How to End Relationships: A Practical Guide to Rejecting Others

Rejection

The title doesn’t sound good, does it? It rings of cruel efficiency and steely cold-heartedness. Yet even the best of us have rejected others. And because we don’t usually think about it much until it needs to be done, most of us don’t do it very well. Indeed, sometimes we hurt people because we have been too casual or too clumsy with those we cast off.

Cast off. Cast away. Discarded. Nothing pretty here, is there? All the more reason to be as kindly as possible, if possible. Why do I say “if possible?” Because if there is too much delicacy, the person on the receiving end of the message can mistake the process for the product; that is, think that our gentleness and consideration signal that the rejection isn’t quite real; that perhaps we can be persuaded to rescind their removal from our life. Thus, a stern delivery sometimes is necessary to show that we are serious — that the relationship really is over with no reprieve, no second chances, no way out. And sometimes a swift and decisive blow is actually less painful because it does not extend the agony of the victim — doesn’t cause him to be hopeful when we know that he should really be hopeless.

I’ve been rejected and I’ve done some rejecting. Just about everyone has. I’ve been dumped by lovers, potential lovers, acquaintances, friends, employers, and potential employers. I’ve done the same when the situations were reversed. It is in the nature of life and therefore not at all remarkable. Still, I have some remarks on the subject.

Here are nine questions to think about before you next dismiss someone — give him or her the brush-off:

  1. Do you want to euthanize the person or perform an execution? The high road or the low road?
  2. Do you want to do it quickly or slowly?
  3. Should there be hints along the way or do you want it to come as a surprise?
  4. Do you intend to be respectful or disrespectful?
  5. Are you angry at the anticipated target?
  6. Are you certain that you wish to be finished with this woman or man?
  7. Will the message be understood if it is done with some subtlety and care or must it be performed with a mallet?
  8. When do you want to do it?
  9. Are you more concerned with sensitivity to the rejected one’s feelings or your own discomfort?

Now let us think about how it is usually done in a few of the areas of rejection we encounter once we are out of school.

  • Interviewing for a job. These days it is all too common to interview for a job and never hear back from your hoped-for employer. Sometimes you do get feedback, but only in a form letter or email; or after your patience fails and you make a call, discovering that the job has been filled. To my mind all of this is unfortunate, giving no regard to the applicant’s feelings. A phone call or a letter sent by U.S. mail with a real signature costs more time and money, but displays courtesy and respect. If there has been an interview, there should always be some follow-up personal contact.
  • Ending love relationships. Letters are history. There was a certain dignity in writing a “Dear John” letter when no other means of communication was readily available, but unless your lover is incommunicado in a faraway land, there are more considerate means at hand. Texting and emailing are often cowardly, as are breaking-dates and failing to return phone calls, hoping that your soon-to-be ex will get the message that is left unsaid. If you aren’t dealing with a stalker or someone who is violent, a face-to-face meeting is required. It shows respect, even if it is uncomfortable for you. Disappearing acts are for magicians and hit-and-run drivers, not someone who wishes to leave the dismissed person with a bit of dignity. Think of how you would feel if the roles were reversed.
  • Declining invitations. Written invitations which request an RSVP no longer seem to routinely generate any sense of responsibility on the part of the person who was requested to say yes or no. But courtesy demands that you do respond and do so promptly. The matter is more ticklish if someone asks you on a date — someone who you don’t want to be with (whether potential friend or lover). The age-old standard response is to say, “Gee, I’m washing my hair that night, so I can’t go.” Something more original is also possible: “Oh, I think that’s the day I’m having brain surgery. Let me check my calendar and I’ll call you back.” On the other hand, one could say, “Not if you were the last person on earth.” I am without clear recommendations here, other than to communicate directly enough to discourage further contact, while at the same time trying to avoid humiliating the other person.

