Sunday, July 31, 2011

Exit Interviews

Over at Simone Grant's dating and relationship blog is a post about having exit interviews with former partners. You might be thinking, what?! But let's read her introduction to the idea first.

Let’s face it, most of us don’t exactly get “closure” when we go through breakups. Sometimes, after much time has passed, it’s hard to even pin point what were the exact reasons for splitsville. For the past year, I’ve been playing around with this idea of an Exit Interview. We have exit interviews when we leave a job, so why don’t we have exit interviews when we leave a person?

The premise of the Exit Interview is to reveal each other’s strengths and weaknesses, reasons for departure, and key takeaways for the next relationship. I know, this all sounds so corporate, but the Exit Interview is most successful when it’s mostly void of emotions. As a dating coach, I recommend all of my clients to first close the ex files for at least 3 months and then conduct the interview. This way, it allows both parties a time to chill out and think (somewhat) rationally.

I'm interested in this experiment in trying to formalize "finishing your business" from the past. On the one hand, it seems too business-like and somewhat unrealistic. I don't think I agree with Simone's view that the best "interview" is one mostly void of emotions. When I consider the few times I have had something like this occur with a partner at the end of the relationship, some kind of emotional release was an important part of the process of letting go. Expression and release on my own, but also expression and release with the other person. Just having a dry and rational analysis feels way too much like an exit interview at a job, which I think is a nice model, but not to be followed to the letter.

On the other hand, I really like the sense of consciously attempting to have closure. To spend time with someone you might have loved, or even still love, and sharing something with each other that could ultimately aid both of you moving forward in a more healthy way.

One of the problems, though, is that often, doing such an interview is either next to impossible, or might simply lead to more damage being done. Some people cut and run and don't look back, and trying to connect with them is pretty pointless. Some relationships end due to physical or emotional patterns of violence, and going back to meet with those folks might lead to more trauma on both ends. And some relationships simply weren't that deep to begin with, and reaching out as part of the closure process might not mean a whole lot to either person, even if seeing each other would be just fine.

So, it seems to me like there would be a limited subset of relationships where this kind of action could be a good part of the process. But I do think it's an interesting idea to consider.

What do you make of it?


  1. Anyone who has gone through a divorce, even a relatively friendly one has gone through some form of exit interview. It is not pleasant and there is a lot of temptation to start to rehash old issues. Some people opt for mediation which covers that better.

    I don't think that there can be something as final as closure sounds with a relationship. It echos on for a lot longer than with a job. A job is a different type of relationship where there are likely not the kinds of expectations nor the type of emotional investment that one might have with a relationship. Because of those expectations the disappointment factor in relationships is considerably higher and more complicated than with a job.

    I think something like an exit interview for a relationship could be rather a cruel or masochistic experience. And I think people are aware on some level already why the relationship has failed. To meet in order to state that wouldn't do much good and to talk about all the positive things could lead to a muddled kind of nostalgia which also wouldn't make people feel much better especially if the break up is firmly instigated by one side.

    If communication wasn't that forthcoming during the relationship and such closure is needed it's still unlikely to be forthcoming afterwards and if it is it's likely to be more along the lines of blowing off steam which wouldn't be healthy.

    It also presumes insight which people still may not have.

    And it kind of reminds me of doing a restaurant review after eating a meal. Except you'll not likely ever return to the restaurant whether you liked the meal or not. Kind of pointless. Maybe it would help the restaurant but maybe not.

    It would feel to me like a re-traumatization for little gain. And 3 months is not even close to the amount of time people in a serious long term relationship would need to process emotions. If it were a brief and rather shallow relationship perhaps but then what insight would the people have into each other or themselves regarding that relationship in that case anyway?

    If people are feeling a lack of closure that seriously then perhaps some counselling would be a better option.

  2. "It also presumes insight which people still may not have." This is probably one of the main reasons I'm skeptical. When I consider the end of one long term relationship I had, which was a drawn out, muddy several months of barely talking to each other before finally realizing it was just over - I didn't have a lot of insight on certain issues until a good 8-9 months later. And furthermore, since we didn't officially put a stake in the thing, any meeting would have potentially led to getting back together, which probably would have been a bad idea. However, that it was a bad idea wasn't evident to me at the time.

    I also don't really think such a thing as closure exists. You're totally right that there are echoes that occur long afterwards. They might be pleasant or ever really positive echoes at times, but something lingers from that past.

    I guess I mostly liked the idea because of a sense of being conscious about the process of moving on. Perhaps the specific idea isn't terribly helpful.

  3. I think with my previous relationships, I have done something like the "exit interview" in one way or another. I think it's a good idea if people come at it from the right mindset. I think that closure cannot come from engaging in the highly emotional sense, but at the same time, I think that it cannot be exactly void of emotion either. It needs sufficient distance that the emotions don't control the interaction, but equally, the emotions are going to be the central topic of discussion so they have to be fresh and present as well.

