Breaking up the right way

One of the commentators from my last column asked for advice on how to gracefully exit a longstanding partnership when it becomes clear that the partnership has become stale.  

Tihana Brkljacic

Most of players have to make this move (more than once) during their bridge career, and it is not really something you can learn from reading a book. 

In almost all long-term partnerships, emotions are involved. Building a partnership requires mutual understanding and adjustment, and I'm not talking about the bidding methods here, but rather about general preferences, attitudes and perspectives. You get to know each others vulnerabilities in this game that can reveal so much about your personality. Building a partnership includes sharing uncertainties, fears, hopes, thrills and disappointments. There's still a need for understanding, empathy and forgiveness, even when we ourselves are down.  

Breaking up from my first bridge partnership was harder than any romantic break-up that I'd had. So it went; we had been playing together for a couple of years, but I wanted to form a serious partnership with another player. I thought it would be best to cut to the chase and make a quick, clean break.  I made a firm decision that I would tell my partner that I didn't want to play with her anymore. I set about making a list of reasons, mostly accusing myself, stressing I needed a change and that I hoped we would be able to remain friends. 

It ended up taking me six months to muster up the courage to have the conversation! I invited her to join me for coffee at least five times with the intention of facing up to the inevitably awkward conversation, but the words just wouldn't come out. It was just too difficult; there was always some tournament that she was planning for us, and I didn't want to disappoint her. I thought she would be devastated. But, to make things worse, during that time I was basically cheating on her, playing an additional weekly tournament, at another club, with a different partner (under false name). Now, when I think back, I'm sure she knew, and just left me to stew and suffer 😉 (and grow up). And it worked. 

So, maybe I'm not exactly the best person to be giving advice on how to break-up a partnership. Or maybe I am, given I know exactly how much of a nightmare it can be. You can make your own mind up on this score, as below I have listed the different ways that you can approach this sticky problem (some of which are much more effective than others!)   

  1. The fight. Maybe this is the easiest way to break up. Something goes wrong at the table, you both get upset, start to blame each other, and then one of you blurts out: “I can’t stand it anymore. I give up! Find someone else to torture!” As elegant and fast as this may seem, breaking in a fight has many negative consequences. First, everyone knows that fight is just a trigger. So, you are expected to talk it over anyway. Second, a fight is often public and there is no need to air your dirty laundry in front of a curious crowd. Third, if you want to stay friends, a fight won't do the job. If you're considering a fight as a break up method, you should be aware that it may soon shift from bridge to personal matters, and you could well lose a friend. Furthermore, to prevent you from reuniting, you will have to pretend that you're still angry and offended after weeks or months, which can be tiresome. Even worse, your ex partner may be expecting a makeup tournament (once you calm down), and you will keep on disappointing them.
  2. A temporary split. This is another partnership break up strategy that is borrowed from a romantic relationship. It can indeed be an appropriate decision if you're not really sure about the partnership. But, people abuse it as a substitution for a permanent break up, just to avoid further discussion. It's an easy way out, and perhaps not very honourable. As in a romantic relationship, it's not fair suggesting a temporary break if you don't want to consider restoring the partnership in the future. It might tie your ex partner to you hoping that things may return to “normal”, while in reality you know there's no real prospect. It's just not decent to deceive someone and waste their time.  
  3. Letting it fade. I believe most of the partnerships die this way. Partners just start to find more and more excuses for not playing, stop planning future events together, maybe change a club or playing schedule to avoid each other. It may be that only one partner is avoiding the other, but more often than not both are doing the same thing. In the process the bounds between partners weaken, and they stop to identify with the partnership. Breaking this way may be the easiest as it requires the least effort, but often leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Nobody is sure what really happened, if someone is offended, or who even started the tactics of avoidance. It's not dignified for a once flourishing partnership to be allowed to deteriorate in such a way.   
  4. Finding someone else. If we want to break a partnership and still want to play bridge, it's only logical that we have to find someone else to play with. It's not considered immoral if you occasionally play with someone else. It's even OK to have two or more regular partners, as long as everybody is happy with this arrangement. However, finding a new partner with the express intention of getting rid of the previous one, is not the way to go. I've both done it, and experienced it, and it's no fun at all not being sure who your real partner is.  
  5. Talking it through. By far the best way to gracefully exit a longstanding partnership is to tell your “soon to be ex partner” that you would like to split. People may say it's a cliché, but being (politely) honest in a social relationship is the way to go. To make things easier, here are some suggestions you might consider; but please only use them if they are true for you: (a) you have changed and your perspective regarding bridge is not the same as it was while you were building the partnership. Maybe you are more, or maybe less ambitious, committed or interested in the game; (b) you want to experience new things, whether it's a new system, a new club or a new style; (c) your personal life styles do not fit anymore – maybe you have more or fewer family obligations, maybe you have moved or changed job, or even started another hobby;  maybe you think your partner has changed, but be careful, especially if you think that the change was not for better. Try to see the positive in the change, rather than the negative. You might be best saying that you have noticed they are more occupied with other important things in their lives, rather than telling them that they are paying less attention to bridge. Or that you are surprised how good they are (in comparison with you) with natural and robust bidding methods (rather than telling them that they STILL haven't learnt the system). Or that you realized how competitive they are (instead of telling them that you prefer a more relaxed, friendly attitude at the table).   

