How Strong Relationships End
Any relationship, even strong ones, can become strained to the point of complete unraveling. Below, I outline the course this unraveling usually takes in the hopes that awareness can bring healing.
[You may also enjoy reading this article: 8 Steps to Prevent Conflict]
A few years ago Jim Collins wrote How the Mighty Fall. This book describes five steps very successful organizations go through from extreme success to nonexistence. In this article, I use the same approach with regard to relationships, hence the title, “How Relationships End,” eight steps that start with a simple hurt and ends with relationship demise.
- Hurt and bothered—The end begins with hurt or a concern. Someone feels slighted, bothered, or offended. It may be a big or a small injury. It may be a concern with a values incompatibility. Someone may simply feel under-appreciated or over-criticized. Many areas can bother us in a relationship. As mature leaders, it is not realistic to prevent these instances where we or others feel hurt or bothered. However, we it is realistic and it is expected of us to recognize and resolve these issues. In marriage, in church, in the workplace—anywhere humans interact—if hurt or concerns are left unattended, they can lead to irreversible damage. If they are dealt with, then the cycle I describe will end at the stage there is awareness and resolution, and all goes back to normal. Sadly, many times no such awareness or resolution, so we will go form one step to the next and will end severing the relationship.
- Inability to resolve the issue—Misunderstanding or hurt is not the genesis of the problem. The start is in this second step—inability, or unwillingness to resolve the problem. Most of the time, I believe people do not know how to resolve it. It is in this stage that we must arrest the relationship-ending cycle of events. There are two general ways to resolve the hurt or concern once it is created in you or in the other person. First, adjust your expectation or perspective. For example, say the boss criticizes you constantly. If you are able to perceive her behavior as a personal weakness and determine that you want to help her grow past it, then you have found a way to internally process your hurt with compassion. Second, address the issue with the other person. Talk to the person who has bothered or offended you to understand their perspective, with the goal that both parties approach the situation with humility and a desire for healing. Usually, the reason for divorce is due to a problem that cannot be resolved. The reason employees quit a company is most often because of an issue that cannot be resolved. As leaders, we must become experts in recognizing that we are hurt, or someone else is hurt, and learn how to resolve it before it progresses. [You may be interested in this article in which I describe in eight ways to approach others to resolve a conflict: 8 Steps to Resolve Conflict]
- Assign bad intent— When people are unable to resolve a hurt, a series of events is set into motion that can end the relationship. As a leader, you should be able to stop this process and reverse it at any stage. However, the further it progresses, the harder it will be. In this phase, each party begins labeling the other person with bad intentions or bad character. They don’t care about me. Look how they intentionally hurt me.
- Avoid and ignore—Now that we are convinced of their bad intentions, we start to distance ourselves from them. We may physically try to avoid them. If we cannot fully avoid them, we start tuning them out or intentionally pulling away from conversations.
- Fester and slander—With time, and while there is still an inability to resolve the issue, we start to internally fester and boil over. We ruminate and play back the scenes in our heads. We might also talk to others about that person, which if it leaks back to the offender, will only exacerbate the situation.
- Emotional eruption—As we continue on the downward spiral, we start having emotional meltdowns about the situation. We may feel angry or frustrated. We may have a “venting session” to a confidant. We are at the precipice of explosion.
- Explode and yell—The last stage before a relationship is broken off is sometimes overt confrontation with yelling and verbal fireworks, using aggression to attempt to solve the issue or defend against perceived onslaught of attacks and injury.
- End and break—After a time, the hurt becomes so great, we simply end the relationship.
…all the while we could have easily solved the problem right after we felt slighted. As a mature leader, I urge you to tend to the wounds of the heart early, and train your people to do the same.