted on breakups in the past on her blog here and here (we’ve also addressed breakups before from a slightly different angle, here).
Franklin: Shortly after I moved to Portland, I started a relationship with a woman who was a partner of a good friend of mine. She and I were romantically involved for perhaps six months when she decided we really weren’t terribly compatible as romantic partners. She took me aside one day and expressed that she didn’t want a romantic relationship, clearly and directly. I told her that I was completely in love with her, and that meant I wanted whatever made her most happy–if that was a friendship that wasn’t a romantic relationship, then that’s what we would have.
I think she was a little surprised; she expected a much worse response. We are still close friends, and still very fond of each other.
Eve: So it sounds like you’re saying that you think the key–or at least an important first step–in backing away from a romance to friendship is clear, open communication about what you want? I would agree; I think the compassionate and ethical thing to do is to talk to your partner openly about how you want the relationship to change. I have been in situations where a partner has tried to cool off the relationship passively, by becoming unresponsive or backing away. That’s a painful thing to experience.
For me, I think the critical element has always been time. I can’t go straight from being lovers to being friends, or at least I have no experience of successfully doing so. When I’m still in love with someone, it is painful for me to be around them without having access to them, emotionally or physically or both. I need time for my feelings to resolve before I can be comfortable in their presence. In the cases where I’ve been deeply in love but have become close friends later, usually a couple of years elapse between the end of the romantic or physical part of our relationship and the beginning of the friendship.
Joreth: I’ve been in both situations: where I was able to transition almost seamlessly from a primary-like romantic entanglement to a platonic friendship with no time in between, and where I needed a good several months or years in order to reset, as it were, the feelings category in my head. I don’t think there is a formula that will say “spend this much time apart and you can transition to another type of relationship,” certainly not a blanket one for everyone, but not even one that will apply across the board for a single person. Each relationship we have will have different needs even in the breakup, so we need to listen to what our emotions are telling us about where we should take things with each soon-to-be-ex partner. I think flexibility and letting go of expectations for how the breakup *should* go is probably the next step in a smooth transition. We can possibly have goals for where we eventually would like to end up, but how we get there will need to be tailored to the participants. That said, there are some guidelines that have higher chances of success than other methods of breaking up and transitioning peacefully.
Franklin: I definitely think clear and honest communication is a key piece of the puzzle. It’s hard, though, and I’ve fallen flat on that bit myself. Another important part, I think, is the expectation management I described in our earlier post. Letting go not just of expectations about how the breakup should go, but of expectations about how the relationship should look, is really important.
I value consent above just about everything else. I don’t want to be with partners who don’t want to be with me. I try very hard to let go of expectations that a partner “owes” me love and intimacy just because we’ve had it in the past. My partners don’t owe me a relationship; I’m not entitled to it. If I am to be serious about valuing consent–and like I said, this is really important to me–I have to acknowledge that my partners have a right to choose not to be romantically involved with me. They have a right to break up with me if the relationship isn’t working for them.
It’s not always easy. I want my relationships to continue. But it seems to me the best way to have that happen isn’t to hold on to the idea that they owe it to me, or to punish them if they don’t want to be involved with me, but rather to be the best possible version of myself. Even if I occasionally mess it up and fall short.
Joreth: There’s a whole episode in the TV show Sex and the City about the worst way to break up with someone. I will be referencing this in my upcoming workshop on breaking up. The punchline is that Carrie says, “There is a good way to break up with someone, Alan, and it doesn’t include a Post-it.” She points out in her rant that people just want a breakup that honors what they had together and offers them some closure. Normally, I would tend to twitch a little bit at typical pop-psych words like “closure,” but if you are the one doing the breaking up, and you want to transition to a friendship or FWB, you will have better luck if your breakup conversation is one that expresses your honor and respect for your former partner and what you had together and, as said above, clearly closes the door on this particular chapter of your relationship, to mix a metaphor.
Eve: I want to address the “good way to break up” (without a Post-it) idea. A lot of people, I think, get hung up on the proper medium for breaking up (with emails and text-messages being universally frowned upon). A lot of people will say that the only acceptable way to have a breakup is in person. Dan Savage did a column awhile ago about the text-message breakup, where he says, “When I listen to someone complaining about how he was dumped, SMS, what I often hear is someone complaining that he was dumped.” I think often the medium can be a distraction: people latch onto it as a way to make their ex the bad guy–look at how mean he is, he dumped me by email. A considerate, well-thought-out email can be a good way to handle a breakup, if a partner is someone you don’t see often. So is a phone or Skype call. I think it’s more important to be direct and clear, and not leave it to linger once you’ve made your decision. And, if you are hoping to keep a connection with this person long-term, to keep a two-way line of communication open for the person to express their feelings about the change.
