The Work Breakup: What It Is, How It Harms, and What to Do About It
Where two colleagues who have worked intensely and closely together for a meaningful amount of time, and where they have a fallout that leads to one of them leaving the organization or company: this a bad work breakup.
Although it gets little attention compared with the trauma of divorce or the heartbreak of friendship loss, the bad work breakup can be absolutely devastating—as I can attest, having had a few of them myself, and having witnessed dozens of others. As fulfilling as it is for two highly intelligent people to create together, the joy of this kind of intimate collaboration amplifies the immense loss that comes with the work breakup.
Not sure whether you have had this experience? You have—if two or more of the following are true for you:
*You used to be so close with and committed to this work colleague. You shared incredible times together. You made history happen!
*You no longer talk to each other at all.
*You avoid certain people you used to be close to at work because of their alliances with the person you’ve “broken up” with.
*You fear being talked about negatively by past colleagues.
*You have a sick feeling in your stomach or heart whenever you think about how it ended.
*Lawyers came on the scene to silence the parties and facilitate backdoor agreements.
*People had to be paid off to go away.
*You needed therapy to deal with stress, anxiety, depression, and/or betrayal related to the breakup.
*The media is feeding off your discord with your estranged colleague, making the pain more public.
*You have obsessive, fearful fantasies of the other person wanting you to be taken down in some way.
The Anatomy of the Work Breakup
There comes a time in any powerful professional alliance where people need to differentiate. Differentiation is the process of freeing yourself from the approval of others; of owning your own opinions and values even where they differ from those of someone close to you; of claiming your own creative sovereignty. It is a natural consequence of working with someone who has made you better and more confident about your abilities. At some point, one person in the pair will want to fly high on their own in certain areas, without the constraints of the other’s opinions.
Ideally, when differentiation needs to happen, we can remain authentically connected to the person with whom we have worked so closely. What often happens, however, is that instead of facing a healthy need for psychological growth that requires a courageous autonomy, the power combination continues to grind on with at least one party becoming resentful, envious, or burnt out. When this insidious energy goes unconscious or unchecked, symptoms begin to occur—and a bad breakup becomes more and more likely.
If you are in a work relationship where you work closely and brilliantly together, you may be starting to worry that a bad breakup might be unavoidable. It isn’t; you can detect a lot of the warning signs if you know what to look for. Check in with yourself. Are you:
*Nursing resentments towards your colleague?
*Feeling overlooked and under-appreciated by your colleague?
*Feeling unsafe to share your personal vulnerabilities with your colleague?
*Hearing from others that they are putting you down behind your back?
*Hearing from others that they are lying about you behind your back?
*Scared of your colleague’s revenge if you bring up difficult issues between you
*No longer interested in hanging out with your colleague outside of work
*Projecting that your colleague doesn't like you as much any more without checking it out with them?
*Leaving your colleague out of one or more important decisions that you know they would want to be part of?
*Starting to campaign with others that you know better than your colleague does how things should go at the workplace?
*Forgetting that appreciation and gratitude are the superpowers of all power combinations?
*Much more irritable or angry than usual?
*Resistant to doing your equal share of the work?
If more than one or two of these rings true for you, it’s time to take action to prevent a bad work breakup.
Bad Work Breakups Have Community Consequences
One of the most long-lasting harms of bad work breakups is to the work community itself. Folks feel compelled or forced to choose sides. The history of the fabulous past working relationship has to be shuttered in favor of a new narrative of betrayal and negativity. Old evidence of the great collaboration has to be minimized. Institutional knowledge and fond stories are sacrificed. There is an unspoken tension around the whole topic that folks have to tiptoe fearfully around. Those who were close to the powerful duo when they were still connected have to censor their own post-traumatic stress in order to move past the whole mess with the rest of the work community. Conflict is buried rather than resolved. Splitting becomes an inevitable fear for all work colleagues: if this could happen to them, they reason, it could happen to us, too.
When these breakups happen between women, the pain and mayhem they cause ends up profiting the patriarchy. They foster distrust between women at a moment in history where we are struggling to be valued in the workplace and need allies. And any time any people who were once close, creative, and productive—whatever their gender—are split up, the power of change agents is reduced.
The Anatomy of a Great Work Breakup
I am thrilled to share that there is another way to end work relationships—one that can even happen after a bad work breakup.
The solution is simple. Whether the breakup has already happened or it’s coming, it comes back down to each party’s willingness to speak what is true for them. Where the breakup is still in its earliest stages, what’s required is two courageous souls to own up to the ways they need to change the dynamics and differentiate. If the bad breakup has already happened, they both need to own up to how they sabotaged the ending. This honest vulnerability makes a great work breakup possible. This isn’t to say that this is easy . Transformative vulnerability requires discomfort and risk. Often a mediating party is helpful in having these raw conversations.
No great ending is possible without true accountability for why the pair needed to loosen its grip on each other. The person who needs most to break away should own up to the ways they are not as happy as they used to be, without blaming the other. Or—in the aftermath of the bad work breakup—both need to own how they have been destructive to one another and themselves; to tell the part they played in creating the ending. Each party will always have a hand to play in that situation, and each should be ready to own their part.
Don’t hesitate to consult therapists or wise coaches to help you make it through this challenging process. You don’t have to do such major emotional lifting without true professional guidance. These situations bring up major fears and insecurities and it often takes a neutral and mature perspective to navigate the intensity of feelings.
I have met with at least two very close work colleagues after a bad breakup and cleaned up the whole thing pretty smoothly. How? We both chose to tell the vulnerable truth, and own our parts of the demise. We also benefited from some epic self deprecating humor.
I have had at least two other colleague situations that took years to resolve, but finally did—patience, persistence, and a positive mindset ended up creating fertile ground for the conversations that were needed to find peace. In other situations where I have gone through a work breakup, healing has not happened, and that is because both parties have not yet been unwilling to come to the table.
All it really takes to repair a bad work break up is the desire to drop the negative looping story in favor of a new empowering story: that of two brave and bruised souls deciding to come together to heal the past rather than play the blame game.
If you have had a bad work breakup with someone you have deeply cared for or even loved, do your part to make room for a different ending one day. Stop making the situation worse. Refrain from all words or acts that tarnish that other person. Keep getting the help you need to own your part in the demise of the partnership. Learn from past mistakes and keep growing. The tapestry of interconnectedness awaits a new stitch.
A caveat: where situations at work involve sexual harassment, abuse, or crime, help beyond what is described here is required. Restorative approaches to healing in these situations involve highly structured professional intervention. While it is possible to come back to a place of peace after work ruptures that involve issues like these, it can be a very big ask for the one who caused grievous harm to come to a place of true accountability and a willingness to make a meaningful personal repair, and (especially) a big ask for the person who was harmed to step up to that table to receive that repair.
Dr. Jennifer Freed is a social and emotional educator, the CCO of www.ahasb.org, and a best selling author of USE YOUR PLANETS WISELY