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Backer question: From lovers to friends

March 9, 2014

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 (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.

Like what you’re reading? Buy the book now at Amazon or Powell’s. 

  1. March 9, 2014 3:36 am

    I’m recovering from a painful breakup of a five year relationship at the moment, so this is topical. My partner told me she wasn’t interested in continuing the sexual part of our relationship over a year ago, and I’ve spend the intervening time trying to work through things while still in contact. But I was finally forced to admit it wasn’t fixable until after I had fully detached from her, which will probably take years. Luckily the Gods of Breakup are smiling upon me, and she decided to move out of state again, which will make going to any social event here in Austin much easier.

    As the more emotionally invested party, one important thing is to realize that my feelings will be completely batshit crazy for while. On one hand this means it’s important not to over-react action-wise. Trashing people on Facebook, drunken texting, or pointless screaming matches don’t help anyway. On the other hand, it’s also important not to over-police feelings internally. It’s ok to feel victimized, cheated, misunderstood, angry, hopelessly sad, blamey, raw, hateful etc., for a while. In fact, it would be pretty unreasonable to feel any *other* way when I lose someone I’m really attached to. And while we poly people like to see such things as a “transition”, it’s really the death of one person (the romantic partner) and the birth of someone new (the potential friend,) with all of the attendant feelings and craziness. It’s easy to think, especially with someone who has come as far as I have in my own personal development, that the application of little Radical Honesty, Non-Violent Communication, Conscious Loving, and Owning My Own Feelings can magically make the crazy pain go away. But the truth is, sometimes the reality of the situation is simply too much change to accept all at once, and seeing the other person resets that process back to zero every time it happens. And sometimes, the only way to own your own feelings is to leave the situation.

    So, I let myself be crazy and hurt and it’s ok as long as I don’t act in ways that I’ll regret later. I realize it will take time for me to be in a head space where even trying to decide if still being friends with my ex makes sense. In general, I have a good track record in staying friendly with exes in the long run. But sometimes, as mentioned above, the thing that ended the relationship is the proof that that person won’t be a good friend anyway. In our case, the Big Problem was that she simply didn’t prioritize the effect her major life decisions would have on my feelings, and therefore repeatedly took actions that triggered protest behavior on my part, putting me in crazy, irrational headspace which no amount of conscious effort or emotional processing could fix. If I had realized this after three months, we could have talked about it, decided we had different priorities, and maybe turned it back into a friendship. But it took me five years to really see the pattern (largely due to Attached, the New Science of Adult Relationships by Levine) and by then the gap between reality and what I though was real was so huge I just couldn’t deal with it all at once. For my own sanity, cutting of contact was the only possible answer. I had also a lot more avoidant myself at the beginning of our relationship, and therefore less attached. That changed for me, which I’m actually very grateful for, but not for her.

    The reason I’m supplying these details, besides my joy of public navel-gazing, is that *if* my current view of what happened *still* seems correct a year from now, then trying to stay friends would be a mistake, because her unwillingness to change her behavior when it was hurting me so badly, or even her ability to accept or understand that it was the result of her behavior, means she isn’t someone I should trust with my intimacy, whether sexual or not. And not just to save myself. If she continues to do that to other people, the empathetic pain I’d feel from knowing what it’s like to be in their shoes would also lead to more pointless suffering on my part.

    On the other hand, once I’ve processed through more of my crap around the breakup, things may seem totally different, and she may may not seem like such a Public Menace. 🙂 I’ve done this often enough to realize that, and will withhold judgement until then.

    And the last thing I’ll say, is that if you’re the person initiating the breakup, you need to own the fact that you are largely responsible for detonating someone’s happiness in a fairly enormous way. Clearly they have to own their own feelings, too, but there’s no way to weasel out of the your own responsibility for much of their misery, no matter how good and necessary the breakup might be for you. If the breakup has to happen and alternatives have been explored and found wanting, I agree that a direct and clean approach is best. But maintaining real compassion for the effect is has on someone you really care about requires taking some responsibility for the emotional bomb you’re dropping. If you hope to salvage a friendship out of it later, you’d better be willing to make some concessions, irrational though they may be, to help them get through it as well as they can. That might be leaving them alone (my ex has been very respectful of such requests) or doing the best to help them understand why, if possible. It might not be, and you may eventually realize that what they claim is a quest for understanding may simply be lack of acceptance, at which point you might have to point that out and quit. But, personally, there’s nothing I hate more than feeling like a good relationship went down the drain and not understanding why it happened.

    Finally, remember that The Only Thing in Common in All Your Unsatisfying Relationships is You. 🙂 Every breakup is an horrifying AFOG chock full of information about the darker sides of yourself that’s not available from any other source. Honoring that gift will help you make better decisions in the future. One of the best reasons to maintain some kind of contact with your ex is all the amazing things you learn once the Sex Goggles are off and you see them in a more rational way. Burning your bridges cheats both of you of that unique opportunity to be force-fed your own nutritious crow that you would normally kill a lion with a dull spork to avoid. 🙂

    I’m aware I switched from “I” to “you” in their somewhere, but since it’s 5:29 AM and I haven’t gone to bed yet, I’m choosing not to care.

    • Hallie permalink
      August 1, 2015 4:05 pm

      Hi, thank you so much for this comment. It helped me as much or more than the OP. It looks like it’s been over a year now, so I very much hope your heart has healed somewhat and you’re in a better place and wound up able to be friends with your ex. ❤

      *I'm aware the commenter probably won't see this, but wanted to send my well wishes into the ether nonetheless.

    • December 24, 2016 3:11 pm

      Chiming in to say that this comment really helped me. Thank you for taking the time to post it, Scott.

  2. FickleFey permalink
    March 9, 2014 9:28 am

    What about “de-escalating” when you still need to continue cohabiting?

  3. March 9, 2014 10:57 am

    I’m like Eve. I need time and space in great wodges after a breakup before I’m even going to think about whether or not I want to be friends.

    Forcing contact after a breakup (no matter who did the breaking up) doesn’t help me think clearly and generally I feel backed into a corner. At which point, I bite. I’m sure that’s a lot of why divorces with kids can be problematic. There’s not a reasonable way to cut off contact for any period of time that isn’t going to have unfortunate consequences for the kids (presuming non-abusive situations).

    I will say I don’t consider any exes intimates, while I’m friendly with some of them.

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