The Thoroughly Modern Guide to Breakups
How to end affairs with dignity and minimal distress.
By Elizabeth Svoboda published January 1, 2011 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
Julie Spira isn’t just any writer. She bills herself as an expert on Internet dating, and wrote a book called The Perils of Cyber-Dating. When, in 2005, she met The Doctor on an online dating site, Spira was positive she’d finally found The One. “He seemed very solid and close to his family,” Spira recalls. He made it clear on their first date that, after the end of a lengthy marriage and a year of serial dating, he was looking for an enduring relationship. “That was very appealing to me.”
She took it as a sign of his integrity. It didn’t hurt that he was handsome, too. Eight months of exclusive dating later, The Doctor asked her to marry him.
They planned a simple wedding. But first, they put their individual homes up for sale so they could buy a place together. They went house-hunting together nearly every weekend. When her father got sick, The Doctor saved his life.
Fourteen months into their engagement, Spira received an email from her fiancé titled, simply, “Please Read This.” She put the message aside to savor after work and other commitments. When she finally clicked on it, she wished she hadn’t. “The email had an attached document. It said I was not the woman for him, that the relationship was over, and to please send back the ring. It said my belongings would be delivered tomorrow,” Spira says. “I sat there and my whole body started to shake.”
Spira had to plaster on a happy face for a few days—her parents were renewing their marriage vows at a family party on the other side of the country and she wasn’t yet ready to tell anyone about the broken engagement. “I wore my ring. I pretended my fiancé had an emergency and couldn’t make it. Then I went to my room and sobbed in secret.” Once home, she cried every day for a month. Then another electronic communiqué arrived from The Doctor. It said, in its entirety,
“Are you OK?”
That was all she ever heard from him.
The breakup left her socially paralyzed. She didn’t, couldn’t, date, even after many months. She remains single today, three years later. Disappointment ignites anger when she thinks about what happened. “It was cowardly and cruel. Where’s the human side of it? Where’s the respect from someone who was devoted to you for two years?” It’s scant comfort when people tell her that Berger dumped Carrie by Post-it note on Sex and the City. “With email, you don’t even have a guarantee that the person got your message.”
Saying good-bye is heartbreaking, and most of us are total jerks about it. Bad dumping behavior is booming, especially among the young. In one recent survey, 24 percent of respondents aged 13 to 17 said it was completely OK to break up with someone by texting, and 26 percent of them admitted to doing so. “It’s always been hard to break up with someone face to face,” says Stanford University sociologist Clifford Nass, author of The Man Who Lied to His Laptop, “but lack of social skills makes it harder. And we’re learning fewer and fewer social skills.”
As a result, remote shortcuts like electronic endings look deceptively appealing—although, at the very least, they chip away at the self-respect of the dumpers and deprive dumpees of a needed shot at closure. Little wonder that hypersensitivity to rejection is on the rise, and it’s contributing to large increases in stalking behavior, especially on college campuses. More than 3 million people report being stalking victims each year, the ultimate measure of collective cluelessness about ending love affairs well.
As drive-by breakups like Spira’s become more common, mastering the art of the ending is more necessary than ever. The average age of first marriage now hovers around 27, five years later than in 1970. Most people are having more and more serious relationships before they find the one that works. The emerging social reality demands some preparation for romantic rejection, given its potential to shatter one’s sense of self. For both parties, the experience influences how—or even whether—one moves on with life and love.
The best breakups, if there is such a thing, enable acceptance and minimize psychic wreckage, so that the pain of the ending doesn’t overwhelm the positive trace of the relationship. For the partnership will take up permanent residence in memory, likely to be revisited many times over the years. The challenge of breaking up is to close the relationship definitively and honorably, without devaluing oneself or the person who previously met one’s deepest needs. Yes, Virginia, people can fall out of love with grace and dignity—if only they learn how to give breakups a chance.
Battered by Biology
Because our brains are wired from the beginning for bonding, breakups batter us biologically. Initially, says Rutgers University anthropologist Helen Fisher, everyone reacts to rejection like a drug user going through withdrawal. In the early days and weeks after a breakup, she has found, just thinking about the lover who dumped us activates several key areas of the brain—the ventral tegmental area of the midbrain, which controls motivation and reward and is known to be involved in romantic love; the nucleus accumbens and the orbitofrontal/prefrontal cortex, part of the dopamine reward system and associated with craving and addiction; and the insular cortex and anterior cingulate, associated with physical pain and distress.
As reported in a recent issue of the Journal of Neurophysiology, Fisher rounded up 15 people who had just experienced romantic rejection, put them in an fMRI machine, and had them look at two large photographs: an image of the person who had just dumped them and an image of a neutral person to whom they had no attachment. When the participants looked at the images of their rejecters, their brains shimmered like those of addicts deprived of their substance of choice.
“We found activity in regions of the brain associated with cocaine and nicotine addiction,” Fisher says. “We also found activity in a region associated with feelings of deep attachment, and activity in a region that’s associated with pain.”
