I have heard so many horror stories in the past few weeks: stories about folks who have lost their jobs, some because of bad performance, plenty more because of a bad economy. Then there are the stories I've been hearing about couples who have parted ways for a bevy of reasons. In many of those instances, the cutoff has been brutal, mean-spirited, thoughtless, even venomous.
It's so curious to me. Whenever people begin a relationship, they typically take the extra effort to present themselves in the best possible way. They spend a few extra minutes in front of the mirror, ensuring that the way they look is just right. They often rehearse the lines they intend to use in order to start off the relationship in a positive manner. They prepare, strategize and focus on how the engagement will begin.
This is true for love as much as it is for working relationships. Everyone spends time attending to how things start.
If only the same were true about how relationships end. In the age of social media, people don't even bother to say good-bye in person these days. A text message, e-mail, tweet or Facebook announcement has come to serve as a formal "This is over" message to someone who moments before meant the world to you. It's almost as if the effort to end the relationship face-to-face is too much trouble for some people.
I have heard some tragic stories recently. One came from a woman who believed in her gut that she was going to lose her job but hadn't heard a thing. So she took the vacation that had been due her for some time, and while enjoying her time off, she got a FedEx letter telling her not to bother coming back to work. Moments later, her termination was lighting up the Internet because other staffers already knew about it.
And then there's a man I like a lot but who behaves badly when it comes to relationships. He told me that he was just out of a relationship that had lasted nearly a year. And you guessed it: He dumped his girlfriend via text. His defense was that they texted each other all the time. I'm sure she didn't appreciate the coldness of his approach.
That scenario is not too far from the recent Sprint commercial that's been making the rounds in cyberspace, in which a woman dumps her boyfriend via text and e-mail and updates her Facebook status to "single" — all while she's sitting across from her beau in a restaurant. That this type of messaging has reached commercial status proves that plenty of people are compelled to behave this way. The ad series is on fire right now.
Why? People feel more comfortable being rude and/or dismissive when they can do so with some measure of anonymity. Not having to say to someone's face the harsh words that mean good-bye or spell disapproval has given a breadth of people permission to be outrageously obnoxious.
Wouldn't you prefer to have your boss speak to you respectfully, acknowledge what you did well for the company, as well as what you didn't do so well — and send you off with a severance package and sense of well-being that would help you transition smoothly to your next gig? Wouldn't you appreciate a lover or spouse who took the time to explain to you why you he or she was ready to move on? Wouldn't you want to know this in a gentle way rather than through a curse-out, a text message or silence?
I believe that endings are possibly even more important than beginnings, because they occur after reality permeates the bond, long after the glow of the honeymoon period fades. Endings evolve after a relationship has moved from shiny and new to weathered and bare. Endings emerge thanks to friction, discomfort, boredom, lack of resources and disappointment. Essentially, endings, whether in the form of a breakup or a layoff, are about rejection.
Even the toughest among us know that it hurts to be rejected. But it is possible to say good-bye without maligning the person's name, without ripping a hole in his or her heart, without disabling the person so that he or she is void of the enthusiasm and confidence necessary to create something anew.
Having lived on both sides of good-byes — as the one doing the leaving and as the one being kicked to the curb — I can tell you that it is far more satisfying to handle the departure with grace. If you find yourself in either position now, at the end of the year, when endings are common, consider these recommendations for engagement.
Start by saying a sincere "Thank you for participating in this relationship with me." If you're the one ending things, follow with the truth: that it's time for your relationship to end. Explain why without going into painful detail. Leave the person with some kernel of positive energy about him- or herself, something that will allow the person to feel good about what's next.
If you're the one on the receiving end, remember to breathe. So many people hold their breath when they get bad news, which often makes it more difficult for them to think or speak clearly. Next, ask questions. In a calm voice, do your best to find out why the relationship is ending. Closure is important to many people whose relationships have been terminated. Get the information you need.
Even more important, no matter how angry or hurt you may be, do not lash out at the other person. Stay calm and strong. Walk away with your integrity intact. You will thank yourself later for keeping your cool.
If you can exercise the patience and discipline to say good-bye kindly — whether you are the one doing the walking away or the one being rejected — you will reap the benefit of knowing that you can practice grace under pressure. And that, my friends, is a life skill worth cultivating,
Harriette Cole is the president and creative director of Harriette Cole Media. She is a life stylist, a best-selling author and a nationally syndicated advice columnist. She is a contributing editor to The Root.