The Most Compassionate Way to End a Relationship
Research reveals who is most likely to end things well, and why.
Posted June 30, 2015
At the beginning of a relationship, everything seems rosy. As you and your partner discover each other and grow in intimacy, the rush of infatuation is fun and exciting. It seems like nothing but green lights ahead as you dream of a future together. Over time, those heady feelings will likely transition to a more low-key but still fulfilling state of deeper love. Even when a relationship starts out with no end in sight, however, cracks may develop, and a breakup becomes inevitable.
When this happens, what's the best way to leave or be left?
It's not "ghosting," to use a term that has recently appeared in the culture. Ghosting is simply a new name for the old relationship-ending tactic known in the psychological literature as "avoidance." In ghosting (a.k.a. avoidance), you simply disappear from your partner’s life. You don’t answer texts, emails, or Facebook messages. You let attempted phone calls go to voicemail. Your partner is left to wonder whether you’re even alive anymore, and likely develops feelings of deep despair and rejection. What caused you to end things? Was it something your partner did? Why can’t you even get together to talk things over?
The opposite of ghosting is face-saving, in which partners work hard to preserve each other’s identity. They make the ending of the relationship not about their partner's flaws, but about the fact that things just aren’t working out. Though it may be hard to accomplish, openly but gently confronting your partner when a breakup seems imminent will allow this process to take place with the least damage to both of you.
If this is true, then, why doesn’t everyone break up in a way that allows for both partners to emerge with self-esteem intact? Why do some people feel they have to resort to such cruel treatment as ghosting?
As it turns out, there are some people whose personalities make them particularly suited to accomplishing a humane breakup. Illinois State University’s Susan Sprecher and colleagues (2014) examined the role of compassionate love on the breakup strategies of a sample of young adult college students in the U.S. Noting that the literature identifies closer to 40 (not 50) relationship ending approaches, they added an additional set relevant to social media. By their count, there 47 ways to leave your lover. Ghosting, or avoidance, is certainly one, but social media also now allows for breakups via email and text. These are forms of avoidance as well, but they at least settle the score, unlike ghosting, which leaves no opportunity for closure.
The literature, and prior research by Sprecher, suggests that the “best” way to break up is by maintaining a positive (not accusatory) tone, and letting the other person know directly that this is happening. Under what circumstances, then, are people most likely to use humane breakup strategies? Sprecher and her colleagues believe that the best endings occur in the best relationships—that is, people who, at the height of the relationship, experience compassionate love for their partner will also be most likely to show compassion when that relationship comes to an end.
As defined by Sprecher and her associate Fehr in an earlier study (2005):
“Compassionate love is an attitude toward other(s), either close others or strangers or all of humanity; containing feelings, cognitions, and behaviors that are focused on caring, concern, tenderness, and an orientation toward supporting, helping, and understanding the other(s), particularly when the other(s) is (are) perceived to be suffering or in need.” (p. 630)
If you’re high on compassionate love, you are able to empathize with your partner and your partner understands you as well.
People high in compassionate love agree with statements such as “I spend a lot of time concerned about the well-being of those people close to me,” “I would rather suffer myself than see someone close to me suffer,” and “Those whom I love can trust that I will be there for them if they need me.”
People high in compassionate love toward humanity, similarly, agree with statements such as “When I see people I do not know feeling sad, I feel a need to reach out to them,” “I would rather suffer myself than see someone else (a stranger) suffer,” and “I try to understand rather than judge people who are strangers to me.”
To test this hypothesis, the Sprecher team identified a sample of 335 undergraduates with a mean age of 20 (the sample was 70% female) who either initiated a relationship breakup alone, or jointly with a partner. In other words, none were the partner who was “left.” About 70% of participants said the relationship in question had been very serious; 22% had discussed marriage.
Participants reported (using a breakup scale) on what they did to end the relationship. They also rated the relationship on how compassionate, at its height, their love was toward their partner. Additionally, so the researchers could examine the role of being a compassionate person in general, they rated their own compassion to humanity.
The findings make it clear that if you want the least amount of damage to your partner (and perhaps yourself) when ending a relationship, you want to foster compassionate love while the relationship is at its peak. It’s quite likely, naturally, that this type of love, and the person capable of showing it, will also foster a better and longer-lasting relationship. However, when that doesn’t happen, the least traumatic results will occur when there were strong feelings of compassion present in the relationship.
You can’t always predict if a relationship will come to an end. To predict which ending will incur the least amount of damage, however, find a partner who shows concern for others, not just you. If you’re the compassionate type yourself, you can feel some reassurance: If there can be fulfillment in a relationship’s ending, this will be the most likely way to attain it, for both you and your partner.
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Sprecher, S., & Fehr, B. (2005). Compassionate love for close others and humanity. Journal Of Social And Personal Relationships, 22(5), 629-651. doi:10.1177/0265407505056439
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(5), 697-705. doi:10.1177/0265407513517958
Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2015