Burning Bridges or Burning Boats

The couple walked into my office, and the husband flopped back in the chair as if he had just been on 100 mile cattle drive. He groaned audibly followed by: “Hell I don’t know if we should burn the bridges or burn the boats! Hopefully you can help us decide and give us a match!“ 

Although I totally understood the desperation, I had to chuckle about the entertaining flop in the chair and the words he chose to express the dilemma.

She sat down quietly, and with tears and a broken voice whispered, “I’m so afraid he will burn the bridge, and I want more than anything to burn the boats!” My thought? “Game on!”

The first two minutes were pretty intense. I quietly glanced at him and respectfully inquired, “Is she right? Are you burning bridges?“ As she sat braced, awaiting his answer, his brow furrowed as if he was torturously pondering. He finally broke the silence by looking at me and saying, “I don’t even know if I know the difference?!“

Although his inflection sounded like he was asking a question, I’m fairly sure it was rhetorical. However, I did not let the golden moment pass. I smiled at him, as I leaned in toward him, and said: “I’m so glad you asked!”

Although most couples do not show up in my office with those exact words, it’s not unusual that I am presented with a similar dilemma. 

Because he had attended my Power of Purpose workshop where I talk a lot about “burning boats” …  I think his confusion about the difference between “burning boats” and “burning bridges” was understandable.

The difference is crucial. Whether you are in a business crossroads, a relationship dilemma, or actually any pivotal situation.  At any critical juncture, I think understanding whether or not to burn the bridge or burn the boats is powerful and informative. 

After I explained some of the differences to them, and applied each of them to their relationship, he suggested that I write about it in “whatever that thing is you do every day on Facebook.” So here we are…

Let’s explore the differences, and see what might be learned for you in your critical juncture or crossroads. 

Seven differences between burning bridges and burning boats:

1. Burning bridges is about protecting yourself, burning boats is about protecting the dream.

Typically when people speak of “burning bridges“, they are burning the bridge to help them remember to not go down that same path again. I’m not saying that burning bridges is never appropriate. But almost always it’s self-protective.

On the other hand, when people speak of burning boats, they are normally speaking of burning any means of escape from the dream.

The first time I heard the term I was with Tony Robbins in Fiji. He was talking about the dream he had to build a resort there. He said that in order to not allow himself to get unfocused or sabotage the dream, he imagined that he had gotten there by boat, and then burned the boats, which were his only means of escape.

So that if there ever came a time when he wanted to give up, walk away, or choose an easier path, there was simply no way to do it!

Sitting in the middle of that breath-takingly beautiful and peaceful resort that had become a reality after “burning the boats”, it became a powerful example for my life that I will never forget! And I draw upon that metaphor again and again. I hope you will too.

I looked at the couple and explained, if you burn the bridge in a relationship, that often entails disclosing personal things that has happened in the relationship to friends, family and neighbors in order to have support in confirming that you should walk away. I explained to them, and I hope you will listen carefully, that I believe you will always regret doing things such as that.

Other people burn the bridge by doing things like withdrawing large amounts of money, or hiding finances from one another. Others actually have affairs to burn bridges. They know unconsciously that that will burn the bridge of any opportunities for reconciliation.

All of those are self protective at the expense of someone else. 

When someone speaks of burning the boats for their relationship, it means that they are going to be so devoted, so intentional, so focused on investing in it, that there is absolutely no way of escape.

I suggest to couples who come to me for help to “divorce peacefully” that they turn in first, burn all boats, and give it their very best effort. With direction, it’s amazing how quickly that helps us all move from “getting a peaceful divorce” to “help us resolve our issues so we can live happily ever after!” But that can only occur after burning boats.

I turned to the husband and asked him again, very directly, “Have you already done some bridge burning?“ To his credit, he admitted that he had over shared with coworkers and some family members about their challenges. I asked him if what I had said was true, and they were encouraging him to give up the marriage and burn that bridge?“ With true regret and adequate shame, he tucked his head and was silent a moment, and then looked up at his wife and whispered carefully, “I am so, so sorry!”

I told him that I didn’t believe the bridge has been totally burnt down, and we just needed to take a little bit of that fire and use it to burn our boats. Then carry water from the where the boat was burning to put the fire on the bridge out!

