5 Tips for Gracefully Ending a Difficult Relationship

4. Give them a way to save face.

Posted Aug 30, 2016

Billion Photos/Shutterstock
Source: Billion Photos/Shutterstock

When people aren't in agreement that a parting of the ways is a good thing, the farewell process can be challenging. Perhaps you’ve decided it’s time to break up with your long-term partner, or a person you hired isn’t working out.

We know that one of the key features of a successful ending is that the person being “ended” is allowed to save face. A new paper by Irish organizational psychologist Corina Grace shows from a psychodynamic standpoint why we find endings to be so tough.

The area that Grace examines—corporate mergers and acquisitions (M&A)—is not typical grist for the psychoanalytic mill. She points out that despite the most optimistic predictions, M&As rarely go as planned. This is because, she writes, “M&As are highly emotional events for all concerned and can stir up very primitive responses” (p. 135). A merger, she believes, triggers feelings of anxiety and uncertainty. When you have to say goodbye to one corporate structure, even though it may be large and impersonal, you risk feeling abandoned. However, because corporations try to put a positive face on such processes, the people involved don’t feel that they have a safe outlet for expressing their feelings of loss.

M&As are made even more difficult when they occur, as they often do, without sufficient time to prepare all parties involved. In part, the rapidity reflects a desire, Grace argues, to defend against the anxiety that accompanies corporate restructuring. The “quick-fix” mindset leaves everyone poorly prepared to go through their own, as she terms it, “grieving” process. As a result, they can become depressed, both as individuals and as a group: “In organizations this shows up in such behaviors as burnout, absenteeism, low morale, and decline in performance” (p. 138). It’s up to leaders and CEOs to provide an environment in which employees feel supported through this process.

In the case analysis Grace conducted, Company A took over Company B—with a vengeance. The message Company A communicated was that Company B was essentially dead. The bosses came from Company A, as did all of its policies, including petty ones (or not so petty, depending on your point of view), such as how people paid for their morning cup of tea. This “symbolic annihilation” (p. 140) felt like death and loss to those from the vanquished Company B. When Company A took over the physical offices of Company B, downtrodden Company B employees felt the “terror of engulfment."

This is pretty strong stuff.

In the wake of all of these powerful, negative emotions, it was no wonder that Company B employees who remained in their jobs were miserable—many left after the acquisition. Had they been listened to instead, these consequences could have been avoided, according to Grace’s analysis: “Staying near and present, listening at all levels, and providing containment to the individual’s trauma and distress is an important function of anyone working with such groups” (p. 146).

Moving from the corporate to the interpersonal sphere, Grace’s article suggests for us some important guidelines to help you through difficult endings in your life:

  1. Recognize that any ending has meaning. The Grace article shows us that endings trigger feelings of loss, and potentially death. Ignoring people’s anxieties and fear about an ending can leave them vulnerable to feelings of sadness and grief.
     
  2. Don’t run roughshod over the other person’s rights. If something as petty as the coffee money can become a source of irritation in a corporate takeover, imagine how people feel when they have an important relationship taken away.
     
  3. Give the people you’re ending things with a chance to express their feelings. Whether it’s guilt or impatience that makes you to want to pull the plug on a relationship, the other people involved need the chance to let you know how they feel. You can’t give them everything they want, but you can alleviate their sense of abandonment by being a sounding board.
     
  4. Provide a face-saving exit. Even if the person you’re ending things with has acted terribly (at least in your opinion), there’s no point in being ruthless. Help the person form a narrative that preserves his or her sense of identity. The ending, though painful at the time, can eventually be rewritten with a less dire interpretation.
     
  5. Take the high road. If you know you’re ending something that needs to end, do it graciously. Perhaps you’re asking your partner to move out of the home you’ve shared and built together. Suddenly the things in your house that you haven’t cared at all about become of primary importance. Your soon-to-be-ex claims the fake Tiffany lamp you’ve never particularly liked and now you can’t imagine yourself living without it. Let it go. Or, if you have a newfound desire to hang onto it, then find a way to maturely discuss how to handle the situation.

It is possible to negotiate an ending without leaving a path of destruction in your wake. Be willing to listen and acknowledge the other person’s feelings of loss, and you can both emerge open to new and more fulfilling opportunities.

Reference

Grace, C. (2016). Endings and loss in mergers and acquisitions: An exploration of group analytic theory. Group Analysis, 49(2), 134-148. doi:10.1177/0533316416642391