In my now almost thirty year bridge career, I've experienced all of the break up forms mentioned above. And some additional ones too, that are much too specific to be of interest here. In many cases I initiated the break up just to prevent my partner from having to do it to me. It always made things easier for both of us. So, there's another suggestion. If you feel that the other party is not satisfied, but is reluctant to tell you, and doesn't want to hurt your feelings, then take the first step. You don’t want to be with someone who is not happy with you. Save time and spare yourself a potentially awkward more drawn out situation.  

If your decision to leave a partnership is firm and final, please don't hesitate to talk to your partner. Try to avoid making them feel bad about themselves. Only provide a "we might still play some tournaments together" softener if you honestly mean it. Remember the good times you have had together, and don't let those memories vanish under a cloud of break up bitterness. Be happy when your ex finds a new partner, support them, and celebrate in their successes. Break up on good terms and you will both be proud to say “We were a partnership once”. 

About the Author

Tihana Brkljačić is a psychologist and a bridge player. She teaches psychology and bridge at Zagreb university. She represented Croatia at multiple European championships and at The World Championship (Wuhan cup) in 2022. As a psychologist, her main areas of interest are in quality of life, well-being and communication. Additionally, she studies the psychology of games (focusing on bridge in particular) and consults players on various topics.

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30 comments on “Breaking up the right way”

  1. I had a partner for 5 years. He was known to be a difficult personality before I asked him to play, but I thought I could overcome that by curtailing bad behaviour when it occured. I took him on as a partner, brought him into the modern game and current bidding systems as he was about 30 years behind. I did my best to deal with his bad attitude. Then I went on holidays and he decided to play with someone else as he had a few good weeks with that "expert" player while I was away. I live in a small town where there aren't many players so I was being tossed aside knowing I had no partner. I said "I think it's a mistake, but it's your choice". Sadly, my ex partner has still not become a Life Master (he would have been one 2 years ago if I'd been playing with him as I would have directed him to the online silver games that he needed to play). And since getting back to in- person bridge, my new partner and I continue to do well, often coming ahead of my ex and his "expert" partner. My ex partner and I are no longer friends but I now have a very nice person as a partner, and the new partnership is much more fun! Maybe that's why we often win!
    So as it turns out, it worked out better for me. I feel sorry for my ex-partner because he had a very good partner and a good friend and he threw that away for some potential "bragging rights" at our tiny club in our tiny town at a weekly game. It never made sense to me. Big fish in a tiny pond (tiny puddle) syndrome, I guess. It's been 3 years and I am grateful for the break-up because I did find a player who is willing and eager to learn and understands the game and the subleties of a good partnership. Bridge is a lot more fun with her. The fact that my new partner and I often come in first when we show up for a local tournament or weekly game is just a bonus. So sometimes it's a good thing when partner breaks up with you!

  2. I had a friend with whom I often played bridge with friends, including my wife. This relationship weighed on me because she was an unpleasant person (to put it mildly). I tolerated her because she was my wife's friend.
    I had such an event. The opponent played 4 of hearts. After the start of the game, it turned out that I am in possession of two forts of spades, the partner of spades does not have, only that .... I have no access. I had zero diamonds, but only a small heart. But the opponent, instead of playing trumps, played a single of diamonds from the table, the partner jumped in with an ace. I killed. Partner: But Wojtek, it's mine. I played a spade. She said: if you can, so can I. She killed my spades. I showed the cards and explained my game. I said we don't play anymore. And I neither played nor talked with you anymore.
    I wrote this story because sometimes bridge is an opportunity to break up an unwanted relationship.

