Breaking Up Is Hard to Do, So Here's a 6-Step How-To
Moving on is easier if you know techniques for ending cleanly and sensitively.
Posted January 24, 2012 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
Few people relish endings. Figuring out how to stay at a job you don't like or how to fix a relationship usually feels safer than leaving because breaking up can yield broken hearts.
Whether your breaking up is from a short or a long relationship, at work or at home, and for good reasons for divorce or seemingly minor irritations, how you handle a termination makes all the difference. How you do the breakup determines whether an ending will create grief that feels like the world is ending or relief like the refreshing breeze of a new beginning.
Interestingly, the same strategy works whether you are the one who gives or the one who receives the bad news.
Here are some general principles for relationship terminations. Then, I'll share specific suggestions via a script for breakup conversations for ending an intimate relationship, though the same principles generally apply to other kinds of relationship endings. The script is formatted for you to fill in the blanks with the details of your particular situation.
One swift cut
In a physical surgery, one swift clean surgical cut will result in faster healing than a messy tear. Emotional severances follow this same principle. Elizabeth Svoboda's post on breaking up addresses this principle nicely.
Here's a short version of how the swift clean cut to end a relationship might sound.
"I've made a tough decision. I've decided to leave this relationship. The match just doesn't feel right for me. In many ways, it's hard for me to leave. There is much I find attractive about you. At the same time, there's enough non-matching, especially about our (specify the most important way in which you differ) that I've decided to say goodbye."
A clean cut
Prevention of infection is vital in surgical procedures. The wound must be kept clean. The same is true in emotional severances. Beware of infecting the breaking up event with negative messages about the person being let go. Any "you are not ok" message slows healing and invites longer-term distress.
Here's an example. "I don't love you anymore because you're a slut."
Name-calling like this is obviously less than helpful. Name-calling gives a negative message about the person, their character traits, their identity. A harsh or critical tone of voice will similarly convey an overall negative feeling toward the other person.
At the same time as verbal and voice-tone negative messages about the person contaminate healing, it can be helpful for the terminee to learn what the problem and what specific behaviors factored into the relationship termination.
Here's an example of giving a message about the problem and about specific behaviors rather than about the person. The "When you... I..." format notes a specific behavior and then focuses on how this behavior has been a problem for the speaker.
"I have decided to end the relationship because when you were flirting with other men at parties, I became distrustful that our relationship would be stable in the long run. Once I feel distrustful, that's like a broken vase. I'm not willing to try to repair it."
Saying the specific behaviors that you didn't like so that the person you are leaving can choose to change these in future relationships takes courage. There's always the risk of the information being received defensively and then responded to argumentatively. At the same time, specifying behaviors that were off-putting for you gifts the person you are leaving with information that they might potentially utilize for better relationships in the future.
Post-surgical healing is likely to proceed more rapidly if there has been sufficient pre-op and post-op communication between the patient and the doctor. The same with pre- and post-breaking up communications.
Sharing information alleviates the anxiety generated by not knowing. In medicine, the communication might address why the procedure is necessary, the risks, what the doctor will be doing, what recovery will entail. The post-surgical discussion might include what happened during the surgery, what the patient is feeling, why those feelings are occurring, and what they can do about it.
Information-sharing communication also conveys the nature of the power relationship. In medicine, in spite of the doctor's clear role as the expert, a doctor who respectfully dialogues with a patient to understand and respond to the patient's concerns creates a feeling of collaborative doctor-patient partnership. The doctor-patient hierarchy in this regard will feel relatively flat, i.e., like cooperation between two equally important people, rather than a one-up, one-down relationship of King Doctor and Mini-Person, the patient.
Similarly, sufficient mutually respectful communication between a person ending a relationship and the person receiving a good-bye relieves the anxiety generated by insufficient understanding.
Information-sharing dialogue also ends the relationship from a position of mutual side-by-side respect as opposed to a relationship of a winner (the person who is leaving) and a loser (the one who is being left).
The latter factor, that is, the power relationship, is the key depression-inducing or anti-depressant ingredient. Collaborative two-way communication can put the healing process on a track that moves forward as recovery from grief. A dominant-submissive, winner-loser relationship, by contrast, invites the healing process to stall, miring the loser in protracted bereavement and potentially precipatating a depressive collapse.
