“We need to talk” is quite possibly the most terrifying phrase in the English language. Realising you’re ready to end a relationship can feel like a nightmare, and many people have significant anxiety around the concept of breaking up with someone.
Determining how to break up with someone you love is never easy, confirms Susan Zinn, LPCC, LMHC, NCC, licensed psychotherapist, certified trauma specialist, founder of Westside Counseling Center in Santa Monica, and co-author of The Epiphanies Project. “However, staying in a relationship with somebody you no longer want to be with is unkind. You’re wasting their time and their ability to meet someone else. Avoiding a breakup only leads to more pain for the person later on.”
But, when the time is right, “there are things you can do to make it easier on both of you,” says Zinn. “One of the most important elements to a healthy breakup is to be honest while also keeping the other person’s feelings in mind. There will never be a perfect time to break up, but there are certain situations that you should avoid.”
Ahead, your ultimate guide to breaking up in the best way possible.
How to know when it’s time to break up
Before you take action, spend some time ensuring a breakup is the best step for you. “It’s imperative to be sure you want to end the relationship,” says Zinn. “Even if you change your mind and decide to give the relationship another shot, the breakup will create a wound in the relationship that will need repair, and it may even be irreparable. If you still love someone and want to make the relationship work, always consider therapy before a breakup. Couples counselling can teach you tools to create healthier communication that can lead to a happier relationship.”
How do you perform a gut check? Consider this: if you believe that there is a boundary — or boundaries — that have been crossed, and they are “egregious, part of a pattern, and compulsive,” this could be your cue to end things, says Jeff Gardere, PhD, a board-certified clinical psychologist and medical advisor to Ro Mind, a digital mental health platform. For example, if you tell your partner to stop glancing at your phone over your shoulder, and then they proceed to break into your phone when they think you’re unaware, that “shows bad judgement fueled by compulsive behaviour” and “would be grounds for a breakup,” says Gardere.
This is a highly personal experience, and will come down to you trusting your judgment. “We have to trust our heart, which is our higher wisdom, to know when a relationship feels like we are no longer aligned; we can’t look at others as a way to ‘complete us’,” says Zinn. “When we have a heart-knowing that the relationship is no longer working, it’s time to cut the cord.”
How to deal with pre-breakup anxiety
So you’re feeling certain but you’re still anxious. “Ask yourself what the source of the anxiety is,” says Gerdere. “Is it because you’re afraid of hurting their feelings? Are you feeling anxious because you don’t know whether the person might overreact and become hurtful to themselves or act out against you?” Maybe you’re afraid to be alone, he suggests. Here’s what to do in each case.
You’re afraid of hurting their feelings: In this case, your best bet is to “be professional, kind, and humane with the breakup,” says Gardere. (More specifics on how to go about that shortly.)
You’re afraid of an extreme reaction: “In that case, you must prioritise both of your safety,” he says. “That might mean getting advice from a professional counsellor or breaking up in a public space where you can easily reach out for help. You can also break up over Zoom or telephone if you’re really afraid of an extreme reaction, especially violence. If there’s the potential of an extreme reaction happening, it’s yet another sign that this is a high-maintenance relationship that may not be healthy.”
“It’s important to keep setting a firm boundary communicating your desire to break up,” says Zinn. “If the behaviours become too intense, this may be a time to consider no contact. Manipulation, bargaining, or pleading should never be a reason to stay in a relationship nor feel like you ‘have’ to stay because someone else is only thinking about what they want and disregarding your feelings. In the end, it only makes the breakup toxic and more challenging to have any hopes of a friendship in the future.”
You’re afraid to be alone: “There’s a different underlying issue here,” says Gardere. “In these cases, you need to work on yourself and deal with your own emotional issues, including perhaps dependency or avoidant personality issues. Break up and start working on yourself simultaneously. You can do self-work through easy online reading resources and support groups, and of course, therapy is helpful.”
You’re generally anxious: “To overcome the anxiety hurdle of a breakup, take time to understand why you’re initiating the breakup: for your personal growth and the growth of your soon-to-be ex-partner,” says Gardere. “You can also talk to a friend whom you believe to be impartial or even a therapist to help with self-reflection.”
Five breakup dos
When you’re ready to take action, here’s how to break up with someone.
