How to Know When Burning a Bridge Is Okay

A few seasons ago, the high-fashion brand Vetements produced a hoodie I’m still obsessed with. Bold letters on the front declared, “May the bridges I burn light the way.”

I love that quote because it made me think twice. It contradicts all our traditional thinking about relationships. I grew up hearing the adage “Never burn a bridge,” which often felt like sage advice. After all, it’s painful to sever ties with someone with whom we have an emotional connection or share a deep history. How can you be certain that you won’t really need this person, in either a personal or professional sense, down the line? Plus, thanks to Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, and Twitter, truly “breaking up” with someone—romantically, platonically, or professionally—can feel nearly impossible.

But there are some very good reasons to cut ties (firmly and respectfully, of course). Here are some scenarios when you should burn that bridge to the ground and never look back.

When the relationship is toxic

Plenty of relationships can be repaired with a healthy dose of honesty, humility, and forgiveness. Toxic relationships are different—they sap your time and energy and may even be destructive. Here’s how to know if a relationship falls into this category:

  • You feel intense anxiety at the thought of encountering this person
  • Their demeanor or demands affect your quality of life and mental health
  • You feel harassed or abused
  • You’re being gaslighted—manipulated into believing that you are the problem, even though you’re working overtime to please this person…to no avail.

When you’re asked to compromise your values

We’re all familiar with this teen movie trope: Previously unpopular girl starts hanging out with the cool clique and begins ignoring the loyal friends she’d had before. When Girl realizes that the popular girls are actually evil and superficial, Girl must go slinking back to her real besties and beg for their forgiveness—after burning bridges with the popular girls, vowing never to hang with them again. (“Mean Girls,” anyone?!)

Be like a cinema heroine! Don’t let anyone bully you into participating in any kind of behavior that doesn’t sit right with your gut— like lying, demeaning another person, being sexually intimate before you’re ready, repeatedly putting work ahead of your health or relationships…you know, all that bad stuff. If you feel you’re being required to act in a way that doesn’t align with your values, burn that bridge. You’re free!

When it’s all about them

Relationships are about give and take. You give your time, affection, and support to each other, and your relationship deepens. Everyone goes through rough patches, and there may be times or stages of life when your friend or romantic partner needs you more than usual. That’s fine, as long as the balance of the relationship eventually shifts back to a more equitable division of emotional labor. It’s when you reflect back on the relationship and begin to see a pattern of you working overtime, and not getting anything in return, that it’s time to burn that bridge.

Do you spend lots of money on them but they never pay you back? Do you go to great lengths to make them happy—repeatedly driving long distances, say, or canceling plans with other people—and see your efforts go unacknowledged? Do they declare a monopoly on your time, expecting you to text/call/hang out with them at every moment? I’ve been there, and making the decision to burn that bridge was not easy. I second-guessed myself over and over, berating myself for not being patient enough or understanding enough. I knew that once I burned that bridge, I wouldn’t be able to cross back to the other side. I was forced to go in one direction: forward.

And guess what? I was incredibly gratified to discover  nice, sane, fun-loving people on the other side. My relationships with them don’t tax me emotionally or feel like a chore. Even better, these people straight-up know how to have a good time. My life is richer with them in it.  

Originally published on April 9, 2019. 

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