In Too Deep: Twelve Tips For Backing Out Of Collaborations

How To Narrow A Bridge Without Burning It.

Posted Dec 31, 2012

Something has shifted.  He was your ally, collaborator and confidante, but now, not so much. You let him get in too close, and you want to pull back, reclaiming your autonomy.  You’re done asking “what should we do?” Now you’re asking, “what should I do?” and especially “what should I do about telling him?”

He sees you pulling back and doesn't approve.. He takes your growing distrust as evidence that your judgment is off.  "You don't trust me, but trust me, you should trust me," he seems to say. He used to be so persuasive but now his attempts to convince you backfire.  The more he tries to get you to trust him the less you do.

It can happen in all sorts of relationships, with a wife or husband, lover, parent, child, colleague, friend, neighbor, teacher, therapist, spiritual guide.  You used to want the closeness; now you want not to terminate contact but just create some distance.

It would be easier if you could extricate yourself entirely, painful at first, like bikini waxing, but ultimately cleaner. But you can’t, shouldn’t or don’t really want to extricate yourself entirely.  You’re not burning a bridge but narrowing it. You just want your autonomy back, and you can’t figure out whether to tell him or not, and if so, what to tell him. 

Because of course he’s going to want to turn it into a big discussion, as if you’re still deciding things together like you used to. “Let me help you with your decision about whether I should help you with decisions,” he’ll imply, trying to draw you right back in. You don’t want that conversation.

So maybe it’s best to say nothing and just behave differently.

But if you do that, he’ll hound you with the questions that were fair game back when you were collaborators.  And you’ll be forced to answer them. Then he’ll be all over you with added challenges about why you didn’t tell him.  “Why didn’t you consult me about deciding not to consult me?!” And he’s right. With all you’ve been through together it would be cold.  You’re not trying to punish him, just to recover your autonomy. 

So maybe it’s best to declare your shift to autonomy but not explain why you’re shifting.

Of course, he’ll demand an explanation. He’ll say “No really, I would benefit from your feedback.” And then what? You can’t just sit there icy silent.  Announcing that you’re re-establishing independence without giving reasons is just too awkward.  It would make any further contact unsustainable.  

So maybe you’ll just have to explain why you’re pulling back but let it turn into an open discussion. 

Again, very awkward. He’s bound to respond to your explanation.

OK so maybe that’s it. Explain why you’re pulling back, hear his reaction, but say nothing in response.  And then what?  He’ll just keep hounding you, the opposite of what you want.  You want less involvement, but you’ll end up with more.

According to reliable statistics I’ve just made up, the inherent awkwardness of pulling back from intimate collaboration accounts for 87% of all collaborations endured past their expiration date, and a full 83% of all awkward silences.

There is no clean easy way to transition to greater distance.  Here, nonetheless are twelve tips worth keeping in mind.

  1. Be consistent:  In transition, the greatest kindness is not care but clarity. Don’t jerk his hopes around. If you’re done collaborating, don’t be beckoned back in, and don’t slip back in. Pull back and stay back. That way, he can adjust expectations to what you’re reliably good for. 
  2. Take time apart:  We can’t always change ourselves but we can usually change our environments so they change us.  If you’re having trouble maintaining the new distance you’re trying to establish, do it with space taking. Let physical distance be your substitute for self-discipline. Nothing re-tunes expectations like absence. 
  3. Accentuate what remains:  The problem with absence is that it feels like complete extrication, which would be fine if that’s what you wanted but in this case it isn’t.  Let him know what part of the relationship you do want to maintain, less with declaration and more with real gesture.  If you want to still eat meals together, invite him to some, or at least let him know you’ll be inviting him.
  4. Accept his reaction: He may decide he doesn’t want to eat meals with you anymore. Your effort to establish more distance might make him want to break it off altogether, either to retaliate or just because, for him your relationship is a package deal. Remember that though you initiated the relationships adjustment, but you don’t get to control it.  You may end up with more distance between you than you wanted, and with no recourse for regaining lost ground. 
  5. Don’t try to coach him through the transition:  “Let’s collaborate on your response to my decision to no longer collaborate with you” is a very mixed message. Remember that distance works both ways.  If you don’t thing he belongs in your decisions, assume you don’t belong in his.  If he needs help transitioning, remember that the world is overpopulated. He can probably find someone else to help him through it.
  6. Don’t moralize or psychoanalyze:  Don’t tell him how he should react, or explain why he’s reacting the way he is, as if from your veto-empowered position of greater security you’re an authority on how you would deal with it if you were the one being pushed away.  Your continued guidance will be insult to injury, but more to the point, it blurs the very boundary you’re trying to establish.
  7. Remember that coldness can be kindness: We live under a false moral dictatorship that mindlessly treats not caring as sinful, ignoring the reality that care takes effort and effort is finite.  We can’t care about everything. We have to allocate and re-allocate our care portfolios, which means sometimes not caring about something we used to care about. He may imply that you’re being uncaring, immorally cold since you used to be warm. But if you’ve decided that you’re going to care less than you did, the warmest thing to do is own your decision and signal it as clearly as you can.
  8. Don’t sugarcoat: Feeling guilty for turning cold, we often sugarcoat with overcompensating warmth. “We’ll eat lots of meals together, I love you and care about you as much as ever, probably even more.”  Don’t send these mixed signals either. Sit, albeit uncomfortably with your decision to bet on greater distance.
  9. Decide apart: Don’t decide how to relate to him while in his presence. Decide before or after, but not during. You’ll make cleaner decisions about how to change you relationship when you’re not experiencing its direct influences.
  10. Know that you’re betting: You may live to regret your decision to create distance.  He might do something rash in response.  You might miss him.  He might burn the bridge you only wanted to narrow.  But living to regret is a risk we take in any decision we ever make. There’s no escaping that risk. You could live to regret staying intimate too.  Life is experienced in shades of gray but often must be lived in black and white. In your mind, calmly inventory the downside risks even as you make your decision and then be as black and white as necessary. 
  11. Spare him the pep talk you’re giving yourself: Often, he’d actually like to be spared the details of your decision, especially once he recognizes that it’s final.  If you keep supplying him with explanations, you might actually be trying to convince yourself its final.  We say what we need to hear, in this case that creating the distance is the right thing to do, that it’s not so bad, that you’re not burning bridges or being callous.  Be careful to distinguish what you need to say to him, from what you need to say to yourself to keep yourself clear about your decision. 
  12. Accept the mess:  We humans are not machines.  We don’t accept being shut or turned down the way a motor does.  We shudder and jerk in the transition from old behavior to new. So despite all of your efforts to be clean about it, know that it’s still likely to be at least a little messy.  You’re bound to wonder if you’re doing the wrong thing, you’re bound to feel guilty about your coldness, and you’re bound to slip a few times, re-entering the intimacy you’re trying to end.  Try not to shudder about the shuddering.