Always protect the dream. For most of us, our marriage, our business ventures, our goals, were once our dream! They can be again!

2. Burning bridges is done out of fear, burning boats is done from a place of courage.

Another distinction between burning bridges and burning boats is that the foundational driver for burning bridges is fear. Fear of the unknown, fear of what might happen, fear of what might not happen…

Because of the uncertainty, particularly in relationships, it’s tempting to just burn that bridge when challenges arise. When I see couples burning bridges from a place of fear, I remind them that you will leave the partner and keep the problem. Meaning you will begin a life process of burning bridges in all areas of your life until you face the fear.

Burning boat is done from a place of courage. I’ve heard courage defined as “feeling afraid and doing it anyway!“ However you define it, it takes great courage to turn in to the situation, and roll up your sleeves. Especially when your business or marriage is failing, it takes courage to turn in and breathe life back into a failing business or a broken relationship.

After explaining this, I leaned toward the husband again and asked,

“Are you acting from a place of fear, or are you acting from a place of courage?“

He continued staring at the rug for just a moment as if he were going to try to reproduce the rug design on a canvas with paints and a brush. It seemed like a very long pause, and finally a grin came across his face as he raised his eyes to meet mine. He tucked each thumb under his arm pits, and began flapping his wings as he clucked like a chicken.“

After a moment of laughter, I told him that I thought it was a great act of courage to respond honestly in that way. I asked him if he would like to trade in his chicken wings for eagle wings, and he nodded affirmatively!

What about you? Are you ready to step into the fear and go to toe to toe with it in a bold act of courage? I know you can, and I believe you will.

Do not allow your fear to inspire you to burn bridges. Let courage arise in you to inspire you to take risks that will likely create great rewards!

3. Burning bridges is done out of emotion, burning boats is done from a well sought out plan. 

Most of the time when I find people burning bridges, it is done from a place of emotional reaction. I’m not suggesting that we ignore our emotions. However, I am advising that you step back from knee-jerk reaction (bridge burning), and carefully design a plan with great strategy (boat burning).

If you feel like a plan/strategy might take too long, then you are definitely in knee-jerk reaction. And you are getting ready to burn a bridge that you may regret.

With the couple in my office, I asked if he believed he was acting out of reaction or a well thought out plan with great strategy, he acknowledged that the uncertainty was just more than he could bear. 

“Uncertainty about what?“ I asked. His response was: “I’m not getting any younger, and I don’t know if we can work things out or not, and I don’t want to die a lonely old man in a dead marriage.“

I looked toward his wife who had a look of compassion on her face. I asked her what she thought a well thought out plan or creative strategy might look like if it was carried through?

She spoke with the light of hope in her eyes: “We could have that small beach condo we’ve spoke about for years. And go there on weekends to truly enjoy one another. Then we could fix it up and sell it to buy a larger one. And by the time we’re ready to retire, we could have a beautiful condo and you could live your dream, fishing everyday!”

I asked him if putting together a plan with creative strategies to pull together a healthy and rich relationship would be worth that reward.  

He glanced at me with a little boy grin while nodding, and said, “You got any matches? I would burn the boats for that!”

Always consider the rich reward potential from a well thought out plan before pulling any emotional trigger, leading you to burning bridges. There is little to no reward in burning bridges, but rich potential when you burn the boats.

4. Burning bridges is “the end,” burning boats is “the beginning”.

When we burn a bridge, we are doing our best to end something. Sometimes there is value in ending something. How ever, burning bridges is often the coward way to do so.

When I see couples burning bridges in order to end a relationship, I speak to them about living in true integrity. It is difficult to end relationships.

But the healthy thing to do is to put away the matches, and have an adult conversation. Something like: “Our relationship is not working, and although I will be grateful for the good things, I want to be honest enough to tell you that I need to end the relationship.”

I don’t know if it’s right for you to end the relationship (and unless there is abuse, it usually is not the best course of action). I don’t know if it’s time to close your business. But if you are determined to do it, put away bridge burning matches, and face the crisis you are creating with honesty.

On the total opposite end of the spectrum, burning boats is about beginning a new journey. With the couple I was working with, I was able to speak to both of them about burning boats in order to “begin again.” No one who is in a challenged relationship wants to return to the “same old thing!”

