I’m not sure about you, but I’ve been in my fair share of relationships that really, really should have ended sooner than they did. Most notably, my “big breakup” of 2013 really should have ended somewhere around 2009. Looking back, I can see that now, but at the time I found myself hanging onto something that was just never going to be the same again. Sometimes, the decision that seems the hardest – that is, walking away from the person you love, and who says she loves you, too – is the best thing you can do.
But what if your relationship isn’t that bad? Most relationships don’t end with violence, after all, but most do end with broken hearts and hurt feelings. If you want to minimize those things (for your soon-to-be-ex as well as yourself), you might want to follow these 8 prompts to breaking up with dignity.
1. Why do I want to break up with her?
Obviously, if you’re here, you’ve got reasons for wanting to break up with your girlfriend. Sometimes those reasons really boil down to the fact that you’d rather be single. Sometimes the reason is that your partner treats you like garbage. And, sometimes, it’s because you treat her like garbage.
While these are all legitimate things to consider, it’s important that you can process what the reasons are to you. No break-up is exactly the same as another (unless you’ve got one of those awful on-again/off-agains). I’m a strong advocate for all things that require list-making, and a break-up is a perfect excuse for a pros-and-cons list. (Just make sure that your girlfriend doesn’t ever find this list – if you decide to stay with her, the list could easily destroy the good things you’ve discovered.)
More than just your personal sanity, though, a list of the reasons why you want to break up will also help make conversations about it with friends and family just a little less awkward. Unless your crew totally hates your girlfriend (sorry to all the friends who tried to clue me in about Big Ex, who I completely ignored), you’re going to have some explaining to do. A list gives you some stuff to consider, and it makes it easier to strengthen your resolve, too.
2. Could we work things out?
Depending on the reasons you want to break up, working things out could actually be a real possibility. Better communication (and possibly relationship counseling) can help to sort out most problems, and might help a lot more than you’d expect. But not everything is fixable – some things need to just run their course, and some things are so deeply ingrained that change is not very likely. You need to fully understand whether you can work through things – no one wants to throw away something that’s just a little rusty, when a bit of elbow grease could make it shine.
(This coming from someone whose first car was a 1949 Willys Wagoneer that came in a bunch of boxes full of parts. A fixer-upper isn’t necessarily a bad thing.)
It’s also important that you consider whether you want to fix things or not, though. If you’ve been trying for months (or even years) to work out your problems, and nothing seems to change, there’s a good chance that your girlfriend is simply not in it. Or, if the problems are your own, you might not want to change the things about yourself that are causing the issues. You are free to make your own decisions here – no one can force you to stay in a relationship that asks too much of you.
3. Will I change my mind after it’s done?
Some people break up and then get back together. That doesn’t necessarily make it an on-again/off-again… People have the ability to change and grow back together, even if previous attempts haven’t worked out. If you think that you might fall into this category, it’s super important that you leave the door open in a way that doesn’t give false hopes or misunderstandings.
No one likes to be stuck in the back-and-forth waltz of a relationship gone awry, so it’s really important that you do try to fix the things that are fixable before you decide to walk away. Of course, we’ve already discussed that it’s not always possible (or likely), but whenever possible, working through things is where you should start.
Even if you don’t think that you could get back together in the future, it’s important that you keep things civil, and refuse to say things that you might regret down the line. After all, she is a human being with her own emotions, and attacking her character won’t do anything to help you – it’ll just make it less likely that you two will ever be friends in the future.
4. What will it really be like to be single again?
If you’ve been together for a long time, there’s a good chance that you’ll miss the single life at some point in time. If this made its way onto your list, keep in mind that it’s also completely normal to miss your ex after you break up – even if you’re the one who ended things. It’s important to revisit your list from question 1 and figure out what you’re really giving up if you walk away.
Often, when we’re frustrated, we find it easier to focus on the bad things about our relationship – pushing us more toward breaking up than staying together. If we’re sad, hurt, or conflicted, we’re going to lean more toward staying together. You might need to visit your list a few times just to make sure you fully understand what you’re going to be walking away from. If you make your list all at once, you’re bound to miss things. Give yourself permission to ruminate on it for a while.