As I mentioned earlier, timing is important. The very worst moment to “pink slip” an employee turns out to be the best time for the supervisor or employer: Friday afternoon. That way, the boss can have a nice weekend and needn’t worry about the uncomfortable situation any longer. But he or she has plunged the dagger at just the wrong moment for his ex-subordinate. The newly jobless person now has the whole weekend to dwell on his misfortune with nothing else to do; or, if he does have plans, those activities have been spoiled. The same holds true if we are talking about the timing of a break-up.

A lot depends on your feelings toward your counterpart in any anticipated rejection, and your own courage and self-respect. If you don’t like or care about the girl or guy you are brushing off, that probably means you won’t give her feelings much thought. If you are very self-involved the answer is the same. If you have the strength to look someone in the eye and deliver bad news knowing that it may pain you to see tears or sustain his or her anger, that is another story. But if you are avoidant, you probably won’t. In other words, how you approach your rejection of someone else says a good deal about you.

The topic reminds me of an old routine performed by Chicago’s famous improv group, Second City. A father and mother are talking to their little girl, who is perhaps three or four years old. She is playing on the floor:

How are you, Janie? Oh, it’s great to see you playing with your dolls so nicely. Well, your mom and I need to talk with you. You see, just now the economy is terrible and we are really having trouble making ends meet here at home. So, we really wish we didn’t have to do this, but… but… we’re going to have to let you go.”

As comedians like to say, comedy is “tragedy plus time” (or distance from the tragic event). And rejection often feels like tragedy, even if most people tend to bounce back. But, it is never fun, for which I have another quote:

A boo is a lot louder than a cheer.

Rejection is definitely a boo, no matter how delicately it is voiced.  Lance Armstrong made the comment. He ought to know.

More on the curious contemporary understanding of RSVPs can be found here: The RSVP Puzzle.

More on causing pain to others can be found here: Delivering Bad News and Causing Pain: Ending Therapy and Romance.

The top image is called Rejection, by Mjt16, sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Delivering “Bad News” and Causing Pain: Ending Therapy and Romance

Elvis_at_the_Heart_Break_Hotel_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1147517

Until recently, I didn’t fully understand the upset of various reality TV stars when they have to “let someone go.”

I am referring to shows like “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette” on ABC. These programs offer an attractive single-person the choice of a couple of dozen equally magnetic and youthful members of the opposite sex, with the desired goal of “finding love.”

The settings for these mini-series are always extraordinarily (if not exotically) beautiful, involving story-book activities that prime all the suitors to have strong feelings about the targeted object of their affection, unable to distinguish the dazzle of the surroundings from the more ordinary human qualities of the participants.

As the field of contenders is narrowed, the show’s “star” is typically shown struggling with an ongoing set of decisions: who to “keep” and who to dispatch. Much agony is displayed, sometimes to the point of tears, and not just by the people who are dumped. Indeed, as often as not, the individual making the choices seems more upset than the rejected admirers.

I’ve tended to side with the underdog, that is, the feelings of the soul who is being rejected, cast out of the Eden-like gorgeousness of the show’s locale, and set aside in the pursuit of romantic happiness. And while I appreciate the difficulty of making such choices and delivering the bad news to someone you have gotten to know, I’ve thought that the “star” generally tends to make too much of his or her own pain rather than that of those being rejected.

Recently, however, my own experience has opened my eyes a bit on the subject.

Although it has been a while since I retired from doing psychotherapy, this was written in the midst of telling my patients of my plans to set aside my career as a therapist. And, of course, with it, to set them aside.

I anticipated that it would be difficult for some of them. If the therapy relationship had been productive — if the implied promise was that “I would be there for them (forever)” — it could only be difficult. Therapists should be reliable and, for some people, the contact with a therapist is a life-changing relationship. The patient’s gratitude and reliance on a psychologist’s emotional support, which can become a dependency, are precious in any two people between whom those feelings exist.

I knew objectively and intellectually that the news of my retirement could produce a range of feelings; from disappointment to tears to a sense of abandonment to anger to anxiety and a sense of loss. But I had not done it before; I had not delivered such information. I had not had the task of telling people with whom I had a therapeutic relationship this potentially unsettling news.

