Is Your Breakup Communication All Wrong?

Illustrated by Jasmin Valcourt.
Dr. Benjamin Le
Wouldn’t it be great if ending a relationship could be a little less painful? It turns out that a dose of compassion can help ease the pain.
When you think about “love” in romantic relationships, you probably are imagining what researchers refer to as passionate love — the intense, desire-filled longing for the object of your affection. In addition to passion, however, compassionate love is also important in close relationships. Compassionate love refers to the concern and care people have for others, especially when those other people are suffering. Compassionate love promotes support, understanding, and tenderness. Clearly, you can experience compassionate love for a romantic partner, but it can also be directed toward friends, family, strangers — and soon-to-be ex-partners.
In a study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, researchers identified people who had recently initiated a breakup or had been in a relationship that mutually ended. Participants first answered questions about how much compassionate love they experienced for their ex-partner when the relationship was at its best, and also how much compassionate love they felt towards people in general. Participants were then asked about how they broke up with their ex — specifically, how much they used the below five strategies.
- Withdrawing and avoiding the partner (e.g. ‘‘I avoided contact with my partner as much as possible")
- Manipulating the partner (e.g. ‘‘I became unpleasant to my partner in the hopes that s/he would make the first move’’)
- Using an impersonal form of communication (e.g. ‘‘I informed my partner of my feelings in an e-mail’’)
- Using a positive tone (e.g. ‘‘I avoided hurting my partner’s feelings at all costs")
- Being open with the partner (e.g. ‘‘I openly expressed to my partner my desire to break up’’)
Of the five types of breakup communication noted above, the first three are probably the most painful, whereas the last two are generally respectful and sensitive to the partner. Those people who felt more compassionate love for their partners pre-breakup were more likely to be positive and open with their partners during the breakup. They were also less likely to be avoidant, manipulative, or impersonal in their communications.
The bottom line is that compassion is a good trait to have across many types of relationships, including those that are in the process of ending. The end of a relationship is going to be difficult, but some compassion on your part can help make it less painful for your ex — and give you the best chance to stay friends.

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