- DO: Schedule it in the right place. “Make sure it’s scheduled in a place that offers little distraction, that is private (unless you’re concerned for your safety), and where you can be humane,” says Gardere.
- DO: Give them a heads up. “You may want to send them a text or an email in advance expressing your desire to have a serious discussion,” says Zinn.
- DO: Use “I” statements. If you’re wondering how to break up with someone nicely, this one’s key. Without using the whole cliché “it’s not you, it’s me” thing, try to focus on your feelings and experience to avoid making your partner feel like they are to blame for the relationship ending. “When you’re having the breakup conversation, it’s important to communicate your feelings using ‘I’ statements,” says Zinn. Examples include “I want to be a bigger priority in my partner’s life,” or “I feel there are difficulties with our communication, and I don’t see a way to repair it,” she says.
- DO: Be honest. “By being honest, you’ll eliminate the mystery and may help your ex move on more quickly instead of constantly wondering why you ended the relationship and what they could have done differently,” says Zinn. “One of the main reasons many people struggle after a breakup is not understanding why the relationship did not work.”
- DO: Protect their self-esteem. “While everybody deserves the truth, at the same time, be conscious about your ex’s feelings since certain things don’t serve any constructive purpose,” says Zinn. “For example, if something has been particularly challenging in the relationship, you should tell your ex, reminding them you’ve discussed it already and you don’t see a way forward. And, at all costs, try your best to protect their self-esteem, staying away from comments that would unnecessarily hurt your ex’s feelings.”
Eight breakup don’ts
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And now, the mistakes to avoid when breaking it off.
- DON’T: Break up over text or email. “Remember when Carrie was broken up with over a post-it note in Sex and the City?” asks Zinn. Don’t be that person. “If you care about someone enough to be in a relationship with them for a period of time, you owe them the respect to have an in-person conversation,” says Zinn. (Reminder, this one doesn’t apply if you’re concerned for your safety.)
- DON’T: Surprise them. A breakup out of the blue can feel especially devastating. “One of the best ways to eliminate unnecessary pain for your soon-to-be-ex is not to surprise them with the breakup by blurting it out at an inappropriate time,” says Zinn. “Give them the time, and respect, to emotionally prepare and seek the necessary support for the end of your relationship.”
- DON’T: Break up right after having sex. “This should go without saying, but it’s something I hear too often in my practice,” says Zinn. Having sex “one last time,” and then breaking up with them “can be incredibly confusing and hurtful, making the person feel used and even causing distrust in their future relationships.”
- DON’T: Break up with someone going through a personal crisis. “Avoid a breakup, if at all possible, when someone is dealing with a personal crisis like a death in the family or an illness,” says Zinn. “However, if the situation is ongoing, you should consider communicating your feelings, so the person doesn’t expect to count on your support and create a deeper bond.”
- DON’T: Break up in the middle of a fight. “Never end a relationship in the heat of the moment,” says Zinn. “You may regret your decision once the argument is over.”
- DON’T: Break up in front of other people. This is probably obvious, but don’t pull a Legally Blonde and break up with someone in a restaurant. “Breakups can be very emotional and need privacy,” says Zinn. “At the very least, find a quiet area for you to discuss your feelings in private.” (One more time: safety first!)
- DON’T: Take a “break.” Everyone witnessed what happened to Ross and Rachel in Friends. But in all seriousness, “never suggest a ‘break,'” says Zinn. “If you feel that you need a break from the person, chances are you want to break up but may fear being alone. Wait until you’re ready to end the relationship, then talk about breaking up.”
- DON’T: Stay with someone out of obligation. You might be tempted to back out of breaking up with someone because of anxiety, but that’s not in either of your best interests. “Never avoid breaking up with somebody because you’re afraid of hurting their feelings or being single,” says Zinn.
What about long-term relationships?
Things are a little more complicated if you’re trying to navigate how to break up with someone you live with or if you’ve been with them for a long time. These circumstances may have more logistics, and “may result in more complications like deciding who will move out, custody of children, pets, and intertwined lives between families and friends,” says Zinn. “Give yourself as much time you need to plan so you don’t make impulsive decisions you may later regret. This may include not only seeking support from friends and family but from professional resources to educate you on how to handle the logistics of your separation, like a mediator, financial advisor, or mental health clinician, so that the breakup can go as smoothly as possible.”
