Originally published on Forbes.com.
“When I first heard ‘Everyday is like Sunday’ I felt very jealous,” said R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe. He was talking to former Smith’s singer Morrissey, who had just released his first solo album. Stipe, apparently, dreamed of a solo career. But not Morrissey. “I didn’t ever want to go solo,” Morrissey responded, as recounted in his memoir, Autobiography, “I thought the Smiths would run for at least thirty albums.”
In the years after this conversation, R.E.M. made their biggest selling albums, Out of Time and Automatic for the People, which together sold more than 35 million copies worldwide. Morrissey seems to think the Smiths could have reached similar heights. “Groups disband because they dry up; the Smiths broke up as their powers increased,” he notes.
As I’ve written elsewhere, even the best teams can be stifling for creative people. What the conversation between the two former lead singers makes apparent, however, is that Morrissey was not the one feeling stifled by the Smiths. Rather, it was guitarist Johnny Marr who wanted out. He was itching to do things other than making Smiths music. “The major reason for me going,” Marr told the British music magazine NME, “was simply that there are things I want to do, musically, that there is just not scope for in The Smiths.”
Unable to communicate his frustration effectively to his band, Marr bought a one-way ticket to Los Angeles, started playing with the Talking Heads and broke off contact with his Smiths band mates. “Monogamous I, polygamous he,” sighs Morrissey in his book. No drama, no tension. In fact, the recording of their final album had gone exceptionally smoothly (Marr told NME, “I’ve got absolutely no problem with what The Smiths are doing. The stuff we’ve just done for the new album is great, the best we’ve ever done. I’m really proud of it”). Just a disappearing act followed by a press heyday declaring the that band is defunct and the two principles are at war. It was a most unfortunate self-fulfilling prophecy.
Why were the Smiths no longer? Morrissey has no idea. He remains baffled by his band’s breakup to this day. “The seething rot that had shot the Smiths down remained undisclosed by Johnny,” he writes.
We know from research on relationships—both personal and business—that the extent to which people communicate directly about their discontent affects the outcome of their breakup. When people choose to withdraw silently rather than communicate directly, as Marr did by moving to California and playing with other bands, they hurt their partners and undermine the possibility of future reconciliation.
A more direct approach would have been for Marr to address his concerns directly with his band and negotiate a solution, perhaps a temporary hiatus from the Smiths. Even if direct communication would not have prevented the Smiths from splitting, it may have left relationship in better shape for a possible reunion.
Instead, the band met again in the courtroom during a lengthy and bitter lawsuit about the distribution of royalties. Despite being on the same side—both Morrissey and Marr were sued by former drummer Mike Joyce—they were unable to work together as a united front.
Because of their inability to communicate directly and constructively, The Smiths are never, ever getting back together. As Morrissey famously told Uncut in 2006, “I would rather eat my own testicles than reform The Smiths.” That’s too bad. With no apparent animosity triggering the breakup, it seems that the way the separation was handled did more damage to the Smith’s future than anything about their working relationship ever did.
In business as in personal relationships, there can be such a thing as a beautiful exit, one that “avoids, as much as possible, hurting the disengager, the other party, and the connected network.” Being good at relationships means knowing how to end it in a constructive rather than a destructive way.
The experience of the Smiths points to the importance of exiting a relationship gracefully. If you are thinking of exiting a relationship, don’t expect others to guess what you are thinking. Let them know respectfully why you are disengaging. In the process, you may be able to salvage the positive aspects of your connection and keep the option open of working together again.