How to Break Up Respectfully
When Relationships End
In the beginning, it’s exciting. You can’t wait to see your BF or GF — and it feels amazing to know that he or she feels the same way. The happiness and excitement of a new relationship can overpower everything else.
Nothing stays new forever, though. Things change as couples get to know each other better. Some people settle into a comfortable, close relationship. Other couples drift apart.
There are lots of different reasons why people break up. Growing apart is one. You might find that your interests, ideas, values, and feelings aren’t as well matched as you thought they were. Changing your mind or your feelings about the other person is another. Perhaps you just don’t enjoy being together. Maybe you argue or don’t want the same thing. You might have developed feelings for someone else. Or maybe you’ve discovered you’re just not interested in having a serious relationship right now.
Most people go through a break-up (or several break-ups) in their lives. If you’ve ever been through it, you know it can be painful — even if it seems like it’s for the best.
Why Is Breaking Up So Hard to Do?
If you’re thinking of breaking up with someone, you may have mixed feelings about it. After all, you got together for a reason. So it’s normal to wonder: “Will things get better?” “Should I give it another chance?” “Will I regret this decision?” Breaking up isn’t an easy decision. You may need to take time to think about it.
Even if you feel sure of your decision, breaking up means having an awkward or difficult conversation. The person you’re breaking up with might feel hurt, disappointed, sad, rejected, or heartbroken. When you’re the one ending the relationship, you probably want to do it in a way that is respectful and sensitive. You don’t want the other person to be hurt — and you don’t want to be upset either.
Avoid It? Or Get it Over With?
Some people avoid the unpleasant task of starting a difficult conversation. Others have a “just-get-it-over-with” attitude. But neither of these approaches is the best one. Avoiding just prolongs the situation (and may end up hurting the other person more). And if you rush into a difficult conversation without thinking it through, you may say things you regret.
Something in the middle works best: Think things through so you’re clear with yourself on why you want to break up. Then act.
Break-up Do’s and Don’ts
Every situation is different. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to breaking up. But there are some general “do’s and don’ts” you can keep in mind as you start thinking about having that break-up conversation.
- Think over what you want and why you want it. Take time to consider your feelings and the reasons for your decision. Be true to yourself. Even if the other person might be hurt by your decision, it’s OK to do what’s right for you. You just need to do it in a sensitive way.
- Think about what you’ll say and how the other person might react. Will your BF or GF be surprised? Sad? Mad? Hurt? Or even relieved? Thinking about the other person’s point of view and feelings can help you be sensitive. It also helps you prepare. Do you think the person you’re breaking up with might cry? Lose his or her temper? How will you deal with that kind of reaction?
- Have good intentions. Let the other person know he or she matters to you. Think about the qualities you want to show toward the other person — like honesty, kindness, sensitivity, respect, and caring.
- Be honest — but not brutal. Tell the other person the things that attracted you in the first place, and what you like about him or her. Then say why you want to move on. “Honesty” doesn’t mean “harsh.” Don’t pick apart the other person’s qualities as a way to explain what’s not working. Think of ways to be kind and gentle while still being honest.
- Say it in person. You’ve shared a lot with each other. Respect that (and show your good qualities) by breaking up in person. If you live far away, try to video chat or at least make a phone call. Breaking up through texting or Facebook may seem easy. But think about how you’d feel if your BF or GF did that to you — and what your friends would say about that person’s character!
- If it helps, confide in someone you trust. It can help to talk through your feelings with a trusted friend. But be sure the person you confide in can keep it private until you have your actual break-up conversation with your BF or GF. Make sure your BF/GF hears it from you first — not from someone else. That’s one reason why parents, older sisters or brothers, and other adults can be great to talk to. They’re not going to blab or let it slip out accidentally.
- Don’t avoid the other person or the conversation you need to have. Dragging things out makes it harder in the long run — for you and your BF or GF. Plus, when people put things off, information can leak out anyway. You never want the person you’re breaking up with to hear it from someone else before hearing it from you.
- Don’t rush into a difficult conversation without thinking it through. You may say things you regret.
- Don’t disrespect. Speak about your ex (or soon-to-be ex) with respect. Be careful not to gossip or badmouth him or her. Think about how you’d feel. You’d want your ex to say only positive things about you after you’re no longer together. Plus, you never know — your ex could turn into a friend or you might even rekindle a romance someday.
These “dos and don’ts” aren’t just for break-ups. If someone asks you out but you’re not really interested, you can follow the same guidelines for letting that person down gently.
What to Say and How to Say It
You’ve made the decision to break up. Now you need to find a good time to talk — and a way to have the conversation that’s respectful, fair, clear, and kind. Break-ups are more than just planning what to say. You also want to consider how you will say it.
Here are some examples of what you might say. Use these ideas and modify them to fit your situation and style:
- Tell your BF or GF that you want to talk about something important.
Start by mentioning something you like or value about the other person.
For example: “We’ve been close for a long time, and you’re important to me.”
Or: “I really like you and I’m glad we’ve gotten to know each other.”
Say what’s not working (your reason for the break-up).
For example: “But I’m not ready to have a serious boyfriend right now.”
Or: “But you cheated on me, and I can’t accept that.”
Or: “But we’re arguing more than we’re having fun.”
Or: “But it just doesn’t feel right anymore.”
Or: “But there’s someone else.”
Say you want to break up.
For example: “So, I want to break up.”
Or: “So I want us to be friends, but not go out.”
Or: “So I want to stay friendly, but I don’t want to be your BF/GF anymore.”
Say you’re sorry if this hurts.
For example: “I don’t want to hurt you.”
Or: “I’m sorry if this isn’t the way you wanted things to be.”
Or: “I’m sorry if this hurts you.”
Or: “I know this is hard to hear.”
Say something kind or positive.
For example: “I know you’ll be OK.”
Or: “I know we’ll always care about each other.”
Or: “I’ll always remember the good times we had.”
Or: “I’ll always be glad I got to know you.”
Or: “I know there’s another girl/guy who will be happy to have a chance to go out with you.”
- Listen to what the other person wants to say. Be patient, and don’t be surprised if the other person acts upset or unhappy with what you’ve said.
- Give the person space. Consider following up with a friendly message or conversation that lets your ex know you care about how s/he is doing.
Relationships Help Us Learn
Whether they last a long time or a short time, relationships can have special meaning and value. Each relationship can teach us something about ourselves, another person, and what we want and need in a future partner. It’s a chance for us to learn to care about another person and to experience being cared about.
A break-up is an opportunity to learn, too. It’s not easy. But it’s a chance to do your best to respect another person’s feelings. Ending a relationship — as hard as it is — builds our skills when it comes to being honest and kind during difficult conversations.
Reviewed by: D’Arcy Lyness, PhD
Date reviewed: August 2014