How to end a relationship without being a total jerk

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

If you’ve landed on this page, there’s a good chance you’re thinking about breaking up with someone. Unfortunately, we’re not exactly taught how to end a relationship, let alone how to end a relationship tactfully.

So if you're feeling a bit lost without a roadmap, know that you aren’t alone. The reality is that not every relationship ends with a blow-out fight, a cheating scandal, or a glaring sign that this pairing has run its course.

Instead, sometimes relationships fizzle out in more subtle or one-sided ways, which can make ending things a lot more confusing. How can you do what’s best for you if it means most likely hurting someone that you probably still care for in some way? 

SELF tapped a few relationship experts to get their advice on navigating this difficult but necessary part of dating. (Worth noting: If you’re trying to end an abusive relationship specifically, it’s good to seek out tips on how to break up with an abusive partner safely. While some of the tips below may still be helpful for some aspects of that situation, resources such as The National Domestic Violence Hotline can provide support tailored to your experience.)

How to know if it’s time to break up 

The first step in ending a relationship as respectfully as possible is making sure that this is truly what you want. That may sound obvious, but it’s not always so clear. 

“People usually do not feel 100% confident about ending a relationship,” Casey Tanner, M.A., LCPC, AASECT-certified sex therapist and founder of The Expansive Group, tells SELF. “More often, people have parts of themselves that want to leave and other parts that want to stay.”

If you find yourself in a similar situation, it can be really hard to know where to go from here. To avoid an impulsive breakup, Tanner recommends thinking about how consistent and persistent your desire to end the relationship has been.

If it’s only been a week or two, leave room for the possibility that you’re just going through a rough patch and may be able to get back on track with your partner if that’s actually what will make you happiest in the long run.

Tanner also recommends reflecting on what would need to change in order for this relationship to move forward, and whether you have given it a fair chance to evolve. For instance, have you addressed your concerns with your partner? Has your partner shown that they can adapt in previous conversations about your relationship?

If the reason you’re considering leaving isn’t an immediate dealbreaker (like learning that your partner will never want kids when you do or falling out of romantic love) it might be worth it to put in some work before deciding to call it quits. 

Shadeen Francis, LMFT, a couples therapist who specializes in emotional intelligence, likens a good breakup to a smooth plane landing. “A pilot lets you know you’re approaching a landing significantly before they start bringing down the plane,” she tells SELF. Similarly, it shouldn’t come as a complete surprise to your partner that you’re ending things.

Whenever possible, it’s helpful to communicate what’s not working for you before you make the decision to end things. Not only will this help you avoid blindsiding your partner, but it will also give you the time and space to make sure this is the right decision for you. 

One major exception to all of this is if you just know, deep in your gut, that you won’t be happy in this relationship even if you, your partner, or your circumstance changes in certain ways. It’s perfectly valid to leave a relationship if that’s what’s best for you even without major or immediate dealbreakers, and even if you haven't given the relationship time to change. But it’s often still possible to figure out how to end a relationship in a way you can be proud of under those circumstances. 

Finding the “best” time to end things 

While there may never be a great time to break up with someone, there are certainly plenty of bad times. Like someone’s birthday. Or right before they head to work for a big presentation. Basically, you want to be mindful of what else is going on in your partner’s life and not add to an already stressful time (if at all possible), notes Megan Fleming, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist and sex and marriage therapist.

“If your partner is an accountant and it’s the middle of tax season—not a good time,” Dr. Fleming says. Similarly, you probably wouldn’t want to end a relationship when someone is grieving someone who recently died, they just lost their job, or something else stressful or tragic is going on in their life. 

Of course, it’s not always possible to find a “good” time, and it’s not a good idea to compromise your own needs by staying in a relationship you don’t want to be in for the sake of your partner, says Shanet Dennis, LMFT, a marriage and family therapist in New York.

She offers a few tips for handling a breakup delicately even if you can’t avoid bad timing. First, think about the environment: Pick a private time and place so that you can avoid an audience. Then, acknowledge that you know it’s not a great time. You can say something like, “I know you’re under a lot of stress right now, but I can’t put off this conversation.”

It’s also important to make sure you feel ready to have the conversation. Take some time to write down your thoughts, get organized, and maybe even practice the conversation a few times. “You could play it through with a friend or do it in the mirror, but just get comfortable with the words, because it’s likely to be an emotional conversation,” Dr. Fleming says. 

How to have the breakup conversation 

A respectful breakup will be a two-way conversation, so be prepared for this to take a while. “It’s creating space for both of you to really say goodbye,” Dr. Fleming says.

In a perfect world, you’d be coming into your side of the conversation without a ton of regret. This goes back to making sure you’ve done what you can, within reason, to make the relationship work while still being true to your own needs, which may have included previous hard conversations about your relationship or couples therapy.

While it can sometimes feel like that was for nothing if you’re ultimately ending the relationship anyway, all that work goes a long way in helping you to have a productive, respectful conversation about why you can’t move forward in the relationship.

Before starting the conversation, consider exactly why you feel the relationship should end, but be careful not to put all of the blame on your partner. “If you understand your reasoning for not wanting to be in a relationship or in that