You’ve made the difficult decision to end a relationship. Congratulations: The hard part’s done.
Well, okay, not exactly. You still have to actually go through with the breakup, and that’s not exactly easy.
In order to make a clean break, you need to have a plan before you sit down to have “the talk.” We spoke with relationship coach Toni Coleman and psychologist Tanisha Ranger to find out how to avoid some of the most common mistakes.
1. Never forget about the practical stuff.
When you’re preparing for a breakup, the first questions that cross your mind will be fairly important, if a bit dramatic.
“Am I ruining this person’s life? How are they going to take it? Will we be able to stay friends?”
Those are important considerations, but spare a few minutes to think about the practical side of the breakup. Does your ex have any of your stuff? Do they have a—gulp—key to your place? Where are you going to break up, and will you be able to quickly leave afterwards?
“Practical stuff does matter, because you will have to deal with it,” Coleman says, “and as with most major life decisions, you should have a good plan in place when you decide to break up.”
Make a plan, then commit to it. This is also a great time to evaluate whether the breakup is a good idea—if you just had a fight, for instance, you might want to wait until you’ve both cooled down a little.
With that said, as soon as you’ve made your decision, stick to it. You’re not doing your ex any favors by waiting for a convenient time.
2. Don’t try to punish your (soon-to-be-ex) partner.
Let’s go ahead and assume that your ex is a terrible person. Your partner cheated, lied, constantly acted selfish, set your house on fire, and always loaded the toilet paper the wrong way (hey, some things are unforgivable).
You’re likely feeling a lot of pain, and you might want to turn some of that pain on your partner. Resist that urge.
Why? Well, for starters, insults aren’t going to affect your ex like they do in your daydreams. You’re going to start a shouting match, which won’t be helpful in the slightest.
“When you try to punish the other person, you hurt yourself as well,” Coleman says. “This behavior will only make you feel worse. It will magnify your grief, will get in the way of healing and moving on—and it will leave a bad wake in your relationship’s past.”
The bottom line is that any attempt to punish or insult your ex won’t benefit you. You’ll be making the situation much more volatile, and your ex might attempt to get revenge, prompting a cycle of drama. That’s cute in sitcoms, but it’s not much fun in real life.
It’s to your benefit to end the relationship quickly and cleanly.
“Let it go, rise above it—and act with grace and decency—you and everyone else will respect you more for it,” says Coleman. That brings us to the next important point…
3. Don’t even think about getting back together for several weeks.
We’d say that you should never think about getting back together, but that’s not feasible. You’re going to think about your ex, particularly if you just got out of a long-term relationship. You’ll think about how much easier things would be if you got back together and why the flaws that led to the breakup weren’t such a big deal in the first place.
In some cases, that’s true; some couples break up, work on themselves, then get back together and live a happy life. However, in most cases, that voice at the back of your head is just trying to get comfortable again. You’re familiar with your ex, so you’ll want to “relapse.”
“When folks bounce back and forth, in and out of relationships, it is usually a sign that they don’t want to be in the relationship but have wrong reasons for remaining. For instance, they might have a fear of being alone or a fear of loneliness,” says Coleman.
Try to remember that you had a reason for breaking up in the first place. Before you even break up, you should make a commitment to stay apart from the other person for at least a few weeks…or longer.
“Taking a long break, examining your relationship issues from the perspective of a single person, and experiencing life solo will provide much-needed information about what was not working in the relationship,” Coleman says. “It will also offer a guide as to what you need to fix about yourself.”
This reflection will help you determine whether you want to give it another shot (chances are pretty good that you don’t).
4. Don’t try to justify your feelings.
Having the breakup talk can be challenging, especially if your ex wants you to spell out every detail about what went wrong. In the video below, we provide some advice on how to approach this difficult conversation:
5. Don’t worry about mutual friends.
You’re ready to break up, then it hits you—you and your ex hang out in the same groups. You know the same people. Which friends will stay with you, and which friends will give you the cold shoulder? You might feel as though you’re breaking up with six or seven people, and that’s a lonely feeling.
This is an especially common problem with younger couples. It’s not fun, but it also should be a non-factor. Friendships aren’t a part of the equation, since your romantic life has much bigger implications for your long-term social health.
If you lose friends, so be it. They probably weren’t the best friends to begin with if they’ll ditch you over a relationship, and you’ll make new friends if you make the effort.
If you don’t lose friends, you’ll have a valuable support group to help you through the next few months. Either way, it’s not something to consider when planning a breakup, and it certainly shouldn’t change your decision.
6. Don’t call or text your ex to “check up on them.”
Whether you’re genuinely concerned or you’re just trying to massage your ego, you’re definitely not helping the other person. Each phone call invites more conflicted feelings, essentially re-starting the breakup and forcing your ex to evaluate the relationship all over again.
“[Your ex] may see it as a sign you are unsure and you want to try again. You just need time and space, but you’ll eventually return,” says Coleman. “Don’t do it—no contact is best. For a long time, if possible.”
There are exceptions, of course, especially if you shared a living space and you need to sort out the logistics. The big takeaway is that people need space in order to grieve for a relationship properly, so you should try to break off contact for a while. After all, that’s what “end a relationship” means, doesn’t it?
This isn’t to say that you can’t be friends with your exes, but don’t try to be friends right away. Wait a few months until you’re no longer emotionally invested (and hopefully, when they see the breakup as a good thing).
Ask yourself this question: If I found out that my ex was seeing someone else, would it bother me? If the answer is “Yes,” wait longer.
7. Don’t lead the other person on.
If it’s over, it’s over. Don’t try to hedge your bets by saying something like, “We need time apart,” or “I just need space for myself for a while.”
That’s usually dishonest, and even if you really believe what you’re saying, it’s not very kind to the other person. If you indicate that there’s still a chance to continue the relationship, they’ll believe you—and you’ll actually make their inevitable heartbreak a little bit worse.
While you should be sensitive to your former partner’s feelings—to a degree—the kindest thing you can do for them is give them a clear signal that it’s time to move on. The honest approach feels rough in the short term, but over time, it’s the best option by far.
8. Don’t immediately start a new long-term relationship.
You’re fresh out of a four-year relationship, riding high on the idea of meeting new people, and on your first trip to the local coffee shop, you meet someone incredible. Six months later, you’re in…basically the same relationship that you’d just escaped from. How did this happen?
Unfortunately, that coping strategy is bad news. In order to build a healthy relationship, you need to be completely at peace with yourself as an individual.
Allow yourself to feel your feelings.
If you actually made the decision to break up and followed through with it, that’s a great sign; you value yourself enough to leave a bad situation. However, your work’s not over.
You need to enjoy life as a single person for a little while, or at least prove to yourself that you’re confident enough to put real effort into that next relationship.
“The time after a breakup is a magical one,” says Ranger. “You are able to take your own inventory, realize where you were wrong, and figure out how you intend to do things differently in order to have a different outcome in the future.”
If you notice a relationship/breakup pattern, it might be time to seek out the help of a therapist to address underlying issues and help you understand why you keep ending up in the same situations over and over again.
Also, don’t wallow for too long. Self-pity will get you nowhere.
“Often, people feel shame or as if they failed, after a breakup,” says Ranger. “This can lead to isolation. It’s not the greatest idea to be alone with your thoughts all the time.”
Go out, meet up with friends, connect with people you might not have seen as much lately. Reconnect with yourself—and don’t be scared of some indulgent self-care.
“Allow yourself to feel your feelings,” says Ranger. “They may be all over the place, or they may be pretty stable. Both of those instances are perfectly acceptable.”