The Break-up Rules
How to end a relationship when it's just not working
Breaking up is (usually) hard to do
Breaking up with someone can seem easy if the relationship is no longer what you want and your ex accepts that. Usually it is not so straightforward. People may linger in relationships because they don’t want to hurt their partner’s feelings, or because they hope things might improve. They may fear they’ll be labelled the ‘bad guy’ for ending the relationship or lose mutual friends. They may struggle to give up on something they’ve invested their time/emotions/finances in; or worry they’ll be seen as a failure for ending things. Some don’t want to be single, or are worried about the impact of separation on their children. Others are afraid their partner could self-harm or be violent if the relationship ends.
Is it really the end?
Do you want the relationship to be completely over – or do you want it to be better? Sometimes when we are unhappy in a relationship but wish it would improve we threaten a separation to force our partners to change. If you want to be with them but in a more positive and equal relationship, then counselling may help. Alternatively you might use the free resources and forums at The Couple Connection to identify what you want.
Things to think about before you end it
Before you end a relationship remember your partner (and their friends or family) may find it difficult to accept your decision and could be distressed, angry or plead for you to change your mind. They may act one moment like they want you back, the next like they hate you or are glad the relationship is over. Establishing a support system of friends or family can help you cope with any possible reactions.
We assume the person who is doing the breaking up will feel nothing, or be glad the relationship is over. While that can sometimes be true, the process of ending a relationship is often painful for all concerned. Particularly in a long term relationship or one that has generally been good but just run its course. It is normal to feel distressed, miss your partner or even be unsure if you’re making the right decision. You can’t stop your partner being hurt nor help them through the break up process – that is someone else’s job. But you may want support for your own feelings.
Understanding your ex has every right to move on and meet someone else is also necessary. They may move on quickly, have a series of flings, or be single for a long while. That is their business. Just as the relationships you have are not their business. (The exception being where you have children and may need to discuss when to introduce new partners and shared childcare). Thinking in advance how you might feel about this and ways to cope if you’re likely to be jealous is important. Not least so you avoid a situation where you stay with someone when you don’t want them, but don’t want anyone else to be with them.
If you are married, live together, share property or have children, the legal and financial ramifications of your separation need considering. The Citizens Advice Bureau is a useful source of information as is Advice Now if you cohabit.
Meg Barker talks about negotiating a separation in Chapter 8 of her book Rewriting The Rules inviting us to think about the ‘truths’ we accept about break ups and how they may restrict us. While these resources from Bishtraining and Scarleteen are aimed at a young audience they are both still useful regarding communication and dealing with rejection.
How to end a relationship
In wanting to be sensitive, it is easy to be unclear about what you want. Although it is difficult, the best way to end things is to be very specific, but not personal or cruel. You may find reading this piece gives you ideas but you may still have some questions or concerns about your specific situation. Discussing those with friends could be useful,
This means telling your partner, preferably in person, the relationship is not working out for you. You can express regret and wish them well. You can acknowledge they are hurt. It may help to rehearse or write down what you plan to say.
They may well have questions they want to ask you about why you want to end things, which it is fair to answer as clearly as you are able. Be prepared they might interpret this conversation as a means to show how they can change or how you are wrong. Being calm but consistently returning to a phrase you feel comfortable with – such as ‘this is not working for me’ or ‘I no longer want to be in this relationship’ - is important in managing such conversations.
If you were very unhappy in the relationship, you might want to be specific about this when explaining why you don’t want things to continue. Focusing on how you feel rather than listing their faults is a more assertive way to handle such a discussion. Be aware this may offer your partner the opportunity to talk about how you are wrong, to further criticise you, or to promise to change.
It might be more appropriate if you are very distressed to explore these feelings first by writing a diary or letters to yourself or talking through how you feel with friends and family. That way you can keep the break up conversation very focused. You could always write a letter afterwards detailing how you feel. You do not have to reply to any response they make.
Have the conversation in a place that gives you privacy. If you feel you need help with closure a session with a relationship therapist where you both set out how you feel and what happens next may help.
If you feel you cannot talk to them because you fear they will not listen – or perhaps you have told them before and they continued to ignore you – then setting out how you feel and what is going to happen next in a phone call, letter or email may be more appropriate.
You may find instead of being upset or angry that they agree with you, which may not guarantee you will always be friends but might feel easier. They may express relief the relationship is over, which could leave you with mixed feelings.
After telling them the relationship is over for you – and why that is – explain to them what you plan to do next. If you have dependents that might involve plans for joint childcare and how to manage the breakup so you and the children are distressed as little as possible.
If things are strained or difficult you might prefer to keep future contact on email and solely about legal/family/financial issues. You can set out your intention to keep things civil and focused but be aware this may not be something your partner feels able to respect.
Some people prefer a ‘clean break’ and do not wish further contact, ever. Others seek a period of separation after which time they can be in touch with their ex. It may be you are able to continue having contact. This is dependent on how your relationship was before the separation, and how you both deal with the split.
After the split
Once you have ended a relationship you may find it helps to spend time with friends and family, to take up or continue with hobbies or do things that make you feel happy. It is common to wonder how your ex is doing or to miss them.
If the relationship has been negative or abusive some people find therapy helps them. This might be available (for free) via your GP (although there is usually a waiting list). Or you could find assertiveness or confidence courses (available at adult education centres and colleges) might be appropriate.
You can experience a range of emotions from anger (at your ex for how they treated you or towards yourself for not ending things sooner); relief, anxiety, grief, joy, or fear. Sometimes you may just feel numb or only realise the problems in the relationship when time has passed or when you are with a new partner.
Some people find deleting their ex’s contact details prevent the urge from getting back in touch. Unfriending an ex on Facebook can help and avoid post-break up drama. Although if you are trying for an amicable break up tell them you’re cutting contact on social media so it doesn’t seem like a hostile gesture.
If you see your ex it may be you still have feelings for them. Sometimes people realise they’ve made a mistake and reunite. Sometimes ex-partners have already moved on. Recognising you might still desire someone while accepting the relationship wasn’t right for you is important, particularly if you are considering seeing them or sleeping with them and know that might cause either of you confusion.
Although ending a relationship isn’t easy, you can use the post-break up period to positively reevaluate things and focus on what you want from future relationships or other areas of your life.
Petra Boynton is a social psychologist and sex researcher working in International Health Care at University College London. Petra studies sex and relationships and is The Telegraph’s agony aunt. Follow her on Twitter @drpetra.