How To Break Up With Someone Without Looking Like The Bad Guy

Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
By Katherine Schreiber

It’s over. It doesn’t matter why you can no longer continue seeing your S.O. (hey, we don’t need to know the details) — things simply must come to an end.

The thing is, initiating that breakup is by no means easy, in part because we know how agonizing it can be for the person we’re leaving behind. Science confirms getting dumped is one of the most painful parts of being a human. Being broken up with can interfere with our stamina to pursue personal goals, leave us feeling less clear about who we are, and put a serious dent in our life satisfaction.

But none of those are reasons to stay in an unhappy relationship — and luckily, there are a few things you can do to mitigate the split with your soon-to-be ex.

Find the right words (and the courage).
Although texting may take less guts, you’ll enjoy a much smoother ending by finding a mutually convenient time to talk face-to-face with your partner. Yes, that means breaking up via social media or a third party is totally out of the question.

Be ready for that awkward “we need to end this” conversation by coming with a few things: a firm sense of what’s making you feel angry, hurt, or disappointed, what you’re really looking for, and what was good about the relationship as well as the qualities you respect and admire in your partner, says Lois Gold, a retired therapist and author of The Healthy Divorce.

Equally important is the tone of the talk. The more forthright and caring we are when delivering the bad news that it’s time to end things, the better the emotional outcomes are for both partners.

“Emphasizing the good things that came from the past, trying to prevent your partner from having hard feelings, and taking blame for your part in the breakup — even if you don’t feel you were the only cause — also reduces the amount of depression and stress the person being left may feel,” says Corinne Zimmerman, PhD, professor of psychology at Illinois State University, who has studied communication in close relationships (including those that dissolve). So don’t forget to add in a little bit of emotional validation to the mix — à la “I know this is hard,” “I hear where you’re coming from,” or “I feel bad about the way this is going.”
Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
This all adds up to an open, honest discussion about why things aren’t working out — i.e., no finger-pointing or accusation. “Rather than blaming the other person for all the things they did wrong in your opinion or the ways in which they did not meet your needs, it’s better to be less judgmental and frame it in terms of what was and wasn’t working for you,” Gold says.

At a loss for words? How about something like: "I feel like we’re in different places in our lives, and while I admire your decision to put your career first, I really want someone who can travel with me and try new things." Or: "I think it’s great that you have so many interests in the bedroom, but I’m not comfortable exploring them with you and I need you to respect that." Or: "I feel like I’m constantly sacrificing my schedule to accommodate your availability, but I feel you don’t do the same for me."

End it. For real.
Abandon the idea that closure is an actual thing, Gold says, because you’re not going to feel it. (Sorry.) Instead, focus on a close second: clarity. “Having a conversation where you voice your needs, express your vulnerabilities, and put into words what was and wasn’t working will allow you to come away from a breakup with greater understanding about who you are — and what you’ll want to look for in a partner going forward,” Gold says.

Clarity also means committing to the end. “Ambiguity over whether a relationship is truly over keeps you tied to a particular person and prevents you from moving on, pursuing alternative partners, and redefining your identity outside the relationship,” says René M. Dailey, PhD, associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin’s Department of Communication Studies. Her research confirms that folks tethered to on-again, off-again relationships are more stressed and frustrated with their love lives than those with less tumultuous bonds.
Illustrated by Elliot Salazar.
Dailey recommends resisting any urges to contact your ex, lurk on their social media feeds, or respond in depth to their calls, posts, or other forms of communication. You can cordially let your ex know that the reason you’re letting their calls go to voicemail, not texting back, or un-following them on Instagram is for both of your own good, Gold adds. (For example: “I’m sorry if this hurts you and I truly hope you can find a way to heal, but in order for me to move on, I need to cease communication.”)

By establishing these boundaries for your own mental health, you’re also benefitting the person you broke up with. Staying in contact can instill the kind of false hope that keeps people coming back to a partnership that just won’t work out, says Gary Lewandowski Jr., PhD, professor and chair of the department of psychology at Monmouth University and co-creator of Science of Relationships. “Breakups happen to relationships that aren’t that great in the first place," he says. "By getting out, you’re saving each partner from more pain and trauma in long term."

Breakups suck. But we can make them a little less awful by being nicer to the person we’re cutting ties with. Openness, honesty, and kindness are as crucial to moving on, as is standing by our decision to leave. It’s okay to feel lonely, scared, and angry following a relationship’s end. And if we do our best to approach the parting in as cordial a way as possible (and pay attention to the upside of being unencumbered again), the inevitable emotional wounds we experience (and cause) are likely to heal a lot faster.

Next: This Classic Dating Advice Is Actually Terrible

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