I also don’t think it’s possible all the time to go from a romantic relationship to something else. The obvious case is when there’s been abuse, of course, but many romantic relationships end after there’s been a serious breach of trust or breaking of intimacy. Those things, when they can be repaired, take time and work. Often, when a person isn’t willing to put in the time and effort to fix them within a romantic relationship, they’re certainly not going to do so outside of one. That was the case with my last partner.
Franklin: Yeah, that’s kinda the thing about transitioning a relationship to a friendship–it only takes one person to end the relationship, but it takes two to keep the friendship after.
I think a lot of the problem people have with the idea of a breakup in an email or text message is that it feels like the initiator isn’t really being sensitive to the recipient of the breakup. That’s what it felt like when a partner broke up with me in instant message a long time ago. But looking back on it now, it wasn’t that she broke up with me in IM, it was that she didn’t have any sensitivity to my feelings. Had she dumped me in person, I think that would still have been true.
Joreth: I agree that we get too hung upon the medium, as if the communication tool is solely responsible for the pain the breakup caused. But, at the same time, certain mediums are more challenging to that goal of showing your honor and respect of the relationship that you are now trying to end. A post-it does not show respect because it is not enough space to give explanation, it doesn’t give that two-way line of communication, etc. Making public declarations like changing a Facebook status before you’ve had the conversation in private: also much more challenging to honor the relationship in that method, because the other person doesn’t have the opportunity to be vulnerable and to react in a safe space. Expecting one to handle a vulnerable moment and react authentically in public is kind of the opposite of being respectful.
There’s also a lot of truth in that it takes one person to end a relationship but two to keep the friendship after. That’s why I do not make a goal of becoming friends with my exes–that requires my exes to acquiesce. Instead, I make the goal of being a friendly ex. That places responsibility entirely on my own shoulders for my own behaviour towards my exes. And I believe that giving someone the space they need quite squarely falls under the heading of being “friendly.”
Franklin: Refocusing a little, are there strategies beyond being flexible, managing expectations, and being a friendly ex, that help make the transition easier? I’ve rarely been the initiator in a relationship ending, I’m more often the recipient. What can the initiator do to make the transition easier?
Eve: I, too, have usually been the recipient. The first time I was the one to end a relationship, I actually found it harder than being the one on the receiving end–and have consistently ever since. But it seems to me that our experiences on the receiving end should give us some good perspectives to offer on how to make it less painful. The short answer to that is: you can’t. Losing a relationship you value–and “de-escalating” is a loss, of intimacy, of physical closeness, perhaps of a shared vision of a future together–is going to hurt, and there’s not much you can do to soften that initial blow, I think. But I do think you can create a space where healing will be able to happen in the future.
For me, the most important thing is not to have expectations placed on me that I’ll be ready for friendship too soon. I’ve had exes want to go immediately to friends status, and that’s usually not possible for me–but then I feel like I’m the one in the wrong, because I’m being an “unfriendly” ex. So giving me time and space after a breakup is really one of the best things a partner can do for me. But another thing that’s really important is what the relationship looks like in the ending stages. Do I feel like my partner has been trying to work on issues with me, and we’ve just come to a standstill? Have they been making an effort to listen to and understand me? The hardest endings for me have been the ones where things ended long before they ended: my partner stopped seeing or hearing me well before formally ending the relationship. That’s hard to recover from.
Joreth: For me, the hardest endings (or, the endings that were the most difficult to transition from to friends or more) were the ones where I didn’t feel respected as a person, regardless of whether I was the initiator or recipient. Sometimes that meant that my space wasn’t respected and I felt imposed upon. Sometimes that meant that my feelings and opinions weren’t being heard during the breakup or in the relationship leading up to the breakup. Sometimes that meant that the method of breakup communication did not take certain things into account, like my opportunity to react, or put me in an overly vulnerable position (because being dumped is already a vulnerable position). Sometimes that meant that the reasons given felt like direct attacks on my character as a person, or on those traits about myself that are the most valuable or most important to me, like my integrity. If you want to guarantee that you hurt your soon-to-be-ex partner so much that they will not desire to transition to friends or something more, those are all good ways to go about that. Bonus points for a truly catastrophic ending if you can do all of them at once.
Franklin: It seems to me like the factors most necessary, then, are honesty, directness, flexibility, expectation management, and good faith. None of those things will guarantee that a friendship can rise from the ashes of a relationship, but if any of them are missing, it most certainly won’t.
And, as always, you can’t really control anyone else. You can do the best you can to build the foundation for a friendship, but if that isn’t what the other person wants as well, it ain’t gonna happen. Perhaps the best thing to do is to let go of attachment to just one outcome.