Since I had not “lived it,” I could not know fully how it would play out. Still, I had a pretty good idea of how they would feel. I was less certain of how I would feel — what it would be like for me.

It turned out to be more difficult than I expected for myself.

A therapist is in the business of helping people, trying to assist them to feel and live better. Causing pain is just the opposite of what we hope to do. Relieving pain, sympathizing with pain — that is the ticket. Inflicting it is not. I was prepared for their pain, but not ready to be the source of it. And in the weeks before the news was delivered, the anticipation and the stress of becoming, however minimally, the instrument of suffering and disappointment, began to weigh on me.

I thought a good deal about how to deliver the news. I tried to tell all of my patients more than three months ahead of the event, face-to-face; and nearly all of them heard it in the space of the same 10 days. I didn’t want anyone finding out through the grapevine.

I explained that I would continue to see them until my retirement, assuming that they wished to continue. I told them that if they wanted a referral, I would be as helpful as I could be in that process, either before or after the end-date of their last therapy session. And that they would be able to email me thereafter. The way I put it was something like, “I won’t be fully out of your life unless that is what you want me to be.”

I was trying, in this way, to cushion whatever blow they experienced and inoculate them against a personal sense of rejection. For those who expressed interest, I briefly explained how I had come to the decision to leave the practice of psychotherapy.

I made my announcement at the very beginning of each session, in order to permit enough time to deal with the feelings it evoked and questions that might need answering. I also mentioned that I would be fully willing and interested to talk with them about their feelings concerning this change as the therapy process with me moved toward its closure.

Although I doubted that any of my patients were so vulnerable as to decompensate significantly, my plans for our termination were aimed at a break-up that did not lead to a break-down.

Seeing the surprise, disappointment, or pain (including tears) in some of my patients was also painful to me. But I don’t want to make too much of my end of this. In any relationship’s end, it is almost always the person who is making the choice who feels better about the parting. I must admit, it was a relief to have delivered the news, to make public what had been private, to get it behind me. But at no point did I feel good about it.

It brings to mind, I suppose, a very old memory that virtually all of you have experienced at least in some approximate way. It involved a college girlfriend with whom I maintained a long-distance relationship.

Expecting a phone call on her Wednesday return home, one day ahead of Thanksgiving, I called her because that contact hadn’t happen. It turned out that she’d been in town from Sunday or Monday without a word. Still, we made a date to get together the next evening, after the holiday festivities had ended.

As they say, “the handwriting was on the wall.” And, as Adlai Stevenson II once noted, “Most people can’t read the handwriting on the wall until their back is up against it.”

https://i0.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/7/7b/Rembrandt_-_Belshazzar%27s_Feast_-_WGA19123.jpg/500px-Rembrandt_-_Belshazzar%27s_Feast_-_WGA19123.jpg

Belshazzar’s Feast by Rembrandt

In the course of that dreadful visit I learned that she now had another relationship back at school and that, of course, she hoped we could remain “friends.” This kind-hearted 19-year-old was in tears as she delivered the bad news, presumably the message that she had hoped to delay or avoid by not contacting me immediately upon her return home.

The “let’s be friends” overture was, I think, quite sincere, but it never is heard the way the person uttering it hopes. In this instance, it sounded something like, “I know you were expecting filet mignon and champagne, but I think I have a half-empty can of warm Pepsi that’s been open on the counter for a few days. How about it?” That said, she was a lovely and sweet-hearted person, and was clearly very much pained by what she was communicating. It was just that our desires didn’t coincide.

That lack of attunement between any two people is simply a part of the human condition. Not the best part, for sure.

Historically, such communications often came by letter during wartime. The “Dear John” letter to a serviceman overseas was widely dreaded and became something of a clich√© during World War II, when duty’s potential cost of a soldier’s life or limb could also include a broken heart due to the infidelity of the wife or girlfriend back home.

Today there are lots more ways to deliver the bad news: emailing, texting, instant messaging, etc. All of these are missile-like missives launched from a distance; bad news that the sender doesn’t have to see hitting his target. But the emotional carnage of the unwanted communication is no less real for all that.

