Increased work obligations, diminished emotional capacity, family emergencies—there’s no shortage of reasons why someone might need to step back from a relationship, at least for a little while. The notion of “downgrading” or “de-escalating” a relationship might sound like code for “breaking up.” In reality, not all relationships grow linearly. Sometimes taking a step back is exactly what you need to do to save the relationship.
Here’s what to know about how to go backwards in a relationship, and why it might be the right move for you.
What “de-escalation” means
The term “de-escalation” is commonly used in polyamorous relationships, but the idea applies to relationships of all sorts. In essence, it means making a move to become less entangled with your partner, “downgrading” your relationship in one or more areas, but not all.
This isn’t just a step for ending a sexual or romantic relationship. De-escalation can apply to a number of scenarios:
- Going from living together to living separately.
- Starting with combined finances and then deciding to manage your money separately.
- Creating healthy distance in a friendship who has grown co-dependent.
As described by author Amy Gahran in Stepping Off the Relationship Escalator, there’s a pervasive notion that romantic relationships need to keep escalating in order to be valid. You start dating, move in together, get married, start a family—all linear growth. Not only is it possible for relationships to step backward without falling apart, but it might even be healthy.
Is de-escalation just a slow-motion breakup?
In a lot of cases, probably. This isn’t a bad thing—a slow-motion breakup might be warranted, depending on the nature of the relationship. For instance, most divorces move in slow-motion, given all the intricate ways a married couple is entangled. You can’t slam the breaks on an 18-wheeler, and you can’t just quit a longterm, entangled relationship in one fell swoop.
However, not all de-escalations lead to full-on break-ups. It’s possible to successfully change the definition and boundaries of your relationship. This will depend on how well everyone involved communicates their needs and intentions and works toward reshaping the relationship into its new form.
How to change the definition of your relationship
Here are some tips to help you anticipate what a healthy de-escalation process might look like.
Define what you want the new relationship to look like. This is what separates “taking a step back” from “terminating” a relationship. Are you going from lovers to friends? Friends to business partners? It’s important to set clear boundaries around your intentions, taking special care to express why your current relationship needs to change.
Take a hard stance when it comes to how often you talk. A full-on break may be wise and warranted, at least for a few weeks. Emergencies happen, but try to stick to whatever terms of communication you outlined initially. Otherwise, it’ll be all too easy to reach out in a moment of weakness and blur the lines of de-escalation.
Plan a meeting to debrief and decide how to best move forward. A few weeks in, discuss your broad-strokes vision for what your new relationship should look like. How did the break feel? Do you think you’re ready to talk once a week? Once a month? Only in emergencies? If this is an in-person meeting, be on time and be willing to listen and contribute.
Expect to have a lot of feelings. You might move through anger, frustration, nostalgia, and even regret. Keep in mind why you made the decision to step back from this relationship in the first place. Let yourself feel what you’re feeling.
Think about what your life looks like without your partner in it. Anticipate when you’re going to miss them most, but also take advantage of what areas have freed up. You used to spend Friday nights together; what else can you do on Friday nights? Is there a hobby you can pick back up again now that you have that extra free time? Who do you have to talk to about your problems?
Lean on your support network. Friends can help you work through your feelings and to keep you accountable, especially if you know you’re likely to succumb to a moment of weakness and go back on your word. Change is hard, and it helps to have people on your side helping you power through.
Be open and honest
The de-escalation process may take time and involve multiple challenging conversations. You need to continuously and clearly articulate why you want the relationship to change from its current state, and what you think it should look like moving forward. Focus on setting boundaries and leave little room for ambiguity.
No matter your intentions, it may even help to frame the de-escalation as you would a breakup, if only to yourself. Your connection to the other person is changing, and you deserve to grieve that loss.