The breakup conversation: it’s enough to incite dread in many of us, or even cause us to stay in a relationship longer than we should. Yet the proverbial “talk” doesn’t have to be viewed so negatively when figuring out how to break up with someone.
In fact, Dr. Michelle Drouin, a psychology professor at Indiana University-Purdue University, sees it as a beginning, enabling people to move on and find the right partner more quickly. “If you know a relationship’s not working, you owe it to both of you to end it as quickly as possible,” she suggests, describing such efficiency as social economizing.
Read on for tips from Drouin and other experts on the best ways to impart the (not necessarily bad) news.
Choose your usual communication medium.
Although it’s commonly believed that difficult conversations should take place face-to-face, it’s not always necessary to go that route. According to Drouin, long-term relationships deserve an in-person discussion, but for casual dating, it’s fine to opt for the medium you’ve used most consistently with that person. (Unless it’s a Post-it note, à la “Sex and the City.”)
Whichever method you choose, try to set the stage for communicating back and forth in real-time, rather than sending out a missive with finality. “Writing [a long letter] is like tossing a grenade,” says New York City-based psychotherapist Rachel Wright. “It’s like saying, ‘Here are my feelings,’ and then running away. Then it’s not a conversation.”
Be clear and firm.
If you’re focused on trying to avoid hurt feelings, you might soft-pedal the message and not clearly convey your point. “Sometimes we think we’ve said things that we didn’t actually say,” Wright explains.
To avoid any misunderstandings, transparency is key. “Be honest, so you don’t run the risk of making things worse by confusing your partner and making it unclear whether you really want to end things,” says Dr. Liesel Sharabi, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Arizona State University Relationships & Technology Lab.
Confirm that your former flame “gets it” by asking them what they think the next steps are or how they experienced the conversation. “If you open up the floor to the other person, you should get insight into whether they’ve understood,” Wright adds.
Above all, if you’re sure about your decision, don’t waver. You want to avoid being sucked back into a relationship without potential, counsels Drouin.
Try to be humane.
During the conversation, show empathy; for instance, if the breakup could seem sudden, acknowledge that. Also, resist any temptation to be insulting or dredge up old drama. “You can just say, ‘I don’t think that you’re my person,’” says Wright. “You don’t have to also say, ‘I don’t enjoy spending time with you.’” Be honest without being mean.
If you want to be friends, let them know.
Hoping to shift to a platonic dynamic? View the conversation as a way to redefine your relationship, suggests Wright. “If we’re looking through the lens of monogamy, we’re seeking out one person only, so most relationships will not work out. You basically want to say that even though they are not that one person, you would still like to find another place for them in your life.” Also be sure to keep the breakup conversation positive, as negativity will lessen the chance you’ll end up as friends.
Don’t feel pressure to explain your decision.
There is no “right” script for how to break up with someone, so keep it simple. “The goal is to give the other person enough information to help them know it’s over and move on, but be sure to also think of yourself,” advises Drouin. “You don’t need to have an emotionally intense conversation [beyond what’s necessary]. Instead, save your energy.”
In other words, sometimes less is more. Feel free to keep it simple and straightforward, saying something like, “It was great to meet you, but I don’t see this going anywhere. I enjoyed our time together and wish you luck.”
Even if you’d like to provide an explanation, you might not be able to do so. After all, in general, humans don’t excel at interpreting our internal states, says Drouin. According to self-perception theory, she explains, we infer our emotions from an examination of our behavior. For instance, we might determine that, since we eat wheat bread every day, we must like it.
Ghosting is only okay in certain circumstances.
If you’ve been seeing someone for a very short time and have a personal crisis, it’s okay to stop responding to their messages, says Wright. Ghosting is also acceptable if the person you’ve been seeing continues to contact you after you’ve ended the relationship, adds Drouin. Otherwise, give the other person a heads up of your decision. Her litmus test? “The longer the relationship, the more they should receive an explanation.”
In your experience, what has been your “best” breakup? In other relationships, what do you wish you would have known about how to break up with someone? Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org!