The seldom-referenced but potently funny fake boy band, 2gether, once sang, “The hardest part of breaking up / is getting back your stuff.” While they may indeed be on to something, the actual hardest part of breaking up is figuring out when and how to do it.
Well, I don’t have a script for you, and I actually have never broken off a serious relationship. I have been the recipient of several break-ups, though, and I can tell you a bit about what makes it worse and how you could do it better.
Communicate directly and be straight-forward
Tough news is best delivered without a great deal of sugar-coating. Conversations should pretty much always start with a greeting (“Hi, Dan.”), a check-in (“How’s your day?”), and a reciprocation (“I’m ok, but I’d like to talk to you.”). From there, it’s best not to dance around the subject or attempt a long and rambling ramp-up. You need to approach the runway directly and land the plane, so to speak. Don’t circle around waiting for ideal conditions — get that bird on the ground!
When your boss calls you into the office, and you’re fairly certain (or at least skeptically nervous) that it could be bad news about your job, good bosses will shift the conversation decisively and directly to that main topic and directly state the news or decision. When doctors conclude a serious diagnosis for a patient, the best ones will inform the patient directly of their situation. And so, too, when you want to break up with your significant other, the best way is to address it directly.
Don’t use a line — speak the truth in your own words
I once was dumped a few months into a relationship that started with strong, mutual feelings that came from an initial friendship and lots of laughter and fun times together. After a lengthy period of radio silence, I was asked to meet up for a conversation, and my ex-girlfriend told me, “We should just be friends.” I panicked, continued a forced conversation for an hour after that with her, and then tried to stay in touch. She didn’t engage and basically ignored me.
Perhaps I’m misremembering, but I think she meant, “I liked it better when we were just friends;” and it would have helped to acknowledge that it would be difficult to go back to that. It also became apparent through mutual friends that the death of a family member during that time she ignored me was a significant loss she was still processing. Either way, I wasn’t given a full story to understand the situation and went on deluding myself, which clouded the breakup aftermath for a while afterward.
At the end of a different relationship, my ex-girlfriend very deliberately and carefully talked me through the reasons why she didn’t feel things worked for us romantically. As I tried to understand, she suggested that maybe we couldn’t and shouldn’t be friends. I resisted, but retrospect has shown me that some time and space would’ve been the best path.
I significantly struggled emotionally and mentally for too long to process through that breakup. I think it was largely because I didn’t accept the forthrightness and candor in the perspective she was gaining faster than I was. She tried to give me the gift of honesty, and I didn’t receive it fully. That directness, whether in the moment or over time, is the best way to offer perspective and closure, whether or not someone is ready for it.
Your soon-to-be-ex is a person with dignity
Breakups are heavy because romantic relationships necessarily involve a great deal of vulnerability and emotional investment of ourselves in another person. We shouldn’t approach breaking up with someone as a chance to insult, ridicule, or tear down, though. While you certainly don’t have to be rosy and chipper as you break up with a significant other, you also don’t need to use vulgar language, make exaggerated claims, or throw down intense, personal attacks to complete a breakup.
At its core, a lot of our social challenges around sex, love, and relationships come from not seeing others as dignified, valuable people — from treating them as objects that are simply a means to the end of pleasure or other edification. Even after you break up with a person, they still have a life to live; just because you end this relationship doesn’t mean that person disappears and is now worthless. Leading up to a breakup, remember your soon-to-be-ex has dignity, just as you do, and deserves some basic level of respect, just as you do.
A study by the Journal of Positive Psychology indicates that it usually takes almost three months to get over a breakup. They gathered data on more than 1,400 college students between 18 and 25 and discovered that 71 percent of them could only view their former relationship in a positive light after 11 weeks. The study found that both people in the relationship take the same amount of time to recover, no matter who initiated the breakup.
You certainly don’t have to talk through a breakup with the same pleasantness with which you may greet your mother. You also don’t need to resort to the same childishness with which children greet vegetables. Find an even keel of respect. Consider writing down an outline or choosing some keywords that are neutral. Treat it like a professional conversation if it helps. There’s no solace in tearing down another person in retribution or petty vengeance. If any upper hand is to be gained, it’s by simply taking the high road.
Any relationship leaves a lasting mark in our memories, and the experiences you share with your significant other will always be part of your life — and theirs. In several years, all of this will be a distant memory, so make sure that you’ll be proud of the way you handled it, for both the other person and yourself. Speaking the truth is important, but so is treating your ex with respect and dignity.