My goal, no matter how casual the relationship, is to make sure I abide by Dan Savage’s campsite rule — which I believe also applies for any significant emotional and/or sexual exchange. “You must leave them in at least as good a state (physically and emotionally) as you found them in,” he wrote.
That said, this goal doesn’t apply in situations of harm or fear. If you’re in a relationship where you fear for your safety, this requires a totally separate plan of action.
This is about relationships where you’re worried about how the breakup will affect them, and want to make the process as painless as pain can be.
It’s not going to be easy. You may feel a myriad of emotions, from nervousness to regret, and by the end of this, breaking up won’t seem easier — but at the very least, you’ll know how to do it kindly.
First things first, acknowledge the complicated feelings you have around this situation. Even if the realization struck you like lightning, this need to act doesn’t always come with clarity.
Valid reasons for breaking up:
- growing apart in interests, values, feelings, or visions of the future
- mental health struggles and inability to provide care for your partner or vice versa
- change in feelings for the person or about the relationship and/or level of commitment
- differing opinions in finance, politics, or values
- not having your emotional or physical needs met
Should you try to fix it?
It’s normal to feel torn about whether breaking up is the right move, especially when encountering new conflict.
In considering whether to stay or go, it’s important to be honest with yourself about how much capacity and resources you have for mending and strengthening the relationship.
You may also want to consider whether your partner is aware of your discontent. If they’re not, you may want to have a serious talk first.
You can phrase your concern as “I’m having a lot of thoughts about X right now and it’s making me reconsider our future.” This part of the process prevents them from feeling knocked off their feet and lets them know you respect them as an individual, with agency.
If you do try to repair, understand that this may lead to an undetermined amount of time where you try to make it work.
Write down why this breakup is necessary for you. You may have already touched on the reasons but this time it’s about getting the phrasing right. Word vomit can turn our best intentions into confusion, especially when nervous.
If you find yourself down a rabbit hole of listing what the other party didn’t do, start over. If you start pitting your soon-to-be ex partner against any other kind of relationship (e.g. “I see Mark and Jane with kids and I just want that for myself”) start over and make a note not to do this.
The breakup should not be about fault, but it’s also important to acknowledge your roleas the initiator.
“I’m in a really good place right now and I’ve realized I’m not emotionally strong enough to continue a casual relationship” was how I (less eloquently) phrased a reason for breaking up.
- “I really enjoy our relationship but this isn’t working anymore because I’m unable to balance work stress and caring for you.”
- “I’ve thought a lot about our relationship and breaking up feels like the best answer because I don’t feel the same way about our future anymore.”
- “I care about you a lot but there are a few reasons I don’t think this will work out long term. We have different ideas of what a life together looks like.”
File for later:
Think about whether or not you want or need to stay connected after. You don’t have to mention it during the breakup or even work toward it immediately. This is more to guide your mindset. If you do want to have a friendship, or know you have to keep talking, you don’t want to leave the other person unsteady.
I know from personal experience that one of the worst things that can happen in a breakup is leaving someone feeling “less than” for who they are or what they can’t control.
In my case, it took weeks of therapy and support to stop hating myself for having depression. The same therapy work also revealed I had been harboring years of self-blame from my very first break up, where they ended things because I was inexperienced.
Running it past your friends who may live with the same experience as your partner, such as mental health, chronic disorders, and disabilities, can help you share concerns without stigmatizing or shaming.
In editing, we call this “sensitivity reading.” If you don’t have friends with similar conditions, consider paying for a sensitivity reader.
Try your best to avoid having the conversation where you’re most comfortable or where there’s been an emotional connection, since your partner may consider it a safe space.
If they’re unaware that a break up is pending, arriving to a place where they have comforting memories only to find a relationship death occurring can be traumatizing. (Trauma, defined, is not only about physical pain but the distressing experience of feeling unsafe.)
Find a cafe or bar neither of you have been to. If this is a more casual relationship, find a place you like that they don’t know about.
If you live together
When it comes to living together, chances are whoever’s name is on the lease would keep the place. However, even if it’s your name on the lease, if you’re the one initiating the breakup, consider reaching out to someone you trust ahead of time to see if you can stay with them.
If you’re in a long distance relationship, you’ll need to be even more communicative. It might be checking in every day with the person about how you’ve been feeling. And then sync up on your schedules beforehand.
Don’t set up a video conversation for after work on a Monday or 30 minutes before they go to work. Consider breaking up on a Friday so grieving can happen over the weekend.
Try something like, “I’m scared and anxious right now but I’ve given it a lot of thought and breaking up is the best decision.”