I explained that it meant they could no longer communicate the way they had been. They could no longer be so distracted by other things, that they were only giving the relationship (or business) stale left overs.

Instead, we would create a new and healthy way to communicate. We would set standards that would require them both to show up at their very best, and make consistent and targeted investments into the relationship (or business).

I spoke a lot more about burning boats and creating something new. Thankfully, they chose that option.

What about you? Are you burning bridges where you should be burning boats?

As I said to this couple, if you burn the bridges, you will never know. If you burn the boats, that’s a huge statement of your faith and belief in greater things and belief in all that is possible!

5. Burning bridges affects others negatively, while burning boats inspires others. 

There is almost no bridge you can burn that does not have somewhat of a negative impact on others.

I have often believed if we would all examine ourselves closely and look at any and all negative impacts we had on others, unless we were sociopathic, we would make dramatic changes in how we relate to others.
I have helped people burn boats in relationship situations, in business situations, and financial situations and many other situations. But I have learned that 100% of the time, others are inspired when they see people burn boats.

Burning boats is something that all of us would like to do at some level. But risk aversion often keeps us from doing so.

When I have people struggling with burning boats I ask them who would be inspired if they did. It’s amazing how that in the beginning, they can’t even think of one person who would be inspired. But once they get started, the list grows exponentially, and often serves as the inspiration they need to burn the boats

When I asked the husband I was working with who would be inspired if he actually burned the boats and turned in to create something new in his marriage, he appeared to be pondering in agony for quite some time.

He finally looked up and with great timidity, he admitted, “Probably our son who needs to burn some boats in order to follow his dream of going to med school.” Then he continued with a sister who was struggling in her marriage to an alcoholic. If she was inspired she might actually go to Al Anon and save her marriage. Once the list was started, he very quickly named off a dozen more people.

If you burned boats in the situation you are in right now, who would you inspire? Take a moment and write them down. It could be just the inspiration you need to burn your boats.

6. Burning bridges sets limits, burning bridges expands your territory.

When we burn bridges, we pretty much cut off access to that part of our lives. At least for a significant period of time, if not forever.

So why would we cut off territory that might serve us in a valuable way at some point in the future?

When we burn boats, we expand our territory. Years ago I read a book about a man named Jabez who hoped and prayed that his territory would be expanded. And that’s exactly what happened.

The first time I heard about burning boats, I remembered how Jabez burned boats to a life of pain with his wish and prayer to expand his borders and territory.

This time, I turned to the wife to ask her what new territory might be opened up to her if she joined her husband in burning boats.

With a big smile, she said, “I could just enjoy my life instead of worrying all the time… Worrying about what on earth was going to happen.” Then with a bit of a blush, she added: “Maybe our sexual intimacy will be what it once was!“ At that moment, he was all in!

What about you? If you burn your boats in business or in relationships, what new territory might open up for you?

7. Burning bridges reveals our weakness, burning boats reveals our strength.

Finally, burning bridges reveals our weaknesses. The reason that we burn boats is because of our lack of strength.

When I challenged the husband to consider what weakness he had been trying to cover up with the minor bridge burning he had already done, he was courageous enough to admit that he had developed a real problem with alcohol. He thought she was catching on, and he was so afraid that she would see it, intervene, and respect him less.

He didn’t want her to see that weakness in him.What courage to admit that!
When we burn boats, we reveal our strengths.

Although I have worked with addicts for years, both in my inpatient and outpatient settings, this was not a situation in which I was attempting to conduct an intervention.

Later we all laughed (after he had been sober for some time) that he actually conducted the intervention on himself.

Because when I asked him what strength he might reveal if he were to burn the boats, he said in humble confession: “That I actually have the strength to do what it takes to get in AA and become the man that I want everyone to believe I am!

What weakness would cause you to burn bridges? And what strength will you reveal in burning your boats.

I hope that you will take what I’ve written to heart. That you will avoid burning bridges, and take every opportunity possible to burn boats.
Not only is it an admirable thing to do, but you are likely to shine brighter than ever before, reveal incredible strength, and inspire many.
And isn’t that what we are all about as a world changer?

The two gifts I’d like to leave you with are:

• A bucket of water so you can toss in the matches that you have previously used to burn bridges

• A torch to move forward with you in burning boats.