It is easy enough to vilify the person who has placed you on his discard pile. And certainly some methods of delivering the rejection are much worse than others, at times cowardly or cruel.

But we mustn’t forget that it is the human dilemma that sets the stage for such disappointments. It is simply a routine part of life that not all relationships find our interests aligned in a mutually satisfying way forever. People retire, therapists and friends leave town, bosses let go of employees, and romance that blooms in the heart of one good person is not always growing in another who is equally kind and decent.

Only the worst among us set out to do injury with malice and premeditation. Nonetheless — much too often, in fact — we are at cross purposes with each other and someone will be hurt.

If it weren’t so excruciating one could almost call it “normal.”

You may be interested in this related topic: How to End Relationships: a Practical Guide to Rejecting Others.

The top image is of the space reserved for Elvis Presley at Heartbreak Hotel, a cottage on Elvis Presley Boulevard. It was photographed by Evelyn Simak on February 3, 2009. The second picture is a reproduction of Belshazzar’s Feast by Rembrandt, sourced from the Web Gallery of Art. Both can be found on Wikimedia Commons.

The Limits of Reason: How to Think about Your Date, Your Boss, Your Mom, etc.

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As a therapist, I hear a lot of concerns from my patients about parents, bosses, romantic partners, and so forth. The thoughts often take the form of “Why did he do that?” or “What was he thinking?”

Some of this is worth questioning. In life it is useful to take the role of the other person, to look at things from his or her perspective, to try to “understand” that individual’s motivations and reasoning process.

But, there are limits. Here are just a few that make understanding difficult:

1. People don’t always carefully weigh their decisions before making them. We humans frequently think and act impulsively or emotionally. It can be a bit harder to fathom an ill-considered act than one that is carefully reasoned.

2. The person whose mind you wish to enter may not know himself well at all. When you recall what he says are the reasons for his actions, you need to be aware that he may be fooling himself. Alternatively, he might be dishonest with you, giving you less than a full set of data, trying to prevent himself from looking bad in your eyes, or attempting to protect you from being hurt by the truth.

3. We all act in self-serving ways much of the time. The same person who says that he hates it when someone ends a relationship without explaining why — not even making contact or returning phone calls — might well avoid the discomfort of a final farewell or confrontation himself when he decides that a relationship should end, thereby doing the very thing that has been done to him.

4. Most people, in or out of therapy, are often indirect in expressing their unhappiness with you or their disappointments about your behavior. (Marital conflicts and parents talking to children can be noteworthy exceptions to this general rule). But, in the absence of direct communication, it is difficult to be a good mind reader. Indeed, crystal balls are in short supply whenever I go shopping.

5. When trying to understand others, we look for some form of logic. To seek something that is often missing within the person is a pretty big misunderstanding of how people think and act.

6. You may not have enough history and background information to make an accurate analysis of what drives this individual to do what he does.

7. Do you really know the person well “under the skin?” There is often a mismatch between what is happening on the inside and what is occurring on the outside. Put differently, the contradiction between surface appearances and internal truth often affirms the old saying, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.”

Too much time trying to figure out another person is unproductive. For this reason and those cited above, I encourage my patients to set some limits on the amount of time they spend attempting to get into someone else’s head. At bottom, I think, what most of us are looking for is the understanding that will allow us to return to the relationship and put it right, now that we have found the “answer” to what transpired. Or, something that will console us or produce the closure that we are hoping for at the relationship’s end. By attempting to “understand,” we are frequently seeking a sense of intellectual control, partially to acquire information that will prevent future disappointments, but also to compensate us for our loss and to silence the nagging internal voice that asks “What happened?” and “Did I do something wrong?”

