Breaking (Up) Bad: The Right & Wrong Ways To End It

Illustrated by Jenny Kraemer.
By John Sakaluk
Many of us, at one point or another, have experienced a breakup. Sometimes breakups are mutual, but more often, they are not. Further, breakup initiators (the one doing the dumping) have an assortment of strategies — like the classic “it’s not you, it’s me” line, or the dreaded Facebook relationship status change — to choose from when dumping their former darlings.
These different strategies, however, are not all created equal; there are, not surprisingly, better and worse ways to break up with a partner. Some are good for leaving your partner on good terms, or keeping the door to romance with your partner open. Others, alternatively, will help ensure you will never speak to your partner again. In a recent study published in the Journal of Research in Personality, Collins and Gillath identified seven of these breakup strategies:
1. Avoiding/withdrawing from contact with your partner — like not answering texts or calls
2. Blaming yourself for the breakup and trying to make your partner feel better about breaking up — “you’re too good for me”
3. Openly confronting your partner, expressing your feelings and your desire to break up — “sorry, it’s just not working for me”
4. Becoming unpleasant and picking fights with your partner to encourage a breakup — “ugh, you really know how to push my buttons, don’t you?”
5. Using manipulative tactics, like telling mutual friends about your desire to break up, in the hopes that your partner will eventually find out
6. Using indirect communication methods, like email, text message, or Facebook, to break up with your partner — “______ is now listed as Single”
7. Using “de-escalated” methods, like saying you just want a break, or blaming the breakup on factors other than the relationship — like going to college.
After pulling these strategies from previous research, and adding a few of their own related to technology use, Collins and Gillath asked people who had been dumped how they felt about the strategies their partners had used. Participants rated the open confrontation style of breaking up as the most ideal — participants felt that it conveyed more concern for their feelings. Participants, alternatively, rated avoiding a partner as the least ideal method.
If this isn’t enough evidence to convince you to adopt the open confrontation strategy and avoid the avoidance/withdrawal strategy in your own breakups, consider this: People who had been dumped via open confrontation were less angry with their partners, whereas people who had been dumped using avoidance/withdrawal were angrier with their ex-partners. Unless, of course, you aim to make your ex-partner angry….
Illustrated by Jenny Kraemer.
What about the other strategies? Collins and Gillath also found that the various strategies were associated with different types of outcomes. For example, want to remain friends with your ex? Blame yourself for the breakup. Don’t want to remain friends? Dump them through some indirect communication medium like Facebook. Think you might want to get back with your ex in the future? Once again, blaming yourself is your best bet. Open confrontation, however, is most likely going to end the possibility of romance with your ex.
Attachment style (click here for a refresher on attachment theory) is a useful indicator of which strategies a partner might be more likely to use. Partners who are more avoidant —preferring to steer clear of emotional closeness and intimacy — are more likely to use strategies like withdrawal (the least ideal strategy), manipulation, and mediated communication, and less likely to use open confrontation. Anxiously attached partners — “stage-5 clingers” as Vince Vaughn might say — alternatively, are much more likely to use strategies like self-blaming in order to facilitate a continued relationship with their exes because it leaves open the possibility of getting back together.
All that said, the bottom line is this: Breakups suck. They leave people feeling hurt and rejected, and this pain can feel just as real as pain of the physical variety. With that in mind, should you find yourself in the shoes of the breakup initiator, I encourage you to take a deep breath and be straight-up with your partner about your desires to end the relationship. She/he will feel better about the breakup in the long run, and although she/he likely won’t thank you for choosing this method, it is likely she/he will think well of your concern for them.
If you’d like to learn more about this research or other relationship topics, please visit Science Of Relationships.