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4 Ways to Break Up With Someone Compassionately

Studies reveal what people need to hear when it's over.

View Apart/Shutterstock
Source: View Apart/Shutterstock

Despite all of our best efforts, sometimes relationships break up and end. Even when we are rewarding, sometimes gratitude does not grow into renewed commitment. Even when we are motivating, sometimes problems cannot be solved. Even when we do our best to meet the needs of a partner and ourselves, sometimes we still have to go our separate ways.

While it is always difficult when a relationship needs to end, research indicates that some ways of breaking up are better than others. In fact, it is possible to learn how to break up with someone compassionately and effectively. Such an approach helps to minimize pain and confusion for both partners, and sometimes even preserves a friendship.

Research on How to End a Relationship

Baxter and associates conducted exploratory research in the 1980s to identify the strategies people use to end intimate relationships (Baxter, 1982; Wilmot, Carbaugh, & Baxter, 1985). Across several studies, they asked individuals to describe the behaviors and processes that they personally used to end a relationship. The researchers identified 40 strategies from those responses, which were further classified into four distinct breakup factors:

  • Positive Tone: Strategies used for reducing a partner's negative feelings.
  • Openness: Strategies clearly communicating the desire and reasons to break up.
  • Avoidance/Withdrawal: Strategies reducing or avoiding contact with the partner.
  • Manipulation: Strategies involving deceit or using a third party to end the relationship.

As you might expect by the descriptions of these factors, subsequent research showed that all breakup strategies were not equally effective—or pleasant. Specifically, research by Sprecher and colleagues noted that strategies primarily focused on using a positive tone and open communication were among the most compassionate and effective (Sprecher, Zimmerman, & Abrahams, 2010; Sprecher, Zimmerman, & Fehr, 2014). Across several studies, the team found that participants reported certain strategies to be among the best:

  • Finding a time to talk face to face with a partner about the desire to break up.
  • Telling the partner that they did not regret the time spent together in the relationship.
  • Honestly conveying wishes to the partner.
  • Verbally explaining to the partner, in person, the reasons for wanting to break up.
  • Emphasizing to the partner the good things gained from the relationship in the past.
  • Trying to prevent leaving on a sour note or the partner having hard feelings.
  • Avoiding blaming the partner for the breakup or hurting their feelings.
  • Openly expressing to the partner the desire to break up.
  • Convincing the partner that the breakup was better for both parties.

Additional research has also supported the efficacy of such positive and open communication breakup techniques. For example, Collins and Gillath (2012) found that the use of these direct strategies eased the breakup process, reduced negative feelings all around, and even resulted in a higher likelihood that the pair would remain friends after the breakup.

If you have to end a relationship, doing so in a positive and open way appears to be best.

How to Break Up With Someone Effectively

The results of the research above offer some clear strategies for ending a romantic relationship with minimal hurt, pain, and drama. Using them together will give you an even better chance. Therefore, although nothing can completely eliminate some uncomfortable breakup moments, following the steps below may help give you a happier ending.

  1. Be open, honest, and direct. Set a time that is mutually beneficial and not rushed to talk to your partner face-to-face. Honestly share with them your desire to break up. Verbally explain your reasons and concerns in a calm and logical manner. Show empathy and understanding when it comes to their thoughts and feelings too.
  2. Avoid blame. Do not blame your partner for the breakup or hurt feelings in the past. Do not let them drag you into negativity and conflict with their responses. Instead, focus on maintaining a direct and positive conversation. This will reduce the likelihood of ending the relationship on a sour note—and of later regret over saying unkind things in the heat of the moment.
  3. Remember and share the positive. In the conversation, make sure to emphasize the good things that the partner has done for you. Tell them that you do not regret the time spent together, even if future needs or circumstances are sending you in different directions. In short, be grateful for the time spent together and share your gratitude with them.
  4. Find mutual benefit. Even in a breakup, relationships are still a social exchange, and there is still the possibility of mutual benefit. Therefore, at the end of a relationship, it is still important to focus on where you can meet both your needs and those of your partner. If it is within your power and they are agreeable, try to make the transition easier by being helpful and supportive. Try to ensure that you can both go on with your lives in a positive and healthy manner. Although it is never ideal, try to make sure that the breakup meets the needs of everyone involved as best as possible. Leave them better than you found them.

Ending a romantic relationship is never easy. Nevertheless, an open, direct, positive, and compassionate approach can help it go as smoothly as possible.

If you are faced with the difficult task of breaking up with a partner, do so face-to-face in an honest conversation. Avoid blaming them, or focusing on negative feelings, by staying calm, logical, and positive. Focus on the positive aspects of your time together. Try to find ways to end the relationship that meet both your needs and the needs of your partner. If you can do that, then you will give yourself (and your ex-partner) the best chance of avoiding bitter emotions, moving forward in a healthy way, and perhaps even staying friends.

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    © 2015 by Jeremy S. Nicholson, M.A., M.S.W., Ph.D. All rights reserved.


    Baxter, L. A. (1982). Strategies for ending relationships: Two studies. The Western Journal of Speech Communication, 46, 223-241.

    Collins, T. J., & Gillath, O. (2012). Attachment, breakup strategies, and associated outcomes: The effects of security enhancement on the selection of breakup strategies. Journal of Research in Personality, 46, 210-222.

    Sprecher, S., Zimmerman, C., & Abrahams, E. M. (2010). Choosing compassionate strategies to end a relationship: Effects of compassionate love for partner and the reason for the breakup. Social Psychology, 41, 66-75.

    Sprecher, S., Zimmerman, C., & Fehr, B. (2014). The influence of compassionate love on strategies used to end a relationship. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 31, 697-705.

    Wilmot, W. W., Carbaugh, D. A., & Baxter, L. A. (1985). Communicative strategies used to terminate romantic relationships. The Western Journal of Speech Communication, 49, 204-216.

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