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 Social rejection shares somatosensory representations with physical pain. Kross E, Berman MG, Mischel W. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 2011, Mar.;108(15):1091-6490. . 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 Breaking up is hard to do: the impact of unmarried relationship dissolution on mental health and life satisfaction. Rhoades GK, Kamp Dush CM, Atkins DC. Journal of family psychology : JFP : journal of the Division of Family Psychology of the American Psychological Association (Division 43), 2011, Oct.;25(3):1939-1293. .
But that’s no reason 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)
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, Ph.D., 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.”
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 repeatedly don’t do the same for me.
End It. For Real
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, Ph.D., associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin’s Department of Communication Studies. Her research On-again/off-again dating relationships: what keeps partners coming back? Dailey RM, Jin B, Pfiester A. The Journal of social psychology, 2011, Aug.;151(4):0022-4545. 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.
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., Ph.D., 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 OK 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 heck of a lot faster.