Endings can be as important as beginnings in personal and professional relationships. But people often are reluctant to face the awkwardness and pain—on both sides—of ending a bad relationship.

Why it’s crucial: Although it may sound harsh, the time and energy that we waste on bad relationships could be more enjoyably or profitably devoted to people and pursuits that we prefer. Worse, when we spend time with people who have bad attitudes, bad habits or chronic bad moods, we dramatically increase the odds that we will suffer from these, too—a phenomenon called “social contagion.”

Example: A study published in The New England Journal of Medicine found that our odds of becoming obese increase by 57% if one of our friends becomes obese. The same research team also found that having a single unhappy friend increases the odds that we will be unhappy by about 7%.

Yet most people rarely, if ever, end bad relationships, aside from failed romantic relationships. They continue putting up with unpleasant, unproductive or even toxic associations because they don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings…they don’t want to endure the difficult conversation required to end a relationship…they don’t realize the price they’re paying for having this person in their life…they view ending relationships as a form of failure…and/or they think only mean people intentionally cut other people out of their lives.

Ending bad relationships is not selfish. If we don’t end them, we have less time and energy for the friends, loved ones and business associates who need and deserve our attention. And we risk dragging those people down with the bad habits and moods that we pick up from our troubled relationships. It is perfectly natural for relationships to end. What’s not natural is maintaining relationships that bring more bad than good to our lives.


Consider what you want your life and career to be like. Now consider each of your personal and professional relationships. Which are not helping you move toward this vision? Which are pulling you away from it? These are the relationships that may have to end.

Exception: It might be worth continuing a difficult relationship if there are overriding reasons, such as a marriage worth salvaging, and especially if there is a reason to believe that this person and relationship could improve in the near future. Perhaps the relationship used to be better and turned sour only because this person is going through a difficult phase…or perhaps this person recently has begun taking action to address his/her problems.


If someone you’re considering eliminating from your life is wise enough to respond positively to feedback, that is reason to have hope that the relationship could improve. Before ending any relationship…

Discuss with the other person the trouble that you are having with the relationship.

Example: “Lately, when we are together, you complain about something the entire time. I need friends who will help me grow in life, solve problems and feel good about life. I would like you to be one of those friends. If you can do that, I would love to continue to spend time with you. If not, I’m not going to be able to socialize with you anymore.”

Be open about your own faults, too, during this discussion. Try to frame your concerns as issues that you bring to the relationship as well, not just complaints about the other person’s behavior.

Use a soft and caring tone of voice, and say how much the positive aspects of the relationship have meant to you.

If this person listens to your concerns and strives to correct the problems you raise, the relationship could be worth continuing. If he/she becomes defensive, angry or combative when faced with these problems, there’s much less hope for the relationship. What to do…

Lay out the specific, painful consequences this person will incur because of his misbehavior.

Example: “Because you keep getting drunk and belligerent when the family gets together, you’re no longer invited when there might be alcohol present.”

This might sound tough, but being direct could be the only way to get this person’s attention and help him understand the urgency of the situation.

If this person still fails to see the light, place the fate of the relationship in his hands. Explain what you expect from a friend…employee…professional contact…or romantic partner. Then say, “I’d like that to be you, but if it isn’t, we can’t spend time together anymore.”

Leave it to this person to decide whether he can do what is necessary to continue the relationship.

Presented with an ultimatum, this person might try to improve or he might quietly disappear from your life. If neither of these things occurs, proceed to the section below, and do so without guilt—you are not the one ending this relationship. Your former acquaintance is ending it by declining to do what is necessary to save it.


To make a break in a way that lets you feel it is a positive step, you have to prepare yourself in various ways…

Keep your vision for your life in front of you. Position photos of the people you love spending time with where you’ll see them frequently. This should continually remind you what you’re sacrificing when you waste time on toxic relationships. Budget time for the relationships you value and make them a priority.

Increase your interactions with the problem person. We normally attempt to limit our interactions with those we don’t like so that we can avoid facing the problem. But by distancing ourselves from bad relationships, we make it possible to pretend that they’re not really so bad. Stop screening calls from people you don’t want to talk to, and stop coming up with excuses to cut conversations with them short. The more you face the pain that the relationship causes you, the greater the odds that you’ll reach the point where you’re willing to end it.

Helpful: When you speak with these people, picture yourself dealing with them not just today but next month, next year and for the rest of your life.

Seek out new, fulfilling relationships. Your desire to end bad relationships is likely to climb dramatically if you have numerous enjoyable, productive relationships and activities vying for your time.

Helpful: Volunteer with a variety of nonprofit causes that you care about. This should increase your awareness that your time is valuable and help you meet new people who have a positive outlook on life.


To minimize hurt feelings and raised tempers, place the blame for the failed relationship on the way you and this person interact with each other, not solely on the other person’s shoulders.

If the other person becomes angry, express empathy, then return the conversation to the issue.

Example: “I know this is hard to hear. It’s hard for me to say. But this really is an issue, and it isn’t getting any better.”

This is not fun, but it’s the only way you can spend your time with people you have decided to invest in—and the only way that those people will get as much of you as they deserve.

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