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Good and Bad Ways to End a Relationship

Best practices for breaking up using attachment theory and social processes.

Key points

  • If you decide to end your relationship, take personal responsibility for your decision.
  • Do not try to hint or send indirect messages in an effort to get your partner to break up with you.
  • You may make the other person suffer more and for a longer time if you try to let them down easy.

I have written previously about how to mend your broken heart and let go of the past, but what if you are the one doing the breaking? There are better and worse ways to go about it, and there are ways to preserve and honor the other person’s integrity … and ways to disregard those concerns in looking out for your own self-interest.

Exiting a relationship is easier said than done. But let’s assume that you have decided to pull the trigger. The first thing you should do is be reasonably sure that this is what you want to do. There is always the chance you could go back to someone but by that point, the damage may already have been done.

Some people are not so sure about what they want. They may have strong feelings and even claim that they love their partner, but at the same time, they want the freedom to explore romance with others. You may want to have it both ways and you may say to yourself, “Why shouldn’t I be free to explore?” But the question is, does this come at your expense or does it come at the expense of the other?

You may be trying to manage your own anticipated feelings of loss while you simultaneously navigate the other person’s reactions. You may be trying to “let them down easy.” You may even think that if you put enough hints out there, the other person will finally get it and break up with you. Here are my suggestions.

Avoid trying to get the other person to do the dirty work for you.

If you are the person deciding that you want out of the commitment, then you need to take responsibility for your decision. Taking responsibility means that you accept the emotional consequences, endeavor to communicate directly, and take decisive action. If you are the one wanting out of the relationship, then it is up to you to end it.

Don’t try to let them down easy—this usually means dragging them through the mud and making them suffer.

If you tell someone that you no longer want to be in a committed relationship with them, then it is probably kinder to just end it. You may tell them that you still want to be friends and keep talking to them. You may say you still want to see them, and you might even want to continue being lovers. The worse thing is that you keep telling them you love them—even at the same time that you are leaving. But, if you keep this dialogue going, you are giving the false message that your position is negotiable … that they still have a chance. And so, they will keep their romantic dreams for you alive and suffer all the more when you rebuff their efforts to recommit.

Don’t keep telling them you love them.

If you must, tell them one last time that you love them—and then tell them that you will not be telling them that anymore. And then firmly, but gently, let them go. This approach will allow them to preserve a positive image of you in their memories. Don’t wait until they figure out that you are already seeing other people.

Be a person of honor and integrity, and do the right thing.

If you realize that you are never going to fall in love with a romantic partner enough to stay with them long-term, then do the right thing and end it. Many people avoid ending relationships because they authentically care about the other person, value their support and companionship, and know they will miss them and be lonely. Unfortunately, owning this is part of your decision to not be in a committed relationship. So, sacrifice yourself … not the other person. If you have to suffer some loneliness and heartache because you don’t want to be in a committed relationship with them, then you should fall on your sword and take the pain on yourself.

Don’t cheat.

If you want to explore sexual experiences with other people, end your present committed relationship first. If you cheat without planning to (e.g., wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong people) and decide that you want to continue, think twice before telling your partner that is why you are leaving. It is better to allow the other person to maintain a somewhat positive image in their mind and not think that you got rid of them because you were having sex with other people.

Allow the other person to preserve your memory.

In remembering strong emotional experiences, people typically remember the most intense moments and how the experience ended (this is called the “peak-end rule”). The peak of the experience does not have to be the tumultuous breakup. Simply state your position without placing blame on the other person. End the relationship with kindness.

Don’t try to justify your decision by villainizing the other person.

Giving bad news does not have to be accompanied by extreme emotions or expressions of anger. People like to justify their actions. If you decide to break up with someone, you may be inclined to blame the other person for forcing your decision. This might help you muster up some justifiable anger and resentment. That way, you don’t have to feel guilty. It might be better to just take responsibility for your actions. As a character on the TV show Schitt’s Creek recently said: “I don’t do regrets. I simply make decisions and live with the consequences.”

Know the other person’s attachment style.

Attachment styles are fundamental personality traits that indicate how a person will see and respond to the social world, process emotions, and react behaviorally. Read more about attachment theory and the styles here.

Secure attachment: If your partner has a secure attachment style, they will probably be able to go back and forth with you in discussing the issues. They may be heartbroken, but they will get over it and should have enough social support to cope with a broken heart.

Dismissing/avoidant attachment: This person will have difficulty processing strong negative emotions with you and letting you see their vulnerability. They may just shut down and walk away or pretend that they don’t care. They may also become unexpectedly intense, controlling, and horribly distraught. They may become coercive or threaten self-harm in an effort to control your behavior.

Preoccupied/anxious attachment: The person with this style is likely to feel very betrayed by you and abandoned. They are likely to have a strong need to understand your rationale. They probably won’t be able to comprehend how you could have strong feelings for them and simultaneously walk away. By extension, they are likely to want to continue talking and processing what happened. You can expect them to take the breakup very hard and take a long time to recover from it.

Fearful attachment: The fearful style is a mixture of both avoidant and anxious traits. Deep down inside, the fearfully attached person probably expected you to abandon them at some point. So, your actions are likely to be interpreted by them as proof that you never really cared and that you are being cruel and injurious. Of all the styles, they are likely to be the most volatile and have the greatest difficulty controlling their emotions. They may desperately plead with you to spare them while simultaneously attacking you.

After you process this information and plan your course of action ...

Here is the most important point. Be kind and gentle with yourself as you do the right thing. Honor yourself and your chosen course of action while you do your best to preserve the other person’s integrity and well-being. Remember, you are a fellow passenger on this journey of life. At some point, you also are likely to be on the receiving end of the same process.