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7 Major Breakup Strategies, Ranked From Worst to Best

4. Manipulating a partner to break up with you.

Key points

  • Ghosting and orbiting are among the "worst" ways to break up with someone.
  • Breaking up with a positive tone is not always helpful.
  • Mutual breakups, when possible, support post-breakup recovery.

Rarely is the end of a relationship a sudden event. Instead, relationships usually decline gradually. Little by little, feelings of closeness and the belief that this is the "right" relationship for you start to fade. Confidence is replaced by uncertainty and thoughts about leaving.

So, when people cross the threshold into breakup territory, what do they do?

Choosing How to Break Up

Breaking up is goal-oriented. So, scholars consider the behavioral choices people make to be the "strategies" they choose to end the relationship. Breakup strategies vary widely. Do they cut ties quickly? Do they have an emotional conversation? Do they blame the breakup on themselves?

Rationally, it makes sense for the breakup initiator to choose the strategy that optimizes their own breakup experience. Selfish? Maybe. But with the goal of breaking interdependence, shifting priorities away from the partner and toward the self may be an essential step. Indeed, thinking too much about a partner and the consequences of a breakup for the partner might lead people to stay in unfulfilling relationships. Evidence suggests that when would-be initiators believe their partner is highly dependent on the relationship, they might forestall ending the relationship out of concern for their partner (Joel et al., 2018). They stay in relationships only so that they don't hurt their partner.

Yet, would you want to be in a relationship with someone who doesn't want to be in it? Breaking up might be hard to do, but staying in an unsatisfying relationship isn't necessarily the best situation for you or your partner. The question becomes this: Which strategies offer the best outcomes, not only for the initiator but also for their partner?

Break-Up Strategies From "Worst" to "Best"

  1. Ghosting. Initiators can end their relationships by disappearing with no warning. All contact ceases, and the ex-partner is left without closure, in a state of uncertainty, wondering what happened, what went wrong, and why they were ghosted. Ghosting tends to occur more for low-commitment, short-term relationships than for long-term relationships (Koessler et al., 2019) and is often enacted out of convenience (e.g., the chance to avoid a breakup conversation), when attraction fades, or when negative perceptions appear and cutting ties abruptly and completely feels like the best option (LeFebvre et al., 2019). Ghosting is one of the most threatening breakup approaches, harming psychological needs and inducing strong feelings of exclusion (Pancani et al., 2022).
  2. Orbiting. Orbiters almost ghost someone, but they do not cut off virtual connections (Pancani et al., 2021). Orbiters might like posts, share stories, or in other ways indicate they are still paying attention, they still have some awareness of the non-initiator. The inconsistency of abruptly disengaging while remaining somewhat connected might leave the non-initiator confused and sad. Orbiting, oddly enough, renders slightly better outcomes than ghosting for the non-initiator. The method may buffer the non-initiator from the adverse exclusionary effects of ghosting (Pancani et al., 2022).
  3. Distance communication. Breakup via text? No, thank you. Not surprisingly, this is an approach that ranks low on perceived compassion (Sprecher et al., 2010). The non-initiator is not left in a state of uncertainty, but they're also unlikely to remain friends with their now ex-partner (Collins and Gillath, 2012). Ghosting, orbiting, and breaking via text reflect what early scholars called withdrawal or avoidance tactics (Baxter, 1982). These techniques, or similar ones that also involve avoiding a partner as a way of breaking up, tend to render poor outcomes, with high anger and distress (Collins and Gillath, 2012).
  4. Manipulating a partner or escalating costs. Instead of initiating, why not make your partner want to break up with you? People who use manipulation might pick a fight with their partner, or be intentionally demanding, annoying, or moody. They might cheat, knowing they might be caught. Initiators taking this approach might suggest a temporary break (knowing it's permanent) or get their friends' help in breaking up. Manipulating tactics are not commonly used and are not considered a compassionate form of breaking up (Sprecher et al., 2010).
  5. Using positive tone and self-blame. Initiators can choose to reflect on positive aspects of the relationship and the partner and blame the breakup on themselves. Compassionate? Yes (Sprecher et al., 2010). Helpful? Not necessarily. Initiators might be actively trying to be sensitive and not hurt a soon-to-be ex-partner, but it can come off as insincere and unsatisfying (Lambert and Hughes, 2010). Partners might think, "If I'm so great, why are you breaking up with me?" Using this approach is more common among anxiously attached individuals and is correlated with a possible desire of getting back together (Collins and Gillath, 2012).
  6. Direct, open conversations. They might be difficult, but open conversations yield favorable outcomes. Open conversations are considered compassionate strategies (Sprecher et al., 2010). These conversations involve honesty and are aligned with people's views on what is an ideal break-up strategy. People are unlikely to get together but also unlikely to be angry at their ex-partner with this approach (Collins and Gillath, 2012).
  7. Mutual initiations. When partners discover they are on the same page about ending their relationship and can talk about it, outcomes are more favorable. People experience more positive emotions and recall having fewer regrets about how the relationship ended (Wilmot et al., 1985). Post-breakup grief, while still considerable, tends to be less when people experience a mutual decision to break up (Morris et al., 2015).

Do these seven methods capture all breakup strategies? Probably not, but they do point to some trends. Regardless of the details, more indirect strategies appear to yield worse outcomes for the non-initiator but may be easier on the initiator. Alternatively, taking direct strategies might require effort, but doing so might provide the necessary clarity and closure that can support people's ability to move on.

Facebook image: wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock

References

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(2), 210-222.

Joel, S., Impett, E. A., Spielmann, S. S., & MacDonald, G. (2018). How interdependent are stay/leave decisions? On staying in the relationship for the sake of the romantic partner. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 115(5), 805-824.

Koessler, R. B., Kohut, T., Campbell, L., Vazire, S., & Chopik, W. (2019). When your boo becomes a ghost: The association between breakup strategy and breakup role in experiences of relationship dissolution. Collabra: Psychology, 5(1).

LeFebvre, L. E., Allen, M., Rasner, R. D., Garstad, S., Wilms, A., & Parrish, C. (2019). Ghosting in emerging adults’ romantic relationships: The digital dissolution disappearance strategy. Imagination, Cognition and Personality, 39(2), 125-150.

Pancani, L., Mazzoni, D., Aureli, N., & Riva, P. (2021). Ghosting and orbiting: An analysis of victims’ experiences. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 38(7), 1987-2007.

Sprecher, S., Zimmerman, C., & Abrahams, E. M. (2010). Choosing Compassionate Strategies to End a Relationship. Social Psychology, 41(2), 66-75.

Lambert, A. N., & Hughes, P. C. (2010). Attachment, and Positively Toned Disengagement Strategy on Reports.

Morris, C. E., Reiber, C., & Roman, E. (2015). Quantitative sex differences in response to the dissolution of a romantic relationship. Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences, 9(4), 270-282.

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