Ambigamy

Insights for the deeply romantic and deeply skeptical

Exit Interview: Should you say why you're leaving a relationship?

Exit interview: Should you say why you're leaving?
I quit a band recently. I had my reasons but wasn't sure whether to share them on exit. I didn't want to be dishonest. I can remember times when people gave me vacuous excuses for parting with me. Here I had invested heavily in a relationship and they were too stingy to let me in on the moral of the story, the feedback from which I could learn how to do better in relationships or at least how to pick more compatible partners. It's insulting when someone thinks you can't handle honest feedback.

But then it's also no fun to be subjected to someone's unsolicited remarks as they're walking out the door. "I'm leaving you because I've determined that you're hopelessly X" just adds insult to the departure's injury.

When we're in relationships we overlook their flaws, but when working up the nerve to leave it's natural to notice and even exaggerate those flaws. Your perceptions of the flaws will be at a peak when you declare you're leaving. If your announcement comes as a surprise, the people you're leaving will still be in preserve-the-relationship mode, and it's bad form to just stun them with a litany of flaws. You catch your soon-to-be-former partners off guard. What are they going to do? They can't just switch gears in an instant. Besides, if you go first listing the flaws, they'll just sound defensive if they respond in kind. And do you really want to hear their interpretation of the flaws? Especially when you're leaving anyway? Why open the can of worms?

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It should be black or white. Either you invest in the collaboration and get to share your feelings about the flaws, or you leave the collaboration and keep your feelings about its flaws to yourself. In other words, we're either a "we," in which case what "we" want means you're entitled to voice your opinion, or we are each a separate "me," in which case what you want is none of my business.

I made an assessment that expressing my feelings wouldn't change anything, so I left the band without saying why.

Sometimes such assessments are wrong, of course. You find out later that you left rashly. They were open to your feedback after all. They tell you outright that they would have wanted to make it work rather than see you leave.

Of course sometimes they say that but don't really mean it. What they're actually doing is giving you the feedback that you're flawed for having exited--employing one of the many easy parting shots available to them. That's one reason to keep the lid on the can of worms and slip away without giving feedback.

Sometimes we declare outright that we're not going to give parting feedback, which is itself a kind of feedback. "I'm leaving. I've got my reasons. But I'm not going to waste my breath sharing them with you." It's a kind of telling/not telling. Check out the double message in the Bob Dylan classic, "Don't think twice, it's all right." The same is suggested by such shorthand comments as, "Oh, fine," or "Whatever," or "I'm not even going to argue with you." Any of these can be an honest declaration or an arsonist's match tossed into the building upon exit.

I don't think there's a simple recipe for dealing with communications at the end of a relationship. All approaches are potential trouble. Any "I'll give you space" can be an underhanded way of leaving in a huff. Any "It isn't you, it's me" can be the departer's way of telling you you're too weak to handle the feedback. Any "I'm leaving and I'll be honest as to why . . . " can be a parting shot meant to add insult to injury.

Maybe the most compassionate approach is for all parties involved to remember that endings are intrinsically awkward. Relationships are best when the parties are 100% invested, so we tend to maintain the appearance of full investment even when it starts to slip. But eventually the percentage of investment drops far enough to motivate exit, producing a surprise ending. When someone who has been acting 100% invested suddenly makes it clear that they haven't been that keen for a while, the shock of the departure and the lameness of the explanations for leaving may be evidence of the departer's character flaws, but not necessarily. You can't always find a great way to say goodbye.

One of the main reasons I left the band had to do with our policy on internal feedback. The band had no leader. We were all equals, and the general policy was that we would keep our opinions to ourselves regarding ways others could contribute to a better sound. I could work on improvements in my playing, but the other players' playing was their business. It worked well for a while. It was pleasant not to have to worry that I was going to be criticized. But bands are only as good as their weakest links. They suffer from the "cowbell effect"--one little thing detracting from the groove can really kill the groove. I've gotten to play in some bands lately where the norm is that it's fine to suggest any ways to improve the sound regardless of who would be responsible for implementing them, and I find I prefer that kind of band.

Which brings up next week's topic. Feedback on exit is particularly sensitive, but feedback in general is itself a fascinating and touchy topic. So you're 100% invested in the relationship, but something doesn't feel right. Do you say it? How do you say it? Is there a way to say it that guarantees it will be well received? In other words, is it true that there's always a positive and constructive way to give feedback?

Jeremy Sherman is an evolutionary epistemologist studying the natural history and practical realities of decision making.

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