It is better, beyond a certain point, to consider several things about oneself:

a. Why did I choose that person to be with? (Obviously this doesn’t apply to your parents; nor does it always apply to bosses or co-workers).

b. How did it happen that I missed the early warning signs of trouble? Oh, I know that you might think that such signs didn’t exist, but it could be that you ignored them, minimized them, or had a blind-spot for them.

c. Why didn’t I set some limits on the relationship in order to prevent the other person from injuring me? And, if I tried, why did my efforts fail?

d. Why didn’t I leave the relationship earlier?

e. What, if anything, did I contribute to the problems that occurred between my friend/partner/lover/boss and myself?

f. Have I grieved the loss or disappointment fully (including attention to both my sadness and my anger)?

g. What do I have to do differently in order to minimize or avoid problems like this in the future?

Instead of addressing the situation in these ways, with these questions, most of us spend no small amount of time ruminating, and then looking for something we can say to the other person to get them to behave as we wish. With some individuals that is possible, but not with everyone.

Jackie Robinson’s breaking of the baseball color-line is instructive in this regard. As you might know, Robinson and his boss, Branch Rickey, agreed that he would not respond to the abuse from fans, players, and coaches that both expected he would receive when he became the first black man in the 20th century to play in the Major Leagues. But, despite two years of taking every racially demeaning insult known to mid-century white males, he succeeded in playing well. Moreover, by this time there were other blacks in the Major Leagues and a great experiment in civil rights had succeeded.

If the story I’ve heard is true, Robinson and Branch Rickey had a conversation at the beginning of Spring Training at the start of Robinson’s third year with the Brooklyn Dodgers. They agreed that Robinson could now be himself, and fight back with words or fists, if necessary. Soon after, the Dodgers played the Philadelphia Phillies, who did not know that Robinson was no longer on a leash. The middle-aged man from the deep south who coached third base therefore once again began the verbal onslaught that he had performed with impunity for the two previous seasons. Robinson called time and walked over to the third base coaching box.

Remember that Robinson had lettered in four sports at UCLA, including football (as a running back). More than most, he radiated intensity, strength, courage, and intelligence. So it was that Robinson moved within inches of the bigot, looked straight into his eyes, and said: “If you ever say anything to me like that again, I’ll kill you.”

Now, I bring this up not to recommend death threats, but rather to point out that Robinson knew exactly who he was dealing with. He knew this man was not going to be persuaded to behave himself by high-flown verbal eloquence; he knew that spending much time thinking about this man’s character was a waste. What Robinson knew for certain was that there was only one thing he needed to understand about his nemesis (his intolerance) and only one approach that would work:

  • I’m bigger and stronger than you are, so if you don’t stop, I will beat the crap out of you.

Everything changed that day as others quickly realized that Jackie Robinson was not a man who could be insulted any more.

Of course, we all need to spend some time thinking about others and why they do what they do. But, endless rumination on the subject rarely is enlightening or successful in making us feel better.

Some people are like boulders. They are big, hard, insensate, obdurate, and potentially damaging objects. It is essential to see their potential to injure and realize that when you are downhill from such a human bolder, you are in danger.

If you understand how gravity works and get out-of-the-way, that is all you need to know and do — all you can do.

A shame, but true.

The image above is The Thinker by Auguste Rodin.

Unloading Your Therapist: Breaking Up is Hard to Do

Ending a relationship is difficult. Most of us have been on the receiving end of a relationship “break up” of some kind. We know that it doesn’t feel good. Indeed, we know that it can be taken as a rejection (and often that is exactly what it is). Nonetheless, that doesn’t stop some of the same people who decry the insensitivity of those who unceremoniously “dumped them” from doing the very same thing, in the very same way, when they wish to be free of seeing someone else ever again.

With that in mind, here are a few guidelines for thought and action, and some examples of what people do, when and if it comes time to end a relationship with a therapist. Today, I won’t be talking about the sense of loss or sadness that sometimes accompanies therapy’s end. I’ll leave that weighty topic to another time.

1. The “I’ll call you” strategy. Usually, this is delivered by phone message. The patient probably has an appointment with the therapist and cancels it, adding that he will call to reschedule. Experienced therapists know that many people will attempt to end the therapeutic relationship in this way. It avoids a face-to-face conversation which the patient might imagine as uncomfortable, and it avoids actually giving any reason for terminating therapy. It leaves the therapist a bit in the dark, not knowing whether the predicted call will ever come, and probably not knowing what the reason is for the decision to end treatment.