Fisher’s work corroborates the findings of UCLA psychologist Naomi Eisenberger, who discovered that social rejection activates the same brain area—the anterior cingulate—that generates an adverse reaction to physical pain. Breakups likely stimulate pain to notify us how important social ties are to human survival and to warn us not to sever them lightly.
Although Eisenberger didn’t study romantic rejection, she expects that it actually feels much worse than the social rejection she did document. “If you’re getting pain-related activity from someone you don’t care about, it would presumably be a lot more painful from someone you share memories with,” she points out.
The intensity of the pain may be what compels some spurned lovers to stalk their ex-partners; they’re willing to do just about anything to make the hurt go away. Fisher believes that activation of addictive centers in response to breakups also fuels stalking behavior, explaining “why the beloved is so difficult to give up.”
A Time of Broken Dreams
Biology is nowhere near the whole story. Attachment styles that emerge early in life also influence how people handle breakups later on—and how they react to them. Those with a secure attachment style—whose caregivers, by being generally responsive, instilled a sense of trust that they would always be around when needed—are most likely to approach breakups with psychological integrity. Typically, they clue their partners in about any changes in their feelings while taking care not to be hurtful.
On the receiving end of a breakup, “the secure person acknowledges that the loss hurts, but is sensible about it,” says Phillip Shaver, a University of California, Davis psychologist who has long studied attachment behavior. “They’re going to have an undeniable period of broken dreams, but they express that to a reasonable degree and then heal and move on.”
By contrast, people who develop an anxious or insecure attachment style—typically due to inconsistent parental attention during the first years of life—are apt to try to keep a defunct relationship going rather than suffer the pain of dissolving it. “The anxious person is less often the one who takes the initiative in breaking up,” Shaver says. “More commonly, they hang on and get more angry and intrusive.”
On the receiving end of a breakup, the insecurely attached react poorly. “They don’t let go,” says Shaver. “They’re more likely to be stalkers, and they’re more likely to end up sleeping with the old partner.” Their defense against pain—refusing to acknowledge that the relationship is over—precludes healing. They pine on for the lost love with little hope of relief.
Whether we bounce back from a breakup or wallow in unhappiness also depends on our general self-regard. In a University of California, Santa Barbara study where participants experienced rejection in an online dating exchange, people with low self-esteem took rejection the worst: They were most likely to blame themselves for what had happened and to rail against the rejecter. Their levels of the stress hormone cortisol ran particularly high. Such reactivity to romantic rejection often creates unhealthy coping strategies—staying home alone night after night, for example, or remaining emotionally closed off from new partners.
People with high self-esteem were not immune to distress in the face of romantic rejection, whether they were rejecter or rejectee, but they were less inclined to assume a lion’s share of the blame for the split. Best of all, they continued to see themselves in a positive light despite a brush-off.
The Clean Dozen: 12 Rules of Better Breakups
No question, breaking up is incredibly difficult because it involves giving, or receiving, bad news that engages our deepest vulnerability—the fear that we are unlovable. Most of us are designed not only to minimize discomfort but to dislike rupturing attachments, priming us for sleights of avoidance in delivering or digesting such deeply threatening information. It takes courage to recognize we have a moral obligation to put aside personal discomfort in approaching someone we cared for and who loved us—especially when means of ducking that responsibility are so readily available. But courage pays dividends in self-respect and accelerated recovery.
Not only do our biology, psychology, and morality influence how we weather breakups, but so do the circumstances of the act. There may be little anyone can do to alter biological responsiveness, but everyone can control the way breaking up is conducted. Here, say the experts, is how to do it so that both parties remain emotionally intact, capable of weathering the inevitable pain and sadness.
1. Take full responsibility for initiating the breakup.
If your feelings or needs have changed, your dreams diverged, or your lives are going in opposite directions, don’t provoke your partner into doing the breakup. Shifting responsibility is not only a weasel tactic that diminishes the doer, says Paul Falzone, CEO of the online dating service eLove, it’s confusing. Adds Russell Friedman, executive director of the California-based Grief Recovery Institute and author of Moving On, “Trying to manipulate your partner into breaking up, like suddenly giving one-word answers in an attempt to make them say, ‘The heck with it,’ creates a sense of real distortion.” The partner may not initially get the message that you want to break up, but “will start to question themselves: ‘Am I not a valuable human being? Am I unattractive?’ ” The target may also question their own instincts and intuition. “You’re setting up the sense that the other person is to blame. You have bypassed their intuition—they can’t trust what they felt, saw, heard in the relationship.” That kind of uncertainty can cripple them in future relationships; they may not be willing to trust a new partner’s devotion or suitability.
2. Do it only face to face.
Humans evolved to communicate face to face, which provides some built-in consolations. We may experience many nonverbal cues that reassure us of our essential lovability—the quick touch on the arm that says you’re still valued even as the relationship ends. Anything less than face-to-face sends a distressing message: “You don’t matter.”
Some dumpers might think that delivering the news by email, text, or even a Facebook statement is less cruel than directly speaking the truth. But remote modes of delivery actually inflict psychic scars on the dumpee that can impede future partnerships. “When you don’t get any explanation, you spend a huge amount of time trying to figure out what’s wrong with you,” says eLove’s Paul Falzone. “And you’ll be hesitant about entering another relationship.”