What is the difference between grief and depression after breaking up?
Grieving entails sadness. Triggered by loss, feelings of sadness are akin to the tenderness and soreness of post-surgical wound healing. "I miss him so much," expresses the sadness of a normal grief response.
Depression goes beyond sadness to the experience of what psychologist Aaron Beck labeled the negative cognitive triad: fixed negative thoughts about the self, others, and the future. "I was such a fool to trust him. He lied to me when he said he loved me. I'll never trust a man again. That's it for me on relationships." This kind of negative talk, further exacerbated by over-generalizations, would be characteristic of a depressive collapse.
I use the term depressive collapse to describe the profound sense of loss of power, often described as a sense of helplessness, that people feel when they are depressed.
What collapses in a depressive collapse? Self-confidence collapses like a basketball that has lost its air. In addition, internal energies decrease. I once arm-wrestled with a professional football player when he was thinking depressing thoughts. His powerful throwing arm felt like marshmallow; I could win with no effort.
What triggers depression in the aftermath of breaking up?
Depression results from dominant-submissive, winner-loser, interactions. If one person says, "I'm leaving" or "I'm firing you," and the other has no voice, the person in the dominant position is likely to emerge with minimal feelings about the event other than relief. The powerless person, however, may be plunged into a long-lasting depression.
By contrast, if a termination discussion includes sufficient bilateral (two-sided) information exchange with input from both participants, the termination will still be likely to bring forth sadness but will be significantly less likely to provoke a depression. That's because when both participants have a voice, the process switches from feeling dominant-submissive to feeling collaborative.
How could dialogue make a difference if the outcome is still going to be breaking up?
A brief but sufficiently back-and-forth dialogue offers an opportunity for the person receiving the bad news to verbalize concerns, questions and feelings and also to digest the termination aloud. A termination conversation of this sort creates a feeling of participatory partnership as opposed to unilateral victimization. The odds of depression then zoom downward.
When there has been a two-way discussion, the feeling of cooperative interaction remains in spite of the fact that the decision itself will be unchanged. The person who is being dismissed feels respected along with rejected. Sharing sufficient information about the dismissal and listening to the dismissed person's responses are acts of respect that can be profoundly emotionally empowering for both participants.
What are some nitty-gritty how-tos of an effective breaking up dialogue?
The principles and sentence starters that follow establish a collaborative process even if the decision to end a relationship has been made unilaterally.
I have described several of these sentence starters in an earlier post.
Note that if someone is ending a relationship with you, you can still take the lead in using these principles to keep the dialogue collaborative. While your loved one's departure may still trigger sadness, it will be less likely to trigger a depressive reaction if you are able to keep the discussion going long and collaboratively enough to cover the areas suggested below.
One last key reminder. Be sure to keep the tone calm. If you escalate emotionally, you are likely to invite a premature ending to the discussion.
I. Start with a warning intro.
"I've got something on my mind that I'd like to talk over with you. How would feel about sitting together and talking quietly for a bit?"
An intro works like signs on a curvy mountain road that warn of specific dangers ahead. Drivers can prepare themselves for the challenges of risky sharp twists in the road if they have been warned.
II. Own the decision as yours, and then give it with zero ambiguity.
I have decided to _________.
Avoid we, we should, or worse, I think we should.
Saying we should... sounds hesitant and invites disagreement. For example, "We should..." invites back, "No, I think we should..."
Talking with the pronoun we instead of using I is probably the error that people most frequently make when they are trying to close a relationship.
III. Give one or a few specifics about your concerns.
I made this decision mainly because I ________________.
When you _______ I felt __________________________.
My concern is that _______________________________.
"I have decided to end the relationship because I'm at an age now where I'm looking to find a permanent marriage partner. My concern is that as much as I do like/love you, I see too many differences, both in our backgrounds and in our future life pathways, to become your spouse. In my gut, the matching doesn't fit for me. So I"ve decided to move on."
Note that the rationale of insufficient matching is one of the more digestible explanations for breaking up. A mismatch rationale is especially helpful in workplace scenarios. It tends to feel relatively benign because blame for the breakup is attributed to the mismatch, that is, to the situation rather than to the person.
