Do you have a friend who gets into a relationship, posts all about it on social media, then after the breakup all the pictures get deleted? It’s like the ex never existed. They are never spoken of or spoken to. And then, lo and behold, the next relationship is largely the same, with the same problems, the same ups and downs, the same patterns.
I once lived with a friend who seemed to constantly be in conflict with people she labelled “abusive” and “narcissistic”. After a catastrophe at our house involving a windstorm and some downed power lines, we were sitting in a Chinese restaurant. She was looking through her phone to find friends she could ask for help. Slightly astonished, she mentioned under her breath, “Wow. I’ve really cut a lot of people out of my life.” I knew right then and there how our friendship would end. A few years later, with no explanation and no discernable cause, she ghosted and blocked me. I haven’t spoken to her since.
And have you ever known a boss whose solution to every personnel problem is to fire someone? No matter what the issue is, the response is the same. Get rid of the employee. And then, to the boss’s apparent shock, the replacement, no matter how qualified he is, ends up having the same problems as the guy who got fired.
I’ve noticed that cutting people out of your life has become a trendy way to deal with conflict. There’s only one problem.
It usually doesn’t work.
The most common result of cutting someone out of your life is that the exact same problems will pop up again in another relationship. So the people change but the situations don’t.
If you dump your ex and never speak to them again, it’s far more likely that you will carry your issues from that relationship into the next one. If you ice out your friends when they offend you, don’t be surprised if you keep having to do it. And if you consistently end professional relationships by burning bridges, I have a suggestion for you.
Maybe it’s not everyone else who has a problem.
In my whole life, I’ve only been forced to completely cut someone out once. And that was an unusual situation. She was abusive, of course, but the real story is that she lived in a small town and had set up her life such that she had all the social and economic power in every interaction. So the people surrounding her were basically her lackeys. That is also the only situation I’ve been in where one abusive person was making an entire family sick–and it could only occur because that one person had all the power.
So I don’t cut people out, but on the other hand, I am quick to leave a role that I play in someone’s life once it becomes clear that the role is unhealthy. Not only has this kept other people’s toxicity out of my life, but leaving the role instead of the person has revitalized many of my friendships and professional associations.
For instance, I had a close friend who was driving me nuts because he always wanted me to drive him places. So, gee, I just quit giving him rides. And guess what? He found there were other forms of transportation. Or, there were other people who would give him rides because they were going to the same places he wanted to go to. Now they had company on the trip they were going to take anyway. Everyone is happier.
Another example. I am a leader in a professional organization. They wanted me to be the president-elect. I didn’t want to do that. There was another person in the organization (a woman, of course) who did want the job. But they were worried that she “wasn’t ready yet.” Well. That’s why the job is president-elect, not president.
Needless to say, the woman who actually wanted the job turns out to be great at it. And since I’m not trying to do a job I don’t want to do, I’m free to spend my time helping the organization in ways that I am good at. Everyone is happier.
The great thing about setting boundaries is that, once you get over the fear of rejecting people, you realize that clear boundaries often lead to everyone being better off than they were before.
Drawing boundaries is of course about specific issues. But it’s so easy to know what you should do, but then not do it. We’ve all experienced this, right? No one likes to say no. No one likes to reject someone else. But this is the entire point of leaving the role you play in someone’s life instead of leaving them as a person. You can stop being her boyfriend without leaving her as a person. You can decline to be his artistic partner without rejecting him as a human being.
And speaking of those roles, another thing that helps me is to be clear with myself about what role I am playing, what role I am asking the other person to play, and what baggage I have around those roles.
Am I trying to be his father? Am I treating him like he’s my son?
Am I trying to be her best friend? Am I thinking about the difference between what a best friend is to her and what it is to me?
Am I trying to be his son? Do I want him to be my mentor? Am I treating him like he’s my mentor despite the fact that I never told him that’s the role I expect him to play?
Am I trying to be her business partner? Her brother? Her mentor? Because those three roles don’t necessarily mix.
Am I trying to be a lover? A spouse? If so, are there other roles I’m trying to play at the same time? Do those roles mix, or are they oil and water?
And I always ask myself what I’m projecting onto the person. What baggage am I bringing in from past relationships to these roles with a new person? If I am trying to be his son, what emotional hang-ups do I have with my memories of my father?
Because this was, quite often, the whole problem. Sure, the other person was new. But the role I was playing was the same. And it was my habits surrounding that role that were screwing things up. Over and over again.
And of course, now I also ask the reverse. Is she trying to cast me as her father? Does he want me to be a big brother? Can this business associate emotionally tell the difference between me and his past partners?
So I try to get people to tell me their stories. Because knowing someone’s story will tell me much more about what’s going on than a bunch of talk about specific issues. It’s so important, not just to listen, but to proactively encourage people to tell you their story. In those stories you’ll see your relationship’s future.
And remember that people will usually treat you according to your role, not according to who you are as a person. When you are sitting in a Chinese restaurant with him and even he is shocked at how many friends he’s turned against, understand that if you are playing the role of friend you will receive the same treatment. The role matters more than the person.
The other thing I’ve learned is to be very cautious about trying to play more than one role in someone’s life. The more roles you ask someone to play, the less likely the relationship itself is to succeed.
I always get nervous when people speak so highly of “power couples.” What I’ve seen is that most power couples don’t last. Sure, I can think of a miniscule set of examples where people made great romantic and business partners. But more often than not, trying to play multiple roles is a recipe for too much conflict.
I remember when one of the best employees I’ve ever known told me the story of her husband starting his own business. At first, he wanted her to be a part of it. After a few months, she sat him down and explained, “You can have a business partner or you can have a wife.”
He made the right choice. They are still married. She is someone else’s employee.
On the other hand, one of my favorite bands of all time was a divorced couple. They made brilliant art. They just didn’t make a great marriage.
It’s always possible to leave the role you play without leaving the person. And yes, sometimes people only want you in a specific role. If you don’t play that role, they leave you. This happens all the time with blood family when you get sick of being the child or grandchild, and with romantic partners who can’t stand seeing you happy with someone else. But see, if they cut you out as a human being, then they are stuck with the failed relationship’s baggage, not you.
The next time you are tempted to cut someone out of your life, consider just cutting out or changing your role. You might be surprised at the results.