Being on the receiving end of remote dumping can leave us stuck in emotional limbo, says University of Chicago neuroscientist John Cacioppo. “The pain of losing a meaningful relationship can be especially searing in the absence of direct social contact.” With no definitive closure, we’re left wondering what the heck happened, which can lead to the kind of endless rumination that often leads to depression.
“Situations where you have an incomplete picture of what’s going on are perfect ground for the development of rumination,” says Yale University psychologist Susan Nolen-Hoeksema. “It can send people into a tailspin.” Many dumpees emerge from the tailspin distrustful of others, making it difficult for them to establish closeness with future partners. “When you begin to distrust others, you make less of an investment in them,” adds Bernardo Carducci, professor of psychology at Indiana University Southeast. “So the person you meet next is going to suffer for the sins of a stranger.”
Dumpers themselves may come to regret surrogate sayonaras once they realize how badly their vanishing act hurt their former partners—and how little concern they showed. “Five years on, you don’t want to be ashamed of how you handled this,” says John Portmann, a moral philosopher at the University of Virginia. Guilt and shame encumber future interactions.
3. Act with dignity.
Since a breakup is a potentially explosive scenario, resolve in advance to bite back any insults that are poised to fly out of your mouth. Preserving your partner’s self-respect has the compound effect of salvaging your own.
4. Be honest.
“I’m not in love with you anymore” is actually OK. But honesty need not be a bludgeon, nor does it demand total disclosure. If you secretly think your partner is a complete snooze in bed, you’re probably better off keeping that opinion to yourself. “You have an obligation to watch out for the other person’s self-esteem,” Virginia’s Portmann says. “Do not cut them down in such a way that it’s impossible for them to have another successful relationship. Why rub salt in their wounds? That’s torture.”
“The message to get across is, ‘You’re not what I’m looking for,’” adds Florida State University psychologist Roy Baumeister. “That doesn’t imply that there’s something wrong or deficient about your partner.” It’s simply straightforward.
5. Avoid big, bad clichés like “It’s not you, it’s me.”
Such generic explanations ring false and communicate a lack of respect. You owe your partner a genuine explanation, however brief, of why things aren’t working. One big caveat: If you suspect that your partner might react violently to your decision to end the relationship, don’t stick around to justify your reasoning; safety comes first.
6. Avoid a point-by-point dissection of where things fell apart.
“It’s not a good idea because there’s never going to be agreement,” says Russell Friedman. “I’ll say, ‘This is what happened,’ and you’ll say, ‘No, no.’ ” Prolonged back-and-forth often degenerates into a fight—or worse: If your partner gains the upper hand, he or she may succeed in luring you back into a dysfunctional relationship you’ve decided you want to end.
7. Make it a clean break.
Do not try to cushion the blow by suggesting future friendly meetups. “Saying ‘Let’s be friends’ might be a way for the rejecter to try to handle their own guilt, but it’s not always good for the person being rejected,” Baumeister observes. Such a misguided attempt to spare a partner pain can leave him or her hopeful there might be a chance at future reconciliation, which can hinder the efforts of both parties to move on.
8. Communicate ongoing appreciation of the good times you shared.
In exchanging good-byes, it’s even desirable, says Friedman. It’s equally fine to confide disappointment that the hopes you shared for a future together won’t be realized. Such statements convey a continued belief in your partner’s inherent value.
9. Don’t protest a partner’s decision.
And don’t beg him or her to reconsider later on. The best thing a dumpee can do to speed emotional healing is to accept that the relationship has come to an unequivocal end. In her neuroimaging studies, Helen Fisher found that the withdrawal-like reaction afflicting romantic rejectees diminished with time, indicating that they were well on their way to healing. But the recovery process is fragile, says Fisher, and last-ditch attempts to make contact or win back an ex can scuttle it. “If you suddenly get an email from the person, you can get right into the craving for them again.” To expedite moving on, she recommends abstaining from any kind of contact with the rejecter: “Throw out the cards and letters. Don’t call. And don’t try to be friends.”
10. Don’t demonize your ex-partner.
It’s a waste of your energy. And avoid plotting revenge; it will backfire by making him or her loom ever larger in your thoughts and postpone your recovery.
11. Don’t try to blot out the pain you’re feeling, either.
Short of the death of a loved one, the end of a long-term relationship is one of the most severe emotional blows you’ll ever experience. It’s perfectly normal—in fact, necessary—to spend time grieving the loss. “Love makes you terribly vulnerable,” Portmann says. “If you allow yourself to fall in love, you can get hurt really badly.” The sooner you face the pain, the sooner it passes.
12. Resist thinking you’ve lost your one true soul mate.
Don’t tell yourself you’ve lost the one person you were destined to be with forever, says Baumeister. “There’s something about love that makes you think there’s only one person for you, and there’s a mythology surrounding that. But there’s nothing magical about one person.” In reality, there are plenty of people with whom each of us is potentially compatible. It might be difficult to fathom in the aftermath of a breakup, but chances are you’ll find someone else.
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