    The tricky part is that, in order for it to bring the most useful gains, it involves being able to see oneself as viewed by others, and appreciating that that view may differ from one's self-perception and both views of you can be correct. And I know from first-hand experience that that can be hard and painful to go for. The temptation to hit back when some part of the external image of oneself hurts is pretty bad, and destructive (and doesn't produce closure).

    I think if you have the frame from which to approach it, then it is helpful, but it does carry risks and a certain element of pain (of the "no pain, no gain" variety, but anyway) and it certainly is not going to be helpful for everyone, either because they don't feel the need for feedback or closure, or because they have different skills than the ones that would help to process such an interview (and therefore, they process the break-up itself differently as well).

  4. "It needs sufficient distance that the emotions don't control the interaction, but equally, the emotions are going to be the central topic of discussion so they have to be fresh and present as well."

    This sounds very true to me. And I'd say was the case the few times I have experienced something like an "exit interview."

    And yes, being able to listen to another perspective without getting flippant or reactive, even if you don't agree, is really key.

  5. I think alot of times when people say they want "closure" to a relationship, what they really want is to rehash the things that led to the breakup. It may mean the desire to "have the last word". Or there is a secret hope that if they talk it all out, conflict will be resolved and they can resume the relationship.

    I've found that genuine closure is actually indifference. It's when you have stop caring about what the other person is doing, or who they're doing. You can remember the good times fondly but without longing, and you can remember the bad times somewhat dispassionately. You don't feel the need to rehash, or reconnect on any level.

    I also agree that there isn't a need for an exit interview. People know why they broke up if it was a serious relationship. If it was a casual, short lived relationship the reason was there wasn't enough of an emotional connection - "just not that into you" as the cliche goes.

    Who needs their shortcommings listed (or omitted to save a fight) if the relationship is over? I can't see an exit interview as conducive to moving on in most cases.

  6. Selena,

    I agree with much of what you said. Especially the covert reasons you cite as to why people seek closure. Those are so completely true - hell, I've had one or the other in my mind during a few "towards the end" discussions with former partners.

    The one thing I disagree with is the view that people know why they broke up. I'd say people often don't actually know, and that's why they keep repeating the same patterns with future partners.

    As I already wrote, what I find compelling is a sense of being conscious and deliberate in efforts to clean up the past, and move on. That to me is quite vital to being able to enter into a new relationship standing on your own two feet.

    It would be interesting to hear more from Simone about how others she's working with are actually using the "exit interview" idea.

  7. Just a note - the actual author of the Exit Interview post is Yue Xu. I invited her to comment further here, but you can also visit her blog.

  8. The one thing I disagree with is the view that people know why they broke up. I'd say people often don't actually know, and that's why they keep repeating the same patterns with future partners.

    Yes, this.

    I think that a lot of the time, feeling uncertain about why it ended makes it hard to achieve indifference and also makes it hard to feel confident in moving on. For some people (and I think I am one of them) something like an exit interview helps them to achieve closure in that sense of indifference. Except I am not exactly indifferent - I still care passionately about my exes, just in a different way.

  9. I'm very puzzled by the notion people don't know why they broke up. If we are talking about partnerships, or long time bf/gf relationships how can you NOT know?

    If you are talking about people who fade/disappear after a few weeks of dating...again, they didn't develop an emotional connection to you. In such a case, I think it would be masochistic to try and confront them about why they didn't become attached to you. And that's assuming they would feel even remotely interested in having such a conversation. Likely they faded/disappeared to AVOID such a thing.

  10. Hi everyone,
    This is a great discussion. I am the author of the post and also a dating coach in NYC. Over 80% of my clients come to me because they're not over an ex, but most of them don't come to me explicitly for that. It could be disguised as, "How do I get with my hot coworker" or "How do I date more?" And at the root of most of these is, "I'm not over my ex." So, as a priority, I've tried to develop a closure technique the past couple of years. I agree, the Exit Interview is not perfect. It assumes both parties must meet mentally and do not have ulterior motives. However, it has worked successfully for most of my clients mainly because 2 things: 1) get rid of the dot-dot-dot, and 2) improvements for future relationships.
    1) Most people who can't get over an ex is because of the dot-dot-dot (a reference to The Bachelorette for anyone who watched this season). From the Exit Interview, people (including myself) have noticed aspects of our ex that put a period to the dot-dot-dot, simply by seeing them in a more neutral light. In my examples, I noticed that The One was a fabricated person in my mind and seeing him again brought reality to our relationship - a reality that did not involve us ending at the altar. Also, by riding on the dot-dot-dot, it proves to be unfair for anybody you date going forward.
    2) Improvements for future relationships. Sure, time can heal and closure may come from being indifferent about your ex eventually. However, were you able to learn all that you could from that relationship? It's like taking a class just to pass an exam, but not remembering anything you learned in class. So what's the point then? The Exit Interview helps to bring out anything you could improve upon. In my case, The One told me that I wanted him to be someone he wasn't, even though he told me from the very beginning what he was all about. I learned that I needed to listen more, from the very beginning, and really appreciate someone as-is, instead of imagining them in my "mate make-over factory."

