Advice – How do I de-escalate?

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Anonymous writes…

“My partner [32M] and I [34F] have been together two years, moved in together about a year ago. We had talked about buying property, building a house, etc but I’m not sure if he and I are compatible enough for that. I think if we just kept our relationship more casual- just dates, hanging out, sex and less about household management, future planning, financial issues, etc then we might be fine. My reasoning is that the list of “issues” we have is a little bit too large to really be addressed. Overview of the issues : – he lacks time management, financial planning skills – does very minimal chores and sometimes forgets – he doesn’t make much money and doesn’t have any ideas on how to improve his situation – he has low self confidence, easily overwhelmed, avoidant behavior, knows he needs therapy but hasn’t taken action – he’s lacking in communication skills, has a hard time expressing himself without being abrasive – lacking motivation / ambition to do even basic projects – seems to only enjoy video games, youtube – fairly anti social, I’m looking for more connections/community – pretty big disagreement on how to handle pets

We have talked about this and he’s aware of most of this but again, improvements take time and he seems to be moving at a glacial pace.

Obviously he has good qualities – he’s compassionate, good at sex, we share a lot of interests, and he’s stable and reliable. I know I don’t want him out of my life but I just don’t feel like I can’t count on him as a life partner. So my question is – how do I de-escalate? More specifically what do I say? I’m essentially rejecting him because he isn’t a good partner. I don’t want him to feel bad about himself. Help!”

Dear Anonymous,

So you listed some really intense and fundamental incompatibilities between you and your partner. I can see why you would feel that the de-escalation seems necessary to match your level of emotional investment with the overall direction of your relationship with your partner. There really isn’t a step-by-step instructions on how to best approach de-escalation because each de-escalation is unique to the individuals in the relationship and the degree of the de-escalation itself. But I’ll lay out how I generally approach my de-escalations using the following steps.

I call it the PLEASE.

  1. Prepare the why, when, and where.
  2. Lead with positive qualities.
  3. Elaborate on why de-escalation feels necessary.
  4. Ask for any feedback and questions.
  5. Settle on new expectations and agreements.
  6. Ease into your new transition.

Prepare the Why, When, and Where.

In this step, you’ll have to do some mental preparation. You’re already coming in with an idea of why you need to de-escalate: lack of chemistry to make long-term relationships work. Lay out what some of those incompatibilities are and commit to why you personally feel like this is a necessary step. Then the next is figuring out the logistics of when and where this is going to happen. Generally, I prefer to de-escalate in a place they feel the most comfortable. That way, they can vent out those feelings or be vulnerable in a place that doesn’t make them feel so self-conscious. If I can’t do that, then I settle on a place that is the most neutral that also gives them or you a solid exit plan. That could look like a local coffee shop where you can have some privacy.

Once you’ve figured out the logistics and setting of de-escalation, the next step is to follow through.

Lead with Positive Qualities

I envision de-escalation very similarly to constructive criticism. And the best way to set the tone is to outline the aspects of your relationship that does work for you, which in this case is high-level physical chemistry. Talk about the great dates you went on and center on the characteristics and qualities you like the most about your partner. It’s important to outline here the reasons why you feel like you want to stay connected with this partner without the full breakup conversation.

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Elaborate on Why De-escalation Feels Necessary

This is the part where you bring up the word “de-escalation.” Talk about what de-escalation means for you and why you have personally arrived to this conclusion. Talk about why it is important for you to de-escalate here. You’ve already talked about positive qualities that he has in your previous step, so reflect on how those positive qualities will continue to be enabled in this new transition of your connection through de-escalation.

Another really important point of discussion here is in outlining this as a transition rather than a critique on his character. It’s true that some of his personality traits deem him a difficult fit for you as a long-term life partner. But instead of framing this transition with ingredients of toxicity, envelop it in the positive aspects this new transition will bring.

Remember, de-escalation is not a break up, but a transition. It is not an end to your relationship but a change to ensure an ongoing connection.

Ask for Any Feedback and Questions

Here is where he’ll be able to reflect what he has heard from you and talk to you about how he is feeling in the face of what he has been presented with.

There is going to be some pain and hurt feelings from any kind of transition, especially if both of you have gotten very comfortable in the current relationship dynamic. Since you cannot avoid the inevitable, focus on what you can do to protect yourself, your transitioning relationship, and himself from this new revelation. If he needs to step out to gather his thoughts and recollect his feelings, allow him to do so. If he needs time and space to arrive to the same conclusion that de-escalation is a better fit than a complete breakup, then give him the time and space away from you to figure this out by himself, with his poly-friendly connections, or with the help of a poly-friendly therapist. What’s more important is to hear him out and let him be open with you about his impressions and expressions.

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Settle on New Expectations and Agreements

After he has accepted de-escalation as an option after some time, then you should both talk about what de-escalation means for each of you. Generally, in this step, you’ll talk about changes in logistics, living arrangements, relationship expectations, and pre-existing agreements that you two might have. Depending on the degree of de-escalation, the new agreements and changes in expectations can vary wildly. for example, if you are going from a lifetime-partner level of enmeshment to a more distant romantic connection, that de-escalation adjustment period could look a lot like lowering expectations and easing up on the pre-existing agreements. However, if you are de-escalating from a lifetime partner level of enmeshment all the way down to a purely platonic connection with sex completely off the table, you’re going to have to reinvent the wheel and take time to figure out what works and doesn’t work for each of you.

Ease into Your New Transition

Once you’ve settled on adjusting existing agreements or reinventing completely new ones, most of the hard work is done. All you have to do going forward is to maintain those new boundaries and occasionally check them to make sure those boundaries are still sound.

This step will look like taking time to collect new data, to examine if changes are necessary, implement changes if necessary, and recollect evidence to see if those changes worked.

I’ve seen many couples take some time away from each other following de-escalation to reorient themselves in a more stable footing before re-establishing a connection, especially if the degree of de-escalation is massive. So take time and space to make sure you yourself are okay with each of the steps, and be compassionate with your partner to make sure they’re okay as well.

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Your actual process of de-escalation might not look at all like what I have outlined above. Like I mentioned, each de-escalation will be unique depending on your previous history with this person, the existing level of enmeshment, the degree of de-escalation, and everyone’s flexibility & open-mindedness in terms of stepping into this new state following transition. But de-escalation is a very valuable tool in the poly toolkit that allows us to maintain our connections without burning bridges. We can’t all afford to break up with our partners indefinitely.

After all, there are just fewer of us.

Good luck!

Tea Time with Tomato is an informative relationship and sex advice column for both monogamous and polyamorous folks. By submitting your post, you agree to let me use your story in part or in full. You also agree to let me edit or elaborate for clarity.

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