Once you have a plan though, you shouldn’t put off the breakup any longer, she says, since considering the logistics in advance can put an “enormous weight upon your mental health.” Speaking of post-breakup support…
How to get over a breakup
Post-breakup blues are real, whether you’re doing the breaking up or getting broken up with. “It’s entirely normal to feel hurt by the loss of your ex in your life, too,” says Zinn. “Breakups can be very emotional for everyone involved; don’t expect to be fast friends immediately after the breakup. Be prepared that your ex may be too hurt to remain friends, and this may be a permanent loss of this person in your life.”
“Even if you’re breaking up with someone for the right reasons, there will still be seller’s remorse,” says Gardere. “It’s important that you stick with your decision and move forward. To doubt or be ambivalent about your decision — or get back together — will just cause more confusion and pain in what’s left of the relationship.”
Sit with your feelings
When you get the urge to call them, try to “sit with the anxiety and sadness and the uncomfortability of your decision, knowing that you did the right thing for you and your ex and that in time, the anxiety will fade away and life will go on,” says Gardere.
Zinn agrees. “Whether you initiated the breakup or not, make sure to take some time for yourself; Love can be complicated, and after a breakup, you may need to grieve the loss of someone you loved,” she says.
Whether you’re indulging in the rom-com cliché of watching sad movies over a pint of Ben & Jerry’s or keeping yourself busy and distracted with a project or post-breakup vacation is totally up to you and your needs — grief is processed differently by everyone, and each person has a unique timeline on how long this will take.
Cut communication — completely
You may end up needing to have multiple conversations to fully break up. “Remember, ending a relationship is a loss,” says Zinn. “As a result, not every breakup conversation is a one and done. Many people may need to feel further clarification and follow up the discussion once the initial shock has worn off to be able to move on. However, if someone starts to get defensive, abusive, or aggressive, this would be the time to discontinue all communication until your ex is able to regulate their emotions.”
Once you’ve had those necessary talks, though, Zinn advises that you refrain from texting your ex. “Don’t continue to call or text your ex once the breakup is over,” she says. “This will only send inconsistent messages, making them hope that you changed your mind and making it more painful to heal and move on. Even if you’ve decided to stay friends, you should take some time apart after the breakup.”
“Though it may seem challenging to cut off contact with somebody you love, staying in contact may make it a great deal more painful,” says Zinn. “If you feel you’re too tempted to check up on your ex on social media, you may want to block them for a period of time. If you’ve discussed being friends in the future, it’s okay to let them know that you’ll be blocking them to give you time to heal, even if you were the one initiating the breakup.”
If you’re feeling sadness, resentment, rejection, or anger around the breakup, those are signs you’re not ready to be friends with your ex, says Zinn. “It’s perfectly natural to have lingering feelings of hurt after a breakup,” she says. “When you’re finished grieving the end of the relationship, you should be able to talk about the relationship without becoming triggered, fantasising about getting back together, or going into a tailspin if your ex begins dating someone else. This is usually a pretty good indication that you may be ready to be friends again.”
Avoid the rebound relationship
It’s important that you don’t put yourself out there too quickly. “Don’t try to heal your post-breakup blues by jumping into a rebound relationship with a new person, especially if you’re still in the healing process,” says Gardere. “It’s not fair to you, your ex, or the new person that you’ve quickly but thoughtlessly chosen.”
Zinn agrees. “Even if the breakup is for the best, you will still need to adjust to the loss of your ex in your life before you jump back into a new relationship.” Most people need a few months to “mourn and integrate the lessons they learned” before dating again, she says. “If the relationship was a year or more, you might need more time if you’re still in a post-breakup state of mind. This is an important time for you to think about what your relationship and breakup taught you about what you want, need, desire, and value — and what you don’t want.
Instead of rebounding, “this may be a great time to ‘date yourself,'” says Zinn. “Spend time to take an honest look at what happened in the relationship so you can grow from the experience. I think it’s important for us to remember that all relationships, and breakups, are an opportunity for us to get to know ourselves at a deeper level. Breakups can be an incredible learning opportunity and a chance to grow as a person.”
This story first appeared on www.shape.com
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