6 Ways to Make a Clean Break

Expert rules for separating with minimal angst.

Posted Jan 15, 2015

iStock, used with permission.
Source: iStock, used with permission.

The New Year often brings with it a desire for personal change and positive growth. For most people, this involves a goal of losing 10 pounds, keeping the house clean, or something similar.

But others have something bigger in mind—ending a problematic relationship. If you are stuck in a rotten relationship, it may be time for a change. You already know breaking up is not going to be the most enjoyable thing that you do this year. But it may be one of the most meaningful and important—freeing you up to find a healthier, happier, and more fulfilling relationship.

Gracefully extricating yourself from an existing relationship is rarely easy. Whatever your reason for breaking things off—maybe the other person is addicted and/or abusive; maybe you’re more interested in someone else; or maybe you’ve just reached the conclusion that he or she is not the right person for you to spend time with—you need to proceed with eyes wide open, recognizing that the end of any meaningful relationship, even when it is clearly the right thing to do, is stressful and emotionally difficult. In the long term, however, it can be less stressful and emotionally impeding than sticking with a situation that no longer works and cannot be fixed.

Exacerbating matters is the fact that breakups in today’s digital world are not as clean as they once were. You used to be able to tell someone it was over—hopefully in-person and not over the phone–and then you shoved all the pictures and other mementos of your failed pairing into an old box you stowed in the attic: Out of sight, out of mind. If you wanted to talk about how “over it” you were, you shared your thoughts and feelings with your therapist, mother, or best friend, who hopefully held your hand and helped you process your emotions in a healthy, relatively private way.

Today? Not so much.

Now, breakups of all kinds come with technological twists that weren’t even dreamed of a decade ago. For starters, thanks to social media and various other forms of digital interactivity, it can be difficult to know when your relationship is really over. Consider the case of high-school sweethearts suddenly separated because they attend different colleges: In the past, this typically led to a relatively clean breakup because, without seeing each other and talking to each other on a regular basis, accepting the relationship’s demise and moving on was almost inevitable. Thanks to physical distance, triggers for the remorseful rumination that often occurs after a breakup were few, easing the process of healthy grief and healing.

With digital devices, however, it is almost impossible not to see evidence of a past relationship, regularly, even if you now live thousands of miles away. Every time you log on to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and the like, you inevitably encounter evidence of your erstwhile connection. And there is no way to simply shove the pictures and the smiley posts into a box and not look at them for the next six months. These constant digital reminders can make it much more difficult to move forward after a relationship ends, even if you are the one who initiated the break.

When breakups play out online, friends, family, acquaintances, and even strangers can witness them and weigh in with their (often callous) thoughts and opinions. If you’ve ever experienced this, you know what an awful, gut-wrenching experience it can be.

Plus, when the other person starts dating again or finds a new best pal, even if you’ve unfriended him or her on social media, it’s incredibly difficult to avoid knowledge of this new relationship—photos with the new person, posts about how much fun they had on a weekend getaway, evidence that they just adopted a cat together, etc. This can be incredibly difficult to witness, even when you’re happy that your ex is, in fact, your ex.


Useful Modern-Day Breakup Advice

The good news? Breakups don’t have to be completely awful. You can’t control the behavior of the other person, and he or she may well subject you to some unpleasantness, either face-to-face or online.

If that’s the case, there is not much you can do about it (unless it escalates to a degree where legal authorities need to intervene). But the best that you can do is to keep your side of the street clean. To that end, a few tips:

1. Don’t end a relationship of any kind via text message or by changing your status on social media.

If the other person was important enough to date or be friends with, then he or she merits an in-person breakup. It's common courtesy, and it allows that person (and you) to ask questions and begin the process of finding healthy closure. Further, it provides an opportunity for the two of you to set some ground rules about how you will treat each other in the future.

2. Don’t post nasty comments after a breakup. This makes you look bad, not the other person—even if he or she really was as bad your posts indicate.

To be honest, refraining from posting nasty comments online is good advice in general. Social media sites are public forums, and it is wise to conduct yourself, even in emotionally difficult moments, as if your boss and grandmother are watching. (They might be.) If you need to complain about the details of your former relationship, do it the old-fashioned way—by talking in private with a close friend or family member.

3. Even if you both want to remain friends, you may need some time apart—perhaps as much as six months or a year. (This would include unfriending each other on social media.) Later, after you’ve had time to process what happened and how you feel about each other, you can work toward a platonic friendship—provided you both still want that.

4. If you want to remain friends after a breakup, but your ex wants total separation, you need to respect that. There is a word for people who don’t respect breakup boundaries: stalker. And no one likes a stalker.

5. If you decide to remain friends after a breakup, even if the friendship is only online, don’t keep this a secret from anyone new that you date. (If you keep an ongoing friendship with an ex a secret, then you’re probably not over that relationship.)

You should also consider temporarily halting your friendship with an ex if it makes your new love interest uncomfortable. If your ex really is your friend, he or she will understand.

6. When you start dating someone new, don’t go all out trying to make sure everyone in every network knows how perfect your new interest is.

Certainly, it’s OK to change your relationship status. But instead of posting, “Whenever we kiss I see fireworks,” and, “This relationship makes all of my other relationships look like dog food,” try more general terms: “We are having lots of fun together,” or, “I am very happy in my new relationship.”

None of these tips guarantee a drama-free breakup—and they can be difficult for technophiles used to over-sharing to follow. That said, these guidelines should be at least moderately effective in helping to end things in a clean way and reducing the angst and pain of breaking things off.