    Again, it is not a perfected technique by any means, but it has shown improvements in closing in the ex files.

  11. I've never watched the Bachlorette program and have no idea what dot dot dot refers to.

    When a serious relationship ends, people generally spend a good bit of time in introspection and retrospection of how it went from point A (attraction/infatuation/falling in love) to point B (unresolvable conflict that led to parting ways). Some of this 'work' is done while still in the relationship, but epiphanies may occur long after the relationship is over.

    In your personal example yuemonkey, when you were having conflict prior to breaking up with The One, did he not tell you he felt you wanted him to be someone he wasn't? Did he give other reasons for letting you go instead? Was communication an issue in your relationship?

    Often people tell us what they feel is wrong, but we dismiss it because we don't, or don't want to see it. Sometimes there is a collective of attitudes and behaviors causing conflict during the relationship, and it is only after doing the introspection/retrospection we are able to put those under one umbrella and give it a label. "She couldn't accept me for who I am" - as an example. And sometimes people just aren't good at communicating what the problem is. Communication itself is part of the problem.

    I can see how a conversation about what went wrong might be useful after both parties are further along in the introspection/retrospection process - it could possibly add to clarity. But a much better strategy to adopt would be to focus on truly listening and communicating while IN the relationship. And if the relationship is a serious one, professional counseling could be considered to facilitate this.

    The exit interview still sounds like a very dicey idea to me for a relationship that proved to be short-term.

  12. "When a serious relationship ends, people generally spend a good bit of time in introspection and retrospection of how it went from point A (attraction/infatuation/falling in love) to point B (unresolvable conflict that led to parting ways). Some of this 'work' is done while still in the relationship, but epiphanies may occur long after the relationship is over."

    Selena - healthy people generally reflect and dig deep after the end of serious relationships. But there are a hell of a lot of people who aren't terribly healthy around relationships, and plenty who never truly learn, regardless of how many opportunities they have. Think about some of the comments on Evan Katz's blog, or Moxie's blog, or any number of other places. Lots of dysfunction, and flat out failure to even pause and consider how to possibly act different in the future. Total blame narratives. Twisted guilt narratives. Bed hopping to soothe the pain. Choosing to do casual relationships out of fear of "getting hurt" again. This is commonplace stuff.

    One thing I see with Yue's situation is that she is dealing with folks that don't have the option of developing listening and communication skills in the relationship in question. It's already over, but they aren't over it. So while, I totally agree that doing this within the actual relationship is far better, and would reduce or possibly eliminate the need for lots of post-relationship "closure work," I can see how offering an idea like an Exit Interview might be helpful to people who do need to figure out how to move on in a more healthy way.

    I just really believe that a lot of people do relationships fairly unconsciously. They fall for hotness and chemistry, fight like dogs for awhile when the honeymoon period is over, and then have a train wreck of an ending. They choose to blame the other person, saying he or she is just an asshole, and then move on, often really quickly, before the real pain sets in. And others choose to blame themselves, thinking they are flawed and pathetic, and then sit and stew on all the "what ifs" a person could imagine. And some have a mixture of this. But what none of these folks have is a deep level, conscious awareness of what really happened in the relationship, and how they might avoid repeating that in the future.

  13. Yue, thank you for stopping by and giving us some more to work with on this issue.

  14. Nathan,

    How do you see people locked in dysfunctional patterns benefitting by talking to those same people they were in the relationship with about the relationship after it's over?

    Honest-to-God, in those examples you mentioned an "Exit interview" isn't going to help. It would likely just degenerate into name calling. Those people aren't going to get the deep level, conscious awareness of what happened by rehasing the relationship with the other participant. Individual therapy might help however.

  15. You know, I'm still on the fence about the whole idea, despite some of the effort I have made to defend it.

    For some percentage, you're totally right - it would be futile. People who are highly reactive and/or have no impulse control wouldn't be able to stomach something like this.

    But one thing I keep going back to is the simple sense of practicing listening and responding to things you might not want to hear without flipping out. Perhaps Yue's clients are getting the opportunity to practice those skills during the process, and maybe that practice helps lead them to deeper reflection. The actual content they receive from the former partner might not be very useful, even, but the very act of listening and letting critical comments come their way without flipping out is beneficial, and probably something that didn't happen during the relationship.

