How to make a change in an existing relationship – de-escalation, transitions and moving beyond the binary of together / break-up

CakeTue 9th March 2021

One of the biggest challenges in relationships can be times of changing needs. It is typical when our feelings and needs change to make fairly immediate and drastic changes to a relationship by ending it with a clear cut, sharp line. This can be great when it’s needed. But, often, there are many things that you would still like to experience and share with a person, there might be parts of the relationships you would like to keep as well as parts you know need to change. However, there aren’t many roadmaps for navigating how you might make a change without making a complete break.

It’s very possible to move beyond the binary of together / apart but it does take work, emotional honesty as well as immense clarity around needs and firm, well communicated and respected boundaries.

It can be a complex process but one that can benefit everyone as it allows us to reflect on what works and what is less helpful and also gives us an opportunity to grow in relationship to each other. It is co-created though. The work needs to be mutual and the aim is to ensure that everyone’s new needs and wants are understood and respected.

It can also be a simple process if all involved are in mutual agreement about what changes are needed – I tend to agree with Ozzy Brennan that there’s no need to over-think it if there are no intense feelings involved or if there’s a clear mutual agreement re the change. If some intense feelings DO happen as the change is acted upon, then this process might be a useful one to consider.


Agree how and when you will make contact and on the questions/considerations/details that you will share (ideally, in writing) on that date

So: We will connect via email on xx and, in that email, we will share, any significant changes and also up to three things we would like to keep and up to three we would like to let go of. / We will keep the email limited to practical details but come to the meeting prepared to discuss xxx and xxx. We will make the other aware if there have been any significant changes that impact on the discussion.

This process helps you to communicate, safely, around what individual expectations and needs are.


The break does need to be at least 6 weeks. This allows for the process of change to begin and for you to work through some (or even many) of the difficult feelings that have provoked this transition. It also gives you space and time to get clear about needs and desires and to process these so that they can be discussed.

It’s important to recognise during the break stage that you WILL miss the person and relationship and that these feelings can be difficult to sit with, especially when there is nuance around your connection. I think a hard line around contact during this stage is crucial. Find other emotional and practical support where possible, either within your social circle or from a coach or therapist.

It’s about making sure that whatever you had before is grieved for, processed and that you are clear, in the now, about what is likely to work now that the relationship is OTHER than it was.

It’s vital that you keep to the agreement and that you manage any desire to get in touch. If needed, wrote down how you are feeling. You might keep a journal specifically on, and for, this time period in which you can note your feelings, how they shift and move, maybe make a note of tings you would have liked to have shared (e.g. any personal news, ideas, articles, images or experience) so that they are not forgotten. Again, you might be surprised how this impulse evolves over the 6-8 weeks.


In the safety and security of your own space and, maybe, in a journal or in dialogue with a trusted friend, consider and reflect upon:

What do you wish to keep and what do you wish to change?

This could take the form of a yes, no, maybe list or could just be some ideas for discussion.

It is important to reflect over the time and to review these notes on an ongoing basis. You may be surprised at what does, or doesn’t change.

Remember, you don’t have to explain why certain things are a no.

After the time period has passed, connect in the agreed way to decide when to meet and also share any other information that you need to or had agreed upon. Be clear as to whether a hug or other physical greeting is appropriate or agree to not have physical contact until after you have spoken. Something like: I would prefer no physical contact at the start of the catch up / I would prefer no physical contact at all during the meet up / I would like to exchange a hug but would ask for no kissing or hand holding. This makes sure everyone feels comfortable and that boundaries are respected.


Key pointers for this:

Make sure the space you have agreed to meet is somewhere that feels safe and comfortable for you both.

Be on time and be willing to listen as well as talk.

You both need to listen without judgement or interruption.

If feelings do get high or intense to make conversation and agreement easy, then ask for a break or, of necessary, agree to be in touch via email to rearrange within the a week/agreed time.

Talk through where you are now, try to avoid going over old issues but focus on the issue of what you’d like to keep or let go.

If you’ve decided that you wish to end the relationship then say so and give as much or as little detail as you feel you can / need to. If the other is hurt or upset they may ask for more information. If it’s too difficult to discuss at the time, offer to put a few things in writing at a later date or simply state that you don’t feel able to offer that.


This may take place over a series of short get togethers depending on what you are trying to achieve and also the feelings involved.

It is important that what is NOT going to happen is understood. It is vital that both parties are clear on the the fact that things have changed and are not juts waiting for a chance to drift back into old routines or behaviours. Any shift  towards this needs to be noticed and discussed calmly.  It might be that it’s not possible to make the transition and that is absolutely okay. It may just be too hard and feelings too complex to make a de-escalated connection possible. We can work towards being as kind, gentle and non-judgemental about this if it happens and to accept that the connection needs to be completely set aside for good or for a very long period of time, say, six months or maybe more.

So, if you are, for example, now what one might describe as friends with a sexual connection then what does that look like? What do you share and what do you disclose or not about other relationships? How would you describe what you share to others that it impacts on? Have you agreed on the meaning and boundaries around what you share?

These conversations may take time and may take place over a few get togethers. It’s important to go at the pace of the person who wants to take it slowest and to allow space for processing the emotions that come up.


Change is a permanent feature of life and all relationships. The more we normalise shifts and changes in how we connect, the ebb and flow of relating, and the more we talk about change itself, the easier it will be to love each other, as well as ourselves.

Further reading