The old adage is so true: breaking up is hard to do. We prepare ourselves as best as we can, but no matter if you are the initiator or receiver of a breakup, the outcome is always the same. In fact, when it comes to hurtful events, breaking up (or being broken up with) is rated as the most hurtful thing that can happen in a relationship – even more hurtful than infidelity or the passing away of one’s partner1! So how, if at all, can we break up with as little pain as possible? The truth is it depends in part on your relationship, but here are some breakup tips that might help you break the news to your partner that it’s over.
First, know that you have many options to choose from (47 to be precise2), and some are more compassionate than others. When we are compassionate in our breakups, we are trying to communicate that we care deeply for this person, value their role in our lives, and perhaps even want to maintain contact after the breakup. The 47 types of breakups can be broken down into four main categories: avoiding, positive tone, direct/open, and manipulative3. Avoiding is passive – we just sort of slink away and withdraw from meaningful conversations in the hopes that our partner will get the hint. Positive tone is the “it’s not you, it’s me” routine; played out, but surprisingly effective. Direct and openness, essentially the “hard dump” in which no feelings are spared. Finally, manipulative attempts are when we get a third party (e.g., a friend or family member) to do our dirty work for us.
It should come as no surprise that positive tone breakups and open/direct breakups were rated more compassionate than avoiding and manipulative breakups2. What may surprise you is that positivity and openness were rated as equally compassionate, as were avoiding and manipulation breakups. This tells us that there is some wiggle room in terms of the technique that we choose for our partner. If we truly love and care for them, we need to evaluate what kind of person they are, and if they would rather head a bald-faced breakup or feel a bit more coddled during the process. If you are exiting a fling, avoidance nor manipulation might actually be the best choice, especially if you want to make it clear that you no longer want to see this person at all.
So here’s the big question: When do you use either strategy? Well, it sort of depends. People who have a lot of compassionate love for their partners tend to be more open and positive, whereas those with lower levels of compassionate love are usually more geared toward avoidance and manipulation. So, we need to be honest about how we feel toward our partner. If we care for them, trust them, value their friendship, and want them in our lives, we may need to bite the bullet and be direct with them. Passionate, intense lovers, on the other hand, may see more avoidance, and even third party involvement in the breakup process. Obviously, that can sting. More importantly, the way that a breakup happens can tell us a lot about how our partner felt about us during the relationship, and not just at the end. This is important because it can help with closure and the process of coping – but that’s a story for another day…
1 Bachman, G. F., & Guerrero, L. K. (2006). Relational quality and communicative responses following hurtful events in dating relationships: An expectancy violations analysis. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships,23(6), 943-963.
2 Sprecher, S., Zimmerman, C., & Abrahams, E. M. (2010). Choosing compassionate strategies to end a relationship. Social Psychology.
3 Baxter, L.A. (1982). Strategies for ending relationships: Two studies. The Western Journal of Speech Communication, 46, 223–241.
Dr. James Stein – Articles | Website/CV
James’ primary area of research is the study of uncertainty and how it influences close relationships. So, what behaviors make us the most uncertain about our relationships? And, more importantly, how do those uncertainties affect our relationships? James also studies friends with benefits relationships in great detail, and how they differ from/overlap with more traditional close relationships.