From The Thoroughly Modern Guide to Breakups, Jan/Feb 2011 issue Psychology Today
No question, breaking up is incredibly difficult because it involves giving, or receiving, bad news that engages our deepest vulnerability—the fear that we are unlovable. Most of us are designed not only to minimize discomfort but to dislike rupturing attachments, priming us for sleights of avoidance in delivering or digesting such deeply threatening information. It takes courage to recognize we have a moral obligation to put aside personal discomfort in approaching someone we cared for and who loved us—especially when means of ducking that responsibility are so readily available. But courage pays dividends in self-respect and accelerated recovery.
Not only do our biology, psychology, and morality influence how we weather breakups, but so do the circumstances of the act. There may be little anyone can do to alter biological responsiveness, but everyone can control the way breaking up is conducted. Here, say the experts, is how to do it so that both parties remain emotionally intact, capable of weathering the inevitable pain and sadness.
Take full responsibility for initiating the breakup.
Do it only face to face.
Act with dignity.
Avoid big bad cliches like “It’s not you, it’s me.”
Avoid point-by-point dissection of where things fell apart.
Make it a clean break.
Communicate ongoing appreciation of the good times you shared.
Don’t protest a partner’s decision.
Don’t demonize your ex-partner.
Don’t try to blot out the pain you’re feeling, either.
Resist thinking you’ve lost your one true soul mate.
If your feelings or needs have changed, your dreams diverged, or your lives are going in opposite directions, don’t provoke your partner into doing the breakup. Shifting responsibility is not only a weasel tactic that diminishes the doer, says Paul Falzone, CEO of the online dating service eLove, it’s confusing. Adds Russell Friedman, executive director of the California-based Grief Recovery Institute and author of Moving On, “Trying to manipulate your partner into breaking up, like suddenly giving one-word answers in an attempt to make them say, ‘The heck with it,’ creates a sense of real distortion.” The partner may not initially get the message that you want to break up, but “will start to question themselves: ‘Am I not a valuable human being? Am I unattractive?’ ” The target may also question their own instincts and intuition. “You’re setting up the sense that the other person is to blame. You have bypassed their intuition—they can’t trust what they felt, saw, heard in the relationship.” That kind of uncertainty can cripple them in future relationships; they may not be willing to trust a new partner’s devotion or suitability.
Humans evolved to communicate face to face, which provides some built-in consolations. We may experience many nonverbal cues that reassure us of our essential lovability—the quick touch on the arm that says you’re still valued even as the relationship ends. Anything less than face-to-face sends a distressing message: “You don’t matter.”
Some dumpers might think that delivering the news by email, text, or even a Facebook statement is less cruel than directly speaking the truth. But remote modes of delivery actually inflict psychic scars on the dumpee that can impede future partnerships. “When you don’t get any explanation, you spend a huge amount of time trying to figure out what’s wrong with you,” says eLove’s Paul Falzone. “And you’ll be hesitant about entering another relationship.”
Being on the receiving end of remote dumping can leave us stuck in emotional limbo, says University of Chicago neuroscientist John Cacioppo. “The pain of losing a meaningful relationship can be especially searing in the absence of direct social contact.” With no definitive closure, we’re left wondering what the heck happened, which can lead to the kind of endless rumination that often leads to depression.
“Situations where you have an incomplete picture of what’s going on are perfect ground for the development of rumination,” says Yale University psychologist Susan Nolen-Hoeksema. “It can send people into a tailspin.” Many dumpees emerge from the tailspin distrustful of others, making it difficult for them to establish closeness with future partners. “When you begin to distrust others, you make less of an investment in them,” adds Bernardo Carducci, professor of psychology at Indiana University Southeast. “So the person you meet next is going to suffer for the sins of a stranger.”
Dumpers themselves may come to regret surrogate sayonaras once they realize how badly their vanishing act hurt their former partners—and how little concern they showed. “Five years on, you don’t want to be ashamed of how you handled this,” says John Portmann, a moral philosopher at the University of Virginia. Guilt and shame encumber future interactions.
Since a breakup is a potentially explosive scenario, resolve in advance to bite back any insults that are poised to fly out of your mouth. Preserving your partner’s self-respect has the compound effect of salvaging your own.
“I’m not in love with you anymore” is actually OK. But honesty need not be a bludgeon, nor does it demand total disclosure. If you secretly think your partner is a complete snooze in bed, you’re probably better off keeping that opinion to yourself. “You have an obligation to watch out for the other person’s self-esteem,” Virginia’s Portmann says. “Do not cut them down in such a way that it’s impossible for them to have another successful relationship. Why rub salt in their wounds? That’s torture.”
“The message to get across is, ‘You’re not what I’m looking for,’” adds Florida State University psychologist Roy Baumeister. “That doesn’t imply that there’s something wrong or deficient about your partner.” It’s simply straightforward.
Such generic explanations ring false and communicate a lack of respect. You owe your partner a genuine explanation, however brief, of why things aren’t working. One big caveat: If you suspect that your partner might react violently to your decision to end the relationship, don’t stick around to justify your reasoning; safety comes first.
“It’s not a good idea because there’s never going to be agreement,” says Russell Friedman. “I’ll say, ‘This is what happened,’ and you’ll say, ‘No, no.’ ” Prolonged back-and-forth often degenerates into a fight—or worse: If your partner gains the upper hand, he or she may succeed in luring you back into a dysfunctional relationship you’ve decided you want to end.
Do not try to cushion the blow by suggesting future friendly meetups. “Saying ‘Let’s be friends’ might be a way for the rejecter to try to handle their own guilt, but it’s not always good for the person being rejected,” Baumeister observes. Such a misguided attempt to spare a partner pain can leave him or her hopeful there might be a chance at future reconciliation, which can hinder the efforts of both parties to move on.
In exchanging good-byes, it’s even desirable, says Friedman. It’s equally fine to confide disappointment that the hopes you shared for a future together won’t be realized. Such statements convey a continued belief in your partner’s inherent value.
And don’t beg him or her to reconsider later on. The best thing a dumpee can do to speed emotional healing is to accept that the relationship has come to an unequivocal end. In her neuroimaging studies, Helen Fisher found that the withdrawal-like reaction afflicting romantic rejectees diminished with time, indicating that they were well on their way to healing. But the recovery process is fragile, says Fisher, and last-ditch attempts to make contact or win back an ex can scuttle it. “If you suddenly get an email from the person, you can get right into the craving for them again.” To expedite moving on, she recommends abstaining from any kind of contact with the rejecter: “Throw out the cards and letters. Don’t call. And don’t try to be friends.”
It’s a waste of your energy. And avoid plotting revenge; it will backfire by making him or her loom ever larger in your thoughts and postpone your recovery.
Short of the death of a loved one, the end of a long-term relationship is one of the most severe emotional blows you’ll ever experience. It’s perfectly normal—in fact, necessary—to spend time grieving the loss. “Love makes you terribly vulnerable,” Portmann says. “If you allow yourself to fall in love, you can get hurt really badly.” The sooner you face the pain, the sooner it passes.
Don’t tell yourself you’ve lost the one person you were destined to be with forever, says Baumeister. “There’s something about love that makes you think there’s only one person for you, and there’s a mythology surrounding that. But there’s nothing magical about one person.” In reality, there are plenty of people with whom each of us is potentially compatible. It might be difficult to fathom in the aftermath of a breakup, but chances are you’ll find someone else.