The Perfect Breakup?

Someone on our Skribit page (that’s the little widget on the right-hand side of Lifehack’s pages where you can make requests, which I or other Lifehack writers look at for ideas) requested a post on how to act when you break up with someone. While it’s never easy to break up with someone (assuming it’s someone you actually do like), I feel like I’ve been through enough breakups to have learned a bit about how to make it as painless as it can be for everyone involved.

First, some history: I’ve been in four relationships that mattered, three of which lasted for 2 years or longer. I didn’t “date” much at all in my 20s, but have dated quite a bit in my 30s. Not counting situations where I went out with someone only once or a few times and nothing came of it, I’d estimate I’ve seen about 30 women or so that haven’t turned into long-term relationships. So that’s about 35 endings where the other person mattered to me in some way (beyond just being a human worthy of some basic decency and respect). Which is a lot by some standards, not many by others, but which I think has given me at least some perspective on breaking up.

Except in the rare case where both partners realize that their relationship isn’t working at the exact same time and are able to easily and honestly acknowledge that, all breakups are hard. No matter how inappropriate someone might be for us (or us for them, if we’re honest), there is almost always a sense of personal rejection whenever someone tells us, or we tell them, that it’s over.

There are a few things we can do to ease the pain we feel or we inflict. Some of these apply when you’re the dumper, some when you’re the dumpee. And then there are a few for after the break-up, and those apply either way. Let’s start with some tips for when you’re the one breaking it off.

When you break up with someone…

  1. Know why. Before you act, do a little self-reflection. It’s easy to say “It’s not you, it’s me” but a lot harder to mean it if you don’t know what about you “it” is. You don’t have to tell your soon-to-be-ex everything, but you should at least understand for yourself.
  2. Be honest. While you don’t have to unleash a torrent of insults on the person you’re breaking up with, at least be clear about the main reasons things aren’t working for you. And don’t lie about remaining friends if you have no interest in this person as a friend. It just drags out the inevitable.
  3. Don’t drag it out. It can be scary to tell someone you’re not interested in seeing them any more. So scary, in fact, that you don’t – you just act colder and colder, find excuses not to see them, start picking at their weaknesses, putting them through the wringer while you build up the courage to do what you need to do. You’ll both be happier if you make a clean break sooner rather than later.
  4. Be gentle but firm. There’s no reason to be hurtful, no matter how bad things are going. But do be clear that this is not an ultimatum, an invitation to improvement, or just another argument – this is The End.

When someone breaks up with you…

  1. Dignity first. Easier said than done, especially if you thought things were going well. But no matter how surprised you are, try to act in a way your parents (or clergy, or some other person you respect) would be proud of. Don’t threaten, attack, list their shortcomings back at them, scream, faint, say you’ll kill yourself, beg, or do anything else – the best that can happen is you’ll feel awful later, the worst is that they won’t break up with you and now you’re stuck with someone who wants out.
  2. Get to a safe place. Find a friend, a family member, a clergy member, or anyone you can count on and let them support you. Getting dumped is hard work – you’re going to need a little while to process it.
  3. It really isn’t you, it’s them. Don’t be too hard on yourself – they dumped you for reasons that have to do with who they are, not who you are. Seriously, when we’re really in love, we’re in love with a person’s faults as well as their best features; the bottom line is, if you have faults that drove someone away, it’s because they didn’t accept and love them, and therefore didn’t accept and love you. That’s not an excuse to be awful, it’s just the truth – the worst murderers and rapists and dirtbags in the world still manage to be loved by someone.
  4. But don’t let yourself off the hook, either. The person that just dumped you had their own reasons, but that doesn’t mean you’re perfect. Consider what you want from a relationship, and why you weren’t getting it from the one that just ended (and you weren’t, I promise). And learn from that.

After the break-up…

  1. No take-backs. Seriously. No booty calls, no pre-existing commitments, no getting together just to talk. Not for a good while, anyway – I realize that people can change and make things work, but that doesn’t happen overnight. More often what happens overnight is you get lonely, or you can’t find anyone better, or you get horny. Getting back together can only prolong something that’s pretty much doomed. I know you think you’ll be the exception, but you won’t. Not until one or both of you make some real changes.
  2. Let hate happen. Being angry at an ex is natural. It might be stupid, unproductive, even awkward, but it’s totally natural – let it happen. Don’t act out towards them or anything, but don’t try to force yourself to process all that emotion out of the way too soon. It takes time – both to deal with your anger over whatever they did or said or were, and to get over your anger at yourself. And you will be angry at yourself: for getting involved with someone who was wrong for you, for being suckered, for letting someone good get away, or for any of a host of reasons. Let it happen.
  3. You don’t have to be friends. Especially if your now ex-relationship lasted a long time, this can be hard to swallow. Yes, your ex probably does know you better than anyone else. And you probably have a lot of the same interests. Maybe you will eventually be friends, down the road, but for now, you have to be faithful to yourself first – you really can’t put yourself out there for your ex the way a friend should. And if you never get to be friends again, well, that’s sad, but it’s not the worst thing ever. Don’t force it.
  4. Don’t get even. If you were hurt badly, your instinct might be to hurt them back. Not a good idea. Seriously, as hard as it is, you have to let it go. It’s not a game with winners and losers – the pain you’re feeling is the pain of having invested yourself in a situation that was wrong for you. Going for revenge will only hurt you more (you’re still investing in that bad relationship), and may hurt others around you (like the person you sleep with to get back at a cheating ex).
  5. Don’t stalk. This should be self-explanatory, but apparently it’s not. Think of breaking up like going to jail – you’re allowed one phone call. (And it should be about the stuff they left at your place, and that’s it!) Don’t call them to ask “why?!?!”, don’t check their email or voicemail with the password they forgot they gave you, don’t hang around their work, and definitely don’t visit them at home. Here’s the thing: psychologically, there’s a threshold beyond which you lose control of what seem at first like harmless issues, and you become obsessed. Stalking really is a sickness; fortunately it’s preventable by simply denying yourself the satisfaction of trying to find out about your now-ex.Here’s the other thing: yes, they’re seeing someone. Yes, they’re flirting with that new assistant at work. Yes, they’re working as an exotic dancer now. Yes, they’re into all sorts of kinky stuff they would never do with you. Yes, they took that trip to Asia you planned together. Yes, they got a better job. Yes, they went back to their spouse. Yes, they got a dog. Yes, yes, yes – everything you’re afraid of is true. Stop worrying about their life and start living your own!
  6. If you’re being stalked, don’t respond. Stalking is a simple positive reinforcement mechanism: the stalker does something, and are rewarded when you respond. When the phone rings 50 times and you finally pick up and tell them never to call you again, they get their reward – and they learn that they have to let the phone ring 50 times to get it again. Same with email, ringing the doorbell, visiting you at work, etc. Pay no attention, at all. If things get too out of hand, appoint someone  — a security person at work, a family member at home, or whoever you can trust – to block all contact. Send their calls automatically to voice mail, set up a forwarding rule in your email program to send their emails to someone else to review (in case they turn threatening) – generally erase the person from your life. Eventually, the pleasure circuit will run out of ways to get that stimulus and your stalker will start to heal.

When my last major relationship ended, a friend gave me some really good advice. In fact, she had me write it in dry-erase marker on my mirror (lipstick would have done the job as well, but I don’t keep any around…). The advice was this: “There wasn’t anything you could have done differently.” You’re you, and you acted in what you thought was the right way at every point. You have to accept that, and the rest comes easier once you do.

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