2. The “end of session” termination. Patients often wait until the end of the therapy session to say something of importance, in part because it is uncomfortable or they don’t want to discuss it in any detail, at least not yet. This method of termination has the advantage of being done face-to-face; what it doesn’t do is to allow the two parties to process the reasons for that decision and discuss any concerns. Without some time to talk, the therapist cannot be helpful to the soon-to-be-departed patient, or find out much about the client’s reasons for his decision. Without knowing what those reasons are, its hard for the therapist to learn from any mistakes he might have made, anything he did (or didn’t do) that made the patient uncomfortable, etc.

3. The “no-show” departure. Some individuals who are receiving counseling decide to end therapy by simply being absent from their next scheduled appointment. This is rude, of course, and also risks that the therapist will charge you for the time even though you didn’t come to his office (most therapists expect 24-48 hours notice of cancellation in order to relieve you of the obligation of payment).

4. The “nasty phone call” ending. While this is a rare event, sometimes people want to hurt the therapist because they believe that they have been hurt or neglected by him. They leave an angry phone message and avoid any chance for the therapist to find out why they are hurting, just as they make it impossible to come to a more amicable resolution of the issues at hand.

5. The “I need a break” message. It is, indeed, sometimes appropriate for patients to take a break from treatment. It can get too intense for some, who realize that taking a breather might be helpful. On other occasions, the complications of life outside of the counselor’s office make continued therapy difficult for the moment. However, when giving the message that you “need a break” is simply a way of leaving therapy, with no intention of return, it doesn’t allow for any closure to the relationship, or any of the benefits that such closure provides (which are described below).

6. The “best” way. Whether you have been seeing the therapist for a long time or a short one, the issue of termination is an important one. It is appropriate for you, even from the start of treatment, to ask how long it is expected to last. If you are finding counseling unsettling or unproductive at any point, it is best if you discuss your concerns with the therapist as they happen. Since many people who enter therapy have a hard time with being assertive and direct, it might well be tempting not to talk much about anything that you believe the therapist doesn’t want to hear, and simply to end the relationship unilaterally. Unfortunately, you and the therapist are short-changed if you do this.

Ideally, your concerns should be expressed early in a session, when there is sufficient time to talk about them. Be prepared for your therapist to ask you why you are thinking of ending treatment. You might be surprised that the therapist agrees with you. Alternatively, you might be persuaded if he makes a good case to continue for a while. But if you are certain that it is time to end things, be sure to hold your ground. A good counselor should accept this without trying to make you feel bad about your decision.

Once an understanding is reached about ending treatment, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it must end at precisely that moment. You and the therapist might decide to taper-off sessions or to have at least one additional session to sum up the history of your work together and to say “goodbye.”

There are several reasons for having just such a final session. First, it should allow the two of you to review what you have accomplished, how your life has changed, and what you have learned. Equally, if nothing or little of value has occurred, it can give you the chance to inform the therapist where treatment went wrong. Therapists should be grateful for this information since it allows them to learn, adapt, and improve so that they can help those patients who will follow you into their offices. And, a last session gives the therapist time to point out treatment alternatives or refer you to other available therapists who you might wish to consult.

Finally, a good therapist who has known you for a bit of time usually has some very nice things to say about you, about your courage, wit, grace, intelligence, and the guts it took to look your problems in the face and try to change your life. The last session also gives you a chance to say “thank you,” if that is something that you believe appropriate. The counselor will usually let you know that he would be grateful to hear from you again, just to know how you are doing. And, the door is almost always open if a return to therapy is required.

So, therapy, even when it wasn’t as helpful as you had hoped, can and should end with an expression of respect and good wishes for your future well-being. You will usually feel good about being direct in doing what you believe is in your interest, and having the self-confidence and respect to tell it to the therapist face-to-face. Your therapist will be grateful too, in almost all cases.

No losers here. Only winners.