Acknowledging your vulnerabilities helps the other person see you’re not completely emotionless and may contextualize any awkwardness.
And it will get awkward.
Don’t beat around the bush. If you’ve done the work of giving them a heads up (or even if you haven’t), having a seemingly ordinary conversation will be off-putting once they hear the news. It invalidates and creates an atmosphere of mistrust, which can interfere with their processing down the line.
In a situation like this, speaking from your gut and emotions may not give them the answers they need. Notes may feel contrived but bring them if they help you focus and stay on point.
Let them know you prepared this beforehand because you wanted to respect their time and give them clarity.
Often, unless they agree with the breakup, emotions that come forth will be reactive. It may not be a reflection of you, but of the vulnerability of the situation.
Anger, sadness, denial, or hopeful negotiation are common because, essentially, they’re grieving before they know it.
Stick to your decision as they grieve. The best you can do is acknowledge how painful it is and reiterate your reasons without shifting blame.
If the breakup is mutual, you may want to talk about how to handle social challenges in the moment and what to do about shared friendships and future social obligations.
While the situation may be uncomfortable, remember you’ve likely been stewing on this breakup longer than they have. Give them time to feel like they’ve asked all their questions and shared their side.
Be prepared for periods of silence and even crying but, regardless of emotions, stay clear about your reasons and listen to theirs.
How to respond to complicated questions:
- Remember, “I don’t know” is a valid statement.
- You can repeat your answer if they say the same question. Try “It’s like I said earlier…”
- It’s okay to say “I’m sorry” if there’s nothing else to say.
More often than not, people come into relationships without fully unpacking the last one.
If you want to leave them feeling confident about what was real and what wasn’t, let them ask their questions as this will help both of you process after the breakup. Achieving clarity will help both of you stick to the facts.
Losing a genuine connection is a bit like losing an eye. Your world will feel off kilter and you may experience some regrets. It’s normal.
When you were together, the world widened a bit, but now that vision has shifted. It will feel like you’re getting half of what you used to see.
Breakup-er or breakup-ee, you need to work on what it’s like to find yourself again.
This process can take anywhere from a few days, months, or even years. The best you can do is reach out to your inner circle so they can support you.
Don’t be afraid to ugly cry. One of the best ways to soothe that aching loneliness is to be loved while vulnerable. Has someone fed you ice cream while you’re crying? Been burritoed into a blanket while you’re completely useless? It’s not the same type of companionship but it will help.
Archive reminders of the relationship
Consider blocking or removing social media accounts. If there are gifts and photos, put them in a box or on a drive. You can always come back to them after you’ve processed the breakup.
Allowing yourself to be constantly reminded of your ex will only prolong the grieving process.
Handling the breakup respectfully and compassionately is one way of guaranteeing a friendship down the line. If you were friends before or socialize in the same circles, it may be easier to slip back into friendship.
However, you do not need to make this decision right away.
When to reach out:
If you feel you weren’t your best self during the breakup, you can always reach out and ask for forgiveness. Do this over text, not in person, if the break up is still fresh.
But reaching out for closure, processing, or a reconnection really depends on when you’re ready to. Doing so after you’ve focused on prioritizing you and relearning individual self-care is probably a good measurement of time.
When you do reach out, be prepared:
- to hear they aren’t ready to talk or to not get helpful answers
- with questions, whether it’s learning for the next relationship or figuring out what went wrong
- to answer what didn’t work out from your perspective and why
- to talk about what’s next moving forward
If they reach out when you aren’t ready, it’s okay to let them know you’re still processing, but also realize the ball would then be in your court to reach out.
The unfortunate reality is that not everyone can or will get closure and, sometimes, by the time one person is ready to talk, the other person may have moved on (figuratively or literally).
All breakups, no matter the length of time or how many times you’ve done it, will be different.
Longer relationships or ones where you live together may have a decoupling phase, where intimacy is used as a way to say goodbye. You may even possibly have a better relationship post-breakup.
None of these potential post-breakup scenarios will make breaking up easier though.
A break up can change the way a relationship was experienced and it may take a while to sort through these emotions, to identify which chaotic thought loops belong to the relationship — and what might actually have nothing to do with the relationship at all.
However, good feelings about the relationship can still exist.
If you don’t want them to second-guess the past, or you, then the best thing you can do is take your emotional and mental baggage with you — and put back all their equipment you borrowed, or used together, during this time.
Leave them as close as possible in the same state you found them, so they aren’t looking for themselves in the dark, thinking they’re looking for you.
Christal Yuen is a senior editor at Greatist, covering all things beauty and wellness. Find her musing about wellness on Twitter.