5 Rules For Breaking Up With Someone

Photographed by: Natalia Mantini
When I was dating my way through New York as a bright-eyed twentysomething, I was ghosted a lot. It happened so often, I had a boilerplate email I sent out afterward, one I shared with other spurned girlfriends and always pulled out with a heavy sigh to tailor for the latest dude — sort of a Mad Libs for assholes.

“I’m judging by your radio silence that you don’t want to continue hanging out,” it read. “That's fine, but I wish you would've forgone the slow fade and just told me, especially after a couple of months/sleeping together. Just for future reference, rarely will a girl freak out if you just break up with her. It’s actually the more respectful thing to do.”

I closed by wishing the dude well and inevitably got a quick response (ah, so he wasn’t in a full-body cast or a bubble-boy situation!) in which he apologized and explained that he’d been really busy and had meant to get back to me and blah blah blah. I got to pat myself on the back knowing I’d taken the high road and called him on his shit. But TBH, I didn’t exactly do the hard work of breaking up with him, either. I hung around and watched him disappear, then came back and demanded the last word with a little flash of sass. I get it. We’re all bad at this.

It’s funny: As the median age of first marriage creeps higher and higher (implying, of course, more years or even decades of dating people with whom you’ll eventually split), we all get plenty of practice at ending relationships. And yet, if the endless articles about ghosting and millennial dating habits are true (each of these is its own articleugh how awful), we’re worse at it than ever. For Christ’s sake, there’s now a service that’ll end your relationship for you, like a demented Seamless for the heart. Lord help us all.

But wait, you think. Breaking up always sucks. There’s no way to do it so that it won’t hurt and it’s not the role of the dumper to help the dumpee heal and move on. Which, okay, true.

“Rejection does just suck,” says Joanne Davila, PhD, a professor of psychology at Stony Brook University and the author of The Thinking Girl's Guide to the Right Guy: How Knowing Yourself Can Help You Navigate Dating, Hookups, and Love. “It’s absolutely the case that no matter how it’s done, it’s gonna suck for everybody, so we have to take that as an accepted reality.”

But there is a spectrum of breakup approaches, from respectful to shitty. If you do it in the most humane way possible, you’re setting your ex up for a difficult, but manageable and psychologically healthy, road to recovery. And unless he or she is a complete monster, that should be your goal as a human and denizen of the planet.

So what is the kindest way to end things, according to experts and research? Let’s review. Bear these principles in mind and you can actually go about your day feeling like a high-road-taking badass…not someone hiding behind belated emails and passive-aggressive accusations. Brava.
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Don’t ghost.

Obviously. Suck it up and let the poor person know. It’s your call whether that’s a white lie (“I’m just not in a great place to be dating rn.”) or something more direct, but once the relationship is real enough to merit a breakup, this is nonnegotiable. Trying to quietly disappear leaves the poor person going, "Wait, what, why?" That is a terrible way to feel.

“We all want to learn and understand why things happen — that’s how humans are,” Davila says. “If you give no information, the person has to start searching for that, like, ‘What’s wrong with me?’ And that makes it harder to move on.”

backs her up: Blaming oneself for a breakup or how you’re reacting to it just makes it hurt worse.
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Give a reason.

Ergo, if you’ve been dating long enough that there’s a thing to end, your person deserves to hear why it’s over, even if it's hard.

“You have to be honest and you have to be kind,” Davila says. “Sometimes, those things seem like they don’t go together, but they can.”

You don’t need to stand there and list all their faults, but you should give them the truth, even if it hurts: “I’m not in love with you anymore,” “The way we fight is hard for me to manage,” “I don’t see us taking this to the next level.”

Yeah, saying it aloud and seeing his or her face is going to be awful, but it’s ultimately kinder than not giving a reason, because it helps the person close the door, understand this is really it, and begin the hard work of healing.
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Stand firm.

“You can’t let yourself be talked out of it,” Davila warns. Yes, the breakup will feel awful and the idea of hitting undo will look like a salve for the wound, especially when this person you really care about is begging you to reconsider. But you wouldn’t be trying to end things if you didn’t know it was over. Hold your ground. Get in, say your piece, and get it over with.
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Affirm (carefully) that this relationship was legit.

Especially after a big, epic love, stating that the relationship meant a lot to you and that the other person is a wonderful, worthy person can go a long way toward not making them feel like shit. (Skip this step if your soon-to-be ex was an actual asshat.)

“As long as you’re clear on it being a clean break, it can be really helpful and kind to do this,” Davila says. “If it’s like, ‘That never should have happened, we shouldn’t have dated,’ then no. But if it’s reality-based, it’s okay to let the other person know and then return to why it’s not working anymore.”

suggests that reflecting on a recent breakup — why it mattered, what one learned — helps people move on, as does regaining a clear sense of self. By giving them a clear explanation and a reminder that they’re great, you’re handing your dumpee the raw materials for this.
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Don’t try to be friends.

At least not at first. “In all but the most unusual cases, it’s really important to stop contact with that person,” Davila says. “And along with that, you can’t try to be a support for the other person.”

People make the mistake of trying to help each other through the breakup, but it’s just a false sense of wanting to maintain that intimacy.

“Not having that contact will allow both people to separate and to come to terms with the relationship really being over,” she adds. “Not having those daily reminders of all the things you loved and hated will help you with the separation process.” Again, cruel to be kind. It sucks, but you’re being an adult.