When it’s all said and done, you’re going to be relying on your friends a lot. No one likes to go out completely solo when they’ve just left a long-term relationship, so you’ll want your crew on your side. They’ll be there to support you, because they love you – even if they also liked your girlfriend. You were their friend first – so while it’s not fair to ask them to pick sides, they’re probably going to side with you anyway (at least most of the time).
5. How do I let her go?
Your feelings are going to linger for a little while, even after you’ve made up your mind. It’s normal – and even more understandable the longer you’ve been together. You want to be civil, without giving her any false hope. You want to make sure she knows it’s over, but that you don’t necessarily blame her for everything. This is a sensitive balance, and it takes a great deal of care to achieve.
Now… I’ve already said that I’m a major proponent of list-making and mind-mapping, so of course, my solution is to make another list. Look over your pros-and-cons from question one, and decide which ones are important enough to mention in your official break-up speech. Chances are, there are some things that have swayed your decision that your soon-to-be-ex doesn’t really need to know. Pro tip: Leave those ones out! Make a list of your talking points, if necessary, and practice them until you’re actually comfortable with the idea of throwing them out there.
Almost as important as what you say is where you say it. You want somewhere semi-private, like a coffee shop or a book store. It should be neutral territory, rather than at someone’s home – you want to give her room to escape if she needs to. Remember, just because you want to talk about it, doesn’t necessarily mean she will. But, make sure that wherever you have The Talk, it’s private enough that strangers aren’t all up in your business. Trust me – public break-ups are embarrassing for everyone involved.
6. What do I actually say?
Here’s where that list of talking points really comes in. Look over the list you’ve made and try to turn it into a “script” of sorts. Your most important reasons should be the things you focus on – whether they’re hard or not – because, really, you want to be honest here. That means no sugarcoating – that doesn’t accomplish anything except giving false hopes, and we really don’t want to do that.
You also need to make sure you don’t say anything you’ll regret later. If you’re open to the idea of getting back together in the future, say that. If you can’t stand the idea of ever talking to her again, say that. You want to make sure she has a very clear picture of where you stand – this is definitely not a time to be mysterious.
Of course, even with a list of talking points and all the preparations you’ve put in up to this point, there’s still a good chance you’ll screw it up. That’s ok. Humans are supposed to make mistakes – that’s proof that you’re trying and taking chances! It’s more important that you avoid being cruel, whether directly or indirectly, than it is to get every little piece of information passed along.
7. Should we get back together once things are worked out?
There’s not really one solid answer to this one – it’s a matter of your perspective, your individual situation, and the likelihood of things getting worked out to your satisfaction. Not all problems can be fixed, even with the best of intentions, and often the intention (and reason) for the changes is less-than-pristine. If someone is only making changes so that they can get back with something, Round 2 is going to be just as destitute as Round 1 was.
It takes two (very) mature adults to give a relationship a second chance. That’s not to say that there’s something wrong or immature about you if you do give things another go and they still don’t work out how you wanted. Remember that some relationships really do have an expiration date, and it’s all-but-useless to try to push them to work if they’re really not going to.
Leaving your options open is often the easiest immediate choice, but that’s not to say that it doesn’t have its own share of complications. What happens if you leave things open, but you really can’t bring yourself to give her another chance? That’s completely appropriate, and your choice. Try to be realistic, though – if you think the relationship is doomed now, there is a very good chance that it’ll still be doomed a few years from now. (And it’s definitely not going to be better in just a few weeks or months.)
8. What did this relationship teach me about myself?
Everything that we perceive as a failure actually has infinite learning potential. It’s next to impossible to go through a relationship and/or a break-up without learning something, although some people might need to look a little harder to figure out what they should have learned from this. No matter who broke up with whom, it’s important that you give yourself time to process things and actually apply the things you’ve learned.
Most likely, neither one of you is a bad person. Relationship incompatibility is a very real thing, and just because you didn’t work out together doesn’t mean that there’s anything really wrong with you. For example, two people who love to party are going to get along better than one person with a dedication to their work and one party girl. Does that mean that the party girl is a bad person? Absolutely not. Does it mean your relationship was all wrong? Absolutely.
Moreover, it’s important that you understand that this one woman has no bearing over any future women you date. It’s hard to separate ourselves from our bad experiences, but it’s absolutely necessary. Try not to make any generalizations about other people based on your experiences with this one person – remember, the way things seem is not always the way they actually are, so make sure you’re not holding your ex’s actions against your new boo when you have one.