    So, for those who have dysfunctional patterns, I can see it as an opportunity to practice being different, to break old patterns, even if only for a brief time. It's probably not a direct route to deep insight, but more of a jump start towards going in deeper. Most of that deeper work needs to be done by one's self anyway, or with the help of a counselor or therapist or some similar type of person. But maybe the interview offers some people the jump start needed to change their situation.

  16. @ Selena:

    Often people tell us what they feel is wrong, but we dismiss it because we don't, or don't want to see it.

    I think that with this phrase, you have captured the usefulness of having an exit interview a few months down the line from the break-up. Because, at that stage, it is possible to have the distance needed to be able to see clearly and accept the things that at the time we are too emotionally-involved to allow ourselves to hear or recognise.

    Even with the best intentions of developing listening and communication skills within a relationship, sometimes emotions can override that and things get wobbly before you realise it.

    Sometimes, the work of "introspection and retrospection of how it went from point A (attraction/infatuation/falling in love) to point B (unresolvable conflict that led to parting ways)" can actually mislead someone because they don't check their findings against what the other person feels and build up their own fictionalised version - in the same way that Yue says the value of her exit interview with "The One" lies in discovering that her version of things created the fictional "The One", and by being able to check against the reality of his perspective, that was resolved for the better.

  17. I do agree with you, Selena and Nathan, that communication is an issue while in the relationship and should be addressed while still involved. However, as Nathan pointed out as well, some do not realize their communication issues until...well...actually never. And dysfunctional patterns stem from deeply rooted dysfunctional communication patterns. I think a healthy example I can give is one of my clients was in a dysfunctional relationship but thought he was madly in love. They had major highs and major lows. After the relationship ended from a blow-out fight, he couldn't find himself getting over her. 3 years later, I convinced him to conduct an Exit Interview (after some self-discovery and counseling), and to nobody's surprise, the woman started calling him names and was back in her old dysfunctional self. However, my client had moved on from that dysfunctional pattern and finally able to see the woman for who she was. He immediately was able to find closure and gained confidence from all the personal progress he had made.

    I think another important point to make is the success of the Exit Interview is contingent on how much one believes in it. If you go into it thinking, "this is never going to f'n work," then guess what, it'll never f'n work.

  18. I read your article Yue, and my "takeaway" from it was that the exit interviews merely served as confirmation ex's are ex's for a reason. You still found free spirit guy cute, but not mature enough for you. There still wasn't enough sexual attraction with stable nice guy. And the one (the one who ended it with you) was still comfortable being Mr. Casual. The good thing that came from meeting him again was that you found you weren't as attracted as you were before. Whew! What a relief.

    It would appear also that the 3 exit interviews you did were with men you did not date that long. The "closure" was really in realizing you weren't missing anything by exiting. :)

    The same with your client. Apparently he had to see her again to be reminded why they were no longer together. Kind of a shame he couldn't let go for 3 whole years, but if he'd tried having an exit interview with her after 3 mos., or even 6, he might have gotten back into the dysfunctional r'ship and continued on and on.

    Or what if she really had changed in 3 years? Now she's Ms. Wonderful that he always wanted her to be, but alas, she's happily married to someone else. Would that have given him "closure" after 3 years? I doubt it.

    You say -"If you go into it thinking, "this is never going to f'n work," then guess what, it'll never f'n work."

    But all the examples you've given aptly illustrated WHY the relationship didn't f'n work in the first place! I don't think most people need a meeting with an ex to find that out months, or years later.

  19. Selena, I think you're underestimating the intangibles here.

    It reminds me of a dispute in my family that went on for a good decade. It got so bad that some people didn't speak to each other for several years, but finally someone decided to get everyone together for dinner. And just the act of having dinner together, and then a bit later, getting the rest of the family together again, brought some peace to everyone. Were all the issues behind the conflict resolved? Hell no. I doubt that will ever happen. But in that particular case, having people come together again, and be in the same room without massive conflict, allowed some of the long held hostility to vanish.

    I think there are plenty of ways to dismiss ideas like this in terms of practicalities or concrete results. When I heard the family members involved in the conflict were getting together for dinner, I thought it was pointless myself. But then I saw the impact, and later felt the impact of being part of the larger gathering, and although I still can't say anything really concrete and definitive changed as a result of all that, I and others in the family have less baggage around that old conflict.

    And I think that kind of thing can come for people who were couples as well.

  20. Hey whatever works Nathan.

    You asked what people made of having an exit interview with ex's. I don't see it as resulting in closure as much as it seems to be an excuse to see that person again to see how you feel about them. Shrug.

  21. "I don't see it as resulting in closure as much as it seems to be an excuse to see that person again to see how you feel about them."

    I saw that. The others probably did as well. We were all just considering the idea further. And as for myself, anyway, I'm not trying to sell it - but I can see where it might work, and as the discussion unfolded more ideas followed. So I shared them.

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