To give feedback about the specific behaviors that have been problematic for you, using a when-you can help you to keep returning to I-messages.
"When you sometimes talk in a grumpy or gruff way I react quietly on the outside but strongly on the inside. I want a life that's free of gruff, grumpy or angry voice tones. Negative energy is totally off-putting for me."
When does giving information about the other's mistakes help in a breaking-up discussion?
In general, specific frank feedback about the other's mistakes can be helpful to offer if your sense is that the person you are breaking with has the capacity to learn from mistakes. If s/he is likely to respond with attacking the messenger (you) rather than learning, minimize the feedback about his/her errors and/or make the breakup all about you and about the situation (mismatch, etc).
You might ask the person you are leaving if they want you to explain the determining factors prior to verbalizing them. Some folks would rather not know. Others clearly request "What did I do wrong?"
If you are going to proceed with information-sharing, proceed with caution. If you note that the information is creating inflammation rather than soothing or healing, you might want to exit the topic.
IV. Invite feedback. Keep the dialogue symmetrical.
"How are you feeling about my decision?"
"I'm shocked. I thought we had such a great relationship."
Good questions begin with How or What. These open-ended question words invite more thought and more information sharing than starter words like Do you..., Are you..., Will you...etc.
V. Agree and add.
Be sure to respond aloud, not just by thinking silently, to the feedback you receive about your decision. In your response, remind yourself to find something to agree with. Avoid becoming defensive.
"Yes, it makes sense to me that you...."
Chew on the answers you receive, thinking aloud about them. Again, be sure you start by chewing on what you agree with before you begin to add your alternative perspective.
"I can totally understand your sense of shock. I also have enjoyed so much of our time together, so I can see how it may have seemed that I was fine in this relationship. And at the same time, for me, there were pieces missing in the matching that have increasingly troubled me. That's why I've decided to leave."
VI. Conclude with positives. Then minimize further contact.
There is an adage in the marriage therapy world that people have to come together in order to come apart. A few fond words, a warm embrace, and a clear wish for all the best in the future enable a couple to implement this adage, exit on a positive note, and depart in different directions.
One or two subsequent connections during which you discuss further your concerns in leaving the relationship might prove helpful. More than that will probably just prolong the agony of separation. Repeated reconnecting-disconnecting conversations means that someone is not giving, or not receiving, a clear "The End" message. If so, clean up your ambivalence and proceed with one last clear, clean and swift closure. "I have decided to ... and so this is goodbye."
From that point forward, the less contact the two of you have, the sooner you will both put the past in the past and move forward with your lives.
And if you have been the receiver of the bad news?
While you may not be able to control the outcome of the goodbye-discussion so that breaking up will still be inevitable, you are likely to be able to have an impact on the tone and content of the dialogue.
Verbalize your thoughts and feelings, preferences and concerns. Keep this brief. Having had your say, in a respectful way, will keep you feeling a sense of mutual power-sharing.
If the termination does not allow you this option, after several days request an opportunity to have a brief talk, preferably in person, but on the phone if necessary. If the other is still unwilling, you can always write out your thoughts and send them via email or letter. Aim to have a final conversation or send a final message however just once. More than once becomes unhelp for you and also is likely to antagonize your former partner.
What matters is that you keep your internal sense of power and self-respect. If your former partner is unable to participate in a collaborative ending, it may be helpful to realize that someone with higher levels of functioning would have been able to participate in a more mutual ending process. You can feel good about being able to take the high road yourself, unlike the one who is leaving you. That person's departure from your life may in this regard be ultimately to your benefit.
Let yourself have a good long cry over what you have lost. Remind yourself then of the negatives in the relationship. Enjoy the awareness that the relationship's ending frees you from these unpleasant aspects of the former partnership.
Then open your eyes to the new day. As the saying goes, when one door closes, another opens. Breaking up is an ending that invites you to launch new beginnings.
Denver clinical psychologist Susan Heitler, Ph.D, a graduate of Harvard and NYU, is author of Power of Two, a book, a workbook, and a website that teaches the communication skills that sustain positive relationships.