Breaking up with someone is one of life’s fondest moments, up there with clasping your sticky, newborn baby to your chest and hearing the first few notes of “Sorry” ring out across the dancefloor. Just kidding, obviously: dumping a person is rotten and no fun at all, which is often why it takes so long for someone who wants out of a relationship to actually end it. In times of awkwardness or anxiety, it’s easy to defer to the swiftest methods of getting out, which are often the most callous and thoughtless, as well. But being unkind during a breakup will cause your former partner additional, unnecessary pain during what is already one of life’s most painful moments. Double pain. Pain squared. Don’t do that to a person! Especially someone you once cared about enough to date! Do this instead.
Once you’re sure that your heart’s no longer in your relationship, don’t waste time delaying the hard part—namely, the actual break up. “Sure” here does not mean “100% epistemological certainty that it’s over, without a quiver of doubt.” (Don’t play yourself like that—you’ll never get anything done if you’re always waiting for ironclad conviction.) Being sure means something more like, “I’m having recurring thoughts that I would be happier without my partner, and when I’m honest with myself, I think I should act on them.” Once you’re at this point, it’s time to swiftly schedule The Talk with your soon-to-be ex-missus. (Or mister. However you swing.)
100 percent of the people I unscientifically polled for this article agree that the most respectful way to break up with your partner is in person. Sit your partner down to talk at a time when you won’t be interrupted and you aren’t rushed by other commitments. A break up by telephone call might be appropriate if you are in different cities or countries, but a text message, especially if you’ve been together for ages, is downright cruel.
I’m going to explain a concept about breaking up that will blow your mind, like it blew mine when Captain Awkward first explained it to me. Ready? You don’t owe anyone a lengthy explanation of your reasons for breaking up with them. Yes, you heard me. Truly. Even though it may sound counter-intuitive, you don’t owe anyone a catalogue of your inner-reasoning, and moreover, you should refrain from voluntarily imparting those reasons, especially if your now-ex hasn’t asked.
For one thing, it’s arrogant to assume the role of Final Arbiter of People’s Bad Qualities, and listing out a person’s failings (as perceived by you) risks making them forever insecure about qualities and characteristics that might be perfect for future partners. For example, if you’re breaking up with your girlfriend because you find her to be too sensitive, that doesn’t mean that she is objectively an over-sensitive person. I mean, you might be an under-sensitive son of a gun, or your girlfriend might be the optimal level of sensitivity for the next guy in line, and you’re about to spoil it for him by convincing her she’s currently defective. So avoid reeling off a list of faults.
Even if you have softer reasons for wanting to break up with your partner like timing or incompatibility, there’s another good reason why it’s fruitless to pull out your inventory of those reasons, and that’s that it opens up your decision to negotiation and pleading. Watch:
You: “I’m sorry, Petunia, but I don’t want to be in this relationship anymore.”
Petunia: *On knees and screeching to the heavens like Leonardo DiCaprio in Baz Luhrman’s Romeo and Juliet* “Whyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy?”
You: “I’m allergic to your dog, you have garish taste in nail polish, and you’re voting for Donald Trump.”
Petunia: “Don’t go! I’ll re-home Pepi, ditch my manicure set and change my entire political philosophy!”
Petunia, don’t change your whole life for a man! But the inverse applies, too. Don’t give Petunia (or whomever) a position from which to bargain down your clear decision to end a relationship that’s not right for you. Your decision isn’t up for debate, so nip any pleading in the bud with a general yet decisive statement like, “My heart’s not in this relationship anymore,” or “I’ve thought carefully about this, and it just doesn’t feel right.” If you’ve been together a long time and your partner wants to have a genuine, conversation to help them understand then that’s up to you, but be careful about the level of detail you divulge, for both your sakes.
Don’t dither and backtrack when you’re dumping someone, because it creates false hope. Avoid letting on to your partner that this is a decision you’ve been struggling with, even though it probably is. Don’t suggest that you may have a change of heart later or text them in three days to say you’ve made a mistake. (If you really, truly regret your decision in the cold light of day after several months’ of mulling it over, then get in touch to say so. But be prepared that they may have already moved on.) Refrain from issuing sweeteners like, “We could just take a break,” or “We might still end up together in a few years.” If you’re breaking up, break up.
In the immediate aftermath of your breakup, you’re not going to be able to be friends. Sure, some people insist they can be friends with their exes before their side of the bed is even cold yet, but there’s a chance they’re weird Teletubby people with an unhealthy need to be liked by everyone all the time. A quick friendship might feel like the easiest halfway point between staying together and vanishing from each other’s lives, but it’s ultimately kinder to give them the space to grieve the loss of your relationship. You can always strike up a friendship six months or so down the line if you’re both feeling each other’s absence and are game for a new, platonic chapter.
How do you make a clean break, practically speaking? Mute or delete them from your social media feeds. Don’t lurk their instagram. If you stumble across a video of a squirrel eating with chopsticks? Forward it to your Grandma and leave your ex alone. It’s selfish to reach out on your terms and not respect their space. If you hear Your Song; the one that was playing when they were first comfortable enough to fart in front of you? Turn it off.
I hope this one is obvious, but it’s not a good idea to shit-talk your ex or share intimate details about them to anyone, even if they’re bugging you. Not only is behavior like this ruinous to your ex’s reputation, but it makes you look petty and vengeful, too. Most people harbor some negative feelings towards their former partners, but grown ups keep things civil. So should you.
If you’ll permit me a wild, gendered generalization, men like to move on very quickly post-breakup. (“On to the next one!” —ancient male proverb.) It will sting your ex to see that you’ve moved on before they have so much as removed the heart emojis from your name in their phone, so be conscious of that. You have the right to move on at whatever pace is right for you, but avoid shoving the evidence down your ex’s throat by immediately posting pictures of your new conquests on Facebook, for example, or going on dates at the cafe where they work.
That’s how you dump someone kindly and as cleanly as possible, given all the emotion that comes with this sort of thing. There’s no cheat code or special trick. You can put it on the backburner for months, tell white lies and sooth them with false promises, but that’s ultimately a gutless route that does more to protect your feelings than theirs. If you’ll permit me a cliche: Breaking up is like ripping off a bandaid. It’s initially more painful to rip off the bandaid by being direct and unerring, but it’s ultimately kinder and less scarring than to peel it off in a torturous, uneven fashion.
Most of us will play the role of the dumper and dumpee at various points in our lives. Do your part to be as kind as possible when you are breaking up with someone, and help to create a world where sad yet unavoidable life moments are handled with grace and aplomb. While it may not be easy, you’ll benefit from it in the long run.
Madeleine Holden is a lawyer and writer from New Zealand who is currently based in London. You can follow her on Twitter here.