  3. I left many of my partners, as they were "ego players"..sad! I drew their attention to it several times, explaing bridge is a game for 2(!) then left for good, telling the truth - it is always the best way, I think. Truth hurts most?

  4. I’ve not had a breaker yet. However two friends who have been playing together for many years have. The result was truly sad. The one who wanted the breakup did it quite well I think. Explaining why but her friend was devastated and has been crying and blames herself for what’s happened and can’t seem to get over it. They have been close friends away from bridge but I think this may have destroyed a friendsjip

    1. Hi Heather, I hope they will find a way to separate bridge from friendship, and remain friends.

  5. Excellent!
    I rate it as 5 stars👏👏👏
    But when I started rating it by clicking the first star it just disappeared (as if my rating was one star only🙁)
    Thank you for such a wonderful article.

  6. Ma partenaire a beaucoup d’ambition et joue sans doute mieux que moi et j’ai pu constater quelques agacement.
    J’ai voulu lui en parler, ça a duré une heure.
    Conclusion : on finit tranquillement la saison ( il y a une finale nationale à jouer…), on continue cette saison ( avec de bons résultats) et les choses sont apaisées.
    Conclusion : un partenariat doit pouvoir être remis à plat et cela fait partie du contrat

    1. Indeed, sincere talk can sort out most of problems in a partnership. Unfortunately, people are often reluctant and avoid that type of discussion.

    2. Tres interessant
      Je joue peu et ai differents partenaires que je ne connais pas mais j´aimerais trouver quelqu ún qui soit un assez bon joueur et qui ait bon caractere

  7. thank you for all this wonderful advice and past experiences. I am in a situation where I want to break up the relatively new partnership and was wondering how to do it. this gives me more insight to what works best.

  8. I recall many years ago I was playing with a very amiable partner who had many more years of experience than me. He was a terrific card player and had played for most of his life, but had little interest in the language of bridge conventions. Stayman and transfers, standard Blackwood was about the extent of it. I was working at the time so only playing one night per week. I wanted to grow my game an incorporate more agreements I was learning online. I needed a way to gracefully bow out with a fellow who I got along with well.

    After some time of procrastination facing up to the challenge, an opportunity presented itself. Week after week my partner began complaining about back pains while playing in the night session with me. It turns out he was also playing in a day session the same day. After weeks of hearing about his back pain, I "offered" to release him from playing nights with me so that he need not suffer. Wasn't that nice of me? LOL.

  9. When I player at a bridge club, one evening my partner was annoyed with my pkwy, a club employee was nearby and I asked wha5 I should gave done ? He said m6,okay was fine. My partner said what she thought I should have done, the club employee told her why that would not have worked. She left the club and never returned my calls or spoke to me again. It hurt.

    1. Hi Mary,
      I'm sorry that your partner broke the partnership in such hurtful way and hope you have found another partner.

  10. I've had 2 break ups over many years. One partner always made faces when he didn't like my play. When we discussed this ..his wife implored him to stop making faces and play bridge. I waited for the right time..and one hand when it took me time to bid and finally come to 3NT..he misplayed the hand..went down..and over the front of others..blamed my slow bid to his inability to make the contract. I told him after the day of bridge...that was not nice...and he turned to me and said...then maybe we should stop playing together. That was what I had waited for...and I said..I agree.
    My other break up was with someone who over time just became a poor player. After one exasperating hand...when I doubled one heart and she passed the bid with no hearts in her hand...I incorrectly was exasperated and after the hand was critical of her pass. she explained she only had 3 points...and thought she should pass...and then started to cry. We spoke later at her house...and I said I'd rather be your friend...than to lose a friend over let's remain friends ...but agree not to play bridge. She was extremely angry and that was the end of our friendship.
    Ed Roth

  11. All of my previous breakups had one thing in common: the mutual recognition that we were not achieving the results we once had enjoyed, for whatever reason. Parting amicably with mutual respect, we managed this toughest of bridge challenges!

  12. I believe the most important element leading up to a break-up is understanding and articulating to yourself the honest reason why you want to break up. You had your partner for a significant period; so secondly you probably have a feeling how best to approach your partner. Thirdly, articulate to your partner why you think it will be not only better for you, but also for your him/her to discontinue. It's likely that your reasoning is not a surprise to your partner in which case the separation will be somewhat easier. However if the reasoning IS a surprise , than be prepared for that. Your partner may offer a remedy that you had not considered and might like, otherwise be gently firm in your stance.

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