When a relationship ends, everybody hurts. Most conspicuously, the partner who’s been broken up with experiences the sudden shock and loss of the end of the relationship. But the one doing the breaking up isn’t immune to pain, either.
There’s a great deal of advice on the Internet about how to survive a bad breakup, but comparatively little about how to end a relationship as gently as possible. It may be impossible to get through a breakup without hurting your partner, but there are a few clear choices you can make to mitigate this pain.
First, when contemplating a breakup, one needs to recognize that an effective end to the relationship is not the only thing at stake. If you’ve spent enough time in the company of another person — if you’ve shared feelings and physical or emotional intimacy — you’ll need to consolidate positive memories of the relationship as you move forward with your life. You’ll want to accept the reasons the relationship didn’t work, while retaining the ability to look back on it with warmth. The person you’re breaking up with deserves the same, and will need to experience the breakup in a way that doesn’t overwhelm their good memories. Your goal, in breaking up with him or her as gently as possible, is to acknowledge the parts of the relationship that were good and validate those experiences: It wouldn’t be fair to cast a pall over those memories by ending the relationship in a hurtful way or by “ghosting” a partner. So although everyone gets hurt when a relationship dies, your intention in taking steps to end it should be to minimize the damage caused by the crash.
In planning to break up with someone, you’ll go through a fair amount of distress yourself Depending on how long you’ve anticipated the breakup, you’ll likely experience some form of anxiety or dread as you look ahead to taking unpleasant steps. You may not feel supported by friends or family as you carry out the breakup, either: Typically, the dump-ee retains the sympathy of the social group, while the person ending the relationship is seen as needing less support. You can expect to feel guilt in the period leading up to the breakup and afterward. It’s common to find yourself wishing you could end the relationship without causing pain, even if you know that’s not possible. Lastly, you will probably go through your own (very necessary) feelings of grief over the end of the relationship, and it can be difficult to process this sense of loss while simultaneously blaming yourself.
When all is said and done, though, when you need to break up, there are certain guidelines to follow to minimize pain on both sides. Some may seem as if they’ll make a difficult situation even harder, but in the end, if you do what’s recommended here, and avoid what’s discouraged, you and your ex may be able to look back on the breakup with dignity, resolve, and clarity.
What to Do
1. End the relationship as soon as you know it can’t go on. Putting off the inevitable will only cause the relationship to decline further.
2. Break up in person. It’s essential to be physically present to show that the relationship was important to you. Breakups by text may be common these days, but they hurt terribly and leave confusion in their wake.
3. Be honest about your feelings. It will hurt your partner more if you don’t acknowledge the real issues involved. (At the same time, it’s also important to recognize when too much honesty can be hurtful.)
4. Be clear and certain about your reasons for breaking up. Avoid vagueness. Show your partner the respect inherent in closure.
5. Take responsibility for your decision. Acknowledge that it’s what you want, rather than blaming it on circumstances, or on your partner.
6. Listen to the other person, without defending yourself. Hear your partner out. Answer any questions as honestly as you can.
7. Break off the relationship cleanly. Cut off contact for some time after the breakup, to show respect for your partner’s feelings and to indicate that things have changed permanently.
What Not to Do
1. Don’t break up in public. You’ll need to offer your partner the opportunity to experience an honest emotional reaction, and privacy will help with that. Most likely, you’ll also be questioned about your reasons for breaking up, and it will be easier for your partner to ask these questions if the event occurs in a safe and at least semi-private location.
2. Don’t break up in your own home; if possible, do so in the home of your partner. When the conversation is over, you’ll want to be the one to pick up and leave, and it will be easier for your partner not to have to travel home while experiencing such raw feelings.
3. Don’t offer false hope. If you’re certain you need to break up, it’s better not to leave the relationship open-ended.
4. Don’t try to downshift the romance to friendship. It may feel like a way to cushion the blow, but it actually causes uncertainty and runs the risk of generating more hurt feelings. The goal is to allow your partner to look back on the relationship as a good thing, not to change it into something less well-defined.
5. Don’t devalue the other person. You’ve been important to each other, so try to show your partner your appreciation for his or her good qualities.
6. Don’t try to make the other person feel better, even as you’re breaking up. You can’t be a part of your ex’s support network after the relationship is over.
7. Don’t have breakup sex. It will only confuse the issue for both of you.
If you can look at your upcoming breakup from your partner’s point of view, you may be able to separate yourself from the grief, loss, and worry you’re feeling well enough to think through what you should and should not say. By following these guidelines, you stand a good chance of putting a clear and respectful end to a relationship in a way that will allow each of you, someday, to look back with appreciation on the time you spent together.
Source: Loren Soeiro, Ph.D. ABPP