Breakups can be painful whether you’ve been on just a few dates or have been together as a couple for many years. No matter the reason nor the length of the relationship, handling a breakup poorly can create undue pain. BottomLine Personal asked clinical psychologist Guy Winch, PhD, how to make this difficult process easier…
Up to Three Dates
If you’ve gone out with someone no more than a few times, he/she is unlikely to be permanently devastated by the dissolution of the relationship, although the two of you may have drastically different opinions of whether you were a good match…and rejection always hurts.
What to do: Often the best thing to do is nothing—don’t call or text, and simply allow the relationship to end. This approach sometimes is portrayed as cowardly or cruel, but there’s a good chance that the other person also would rather let your nascent relationship drift away than endure the unpleasantness of an official breakup. Sometimes, though, the other person doesn’t get the hint. If you receive a message from the partner suggesting that he doesn’t realize it’s over or wants a clear-cut conclusion, then it’s your responsibility to respond.
Even if the other person phoned you, a text message or an e-mail is acceptable here—it spares both partners from an emotionally difficult conversation that really isn’t necessary after only a few dates.
This message should include a positive statement about the other person or the time you spent together plus the explanation that the match just wasn’t working for you. There’s no need to add greater detail about what went wrong—pointing to shortcomings or missteps is more likely to add pain than reduce it.
Examples: “I really enjoyed getting to know you, but I don’t think that it was a good romantic match for me”… or “I don’t think that the chemistry was working, but you’re great and I hope you find the right person.”
Four or More Dates But Still Not “Exclusive”
By date four, your partner has invested substantial time and emotional energy in the relationship and has reason to believe that you think the match might work. You owe this person an explanation if you end the relationship.
What to do: A conversation is required, either in person, by phone or via video chat. You might want to send a text or an e-mail to set up this conversation—“Do you have time to talk tonight? There’s something I need to discuss.” Most daters understand what could be coming when they receive a text like this, which gives them a chance to mentally prepare for the coming conversation.
Explain that your feelings “haven’t been progressing”…or that you don’t see a future together because you “want different things” or “have different interests.” As above, add something positive, such as how much you’ve enjoyed the time you’ve spent together.
If this partner wants greater detail about what went wrong, point to areas of incompatibility. Example: “I like to go out a lot more than you do. That worked during the pandemic because we couldn’t get out much, but eventually either you would get tired of going out or I would get bored staying in.”
Don’t say, “Let’s be friends”—it’s extremely rare for romantic relationships to transition into nonromantic relationships…and suggesting this might send mixed messages or prolong an uncomfortable situation.
It’s usually best not to be swayed if the partner asks for another chance. Your carefully thought-out decision is much more likely than your partner’s emotional response to be the better choice. Alternative: If your partner responds to the preconversation warning text above by texting back that she would rather that you told her now than wait for a later conversation, she’s likely signaling that she would prefer to avoid the unpleasantness of a breakup chat. In this situation, it’s acceptable to end the relationship via a follow-up text. Mention in this text that you’re available for a phone call if she does want to talk about the breakup, although this offer is unlikely to be accepted.
Long-Term Committed Relationships
If you’ve been together more than a few months, breaking it off is going to take more than a few minutes—and possibly more than a few tears. Your partner likely will feel blindsided by the breakup even if it seems obvious to you that the relationship isn’t working. Long-term relationships usually end because of a slow accumulation of issues, not a single massive misstep. Often, one partner considers this slow accumulation of issues to provide proof that the relationship isn’t working…while the other believes that these issues are in the past and assumes the couple has overcome them or underestimates the problems.
What to do: Long-term relationships must be ended in person. Have this conversation in a private place that isn’t your home—private so that your partner can express his feelings and emotions freely…and not your home so that you can leave afterward. Your partner’s home often is the best choice. Exception: A public setting is justified if you fear that your partner might become violent.
Leave no doubt that the relationship is 100% over. Opening the door even a crack for a potential future reunion only makes it harder for your partner to move on. Provide a clear explanation that doesn’t assign most of the blame to your partner or yourself. Examples: “I don’t feel in love anymore”…“I think we want different things”…“We fight too much”…or “I can’t adapt to your lifestyle.”
Don’t back down if your partner claims he can change and the relationship can improve. The issues leading to the breakup of a long relationship inevitably have been discussed before. If the situation was going to improve, that should have happened already.
Be patient and understanding if your ex has questions or a strong emotional response. You’ve been processing the impending demise of the relationship for some time, but it’s new and perhaps unexpected for your partner. Try not to take it personally or get drawn into an argument if your partner says mean things to you—that’s just a reaction to the pain and embarrassment of being rejected. But, if in your opinion, your partner steps over the line from anger to verbal abuse, it’s perfectly valid to draw a line. Example: You might say, “We can continue to talk, but I won’t be yelled at” or “I know I’ve hurt you, but if you want to keep talking, you have to stop insulting me.”
If you and your partner have possessions in each other’s homes, suggest that you arrange the exchange later, perhaps through the mail. Or if the breakup conversation occurs in your partner’s home, bring a few collapsible bags and say, “I’m going to pack up my things…let me know later how you’d like me to get yours to you.”
Suggest that you and your partner coordinate what you tell shared friends to minimize the breakup fallout. Recommend that you both update your Facebook relationship status at the same time, for example…and note that when asked about the breakup, you’ll say something positive such as, “It just didn’t work out. She’s wonderful, and we had a good run.” Criticism of an ex makes both partners look bad.
Take physical cues from your partner during the breakup conversation. It’s fine if she reaches for your hand or wants to cry on your shoulder, but inappropriate for the person initiating the breakup to initiate physical contact, even if
it’s a well-intentioned attempt to provide comfort.
For the first month following the breakup, try to avoid social situations where you might bump into your ex, if feasible.
Bottom Line Personal interviewed Guy Winch, PhD, clinical psychologist in private practice in New York City. He is author of How to Fix a Broken Heart and cohost of the podcast “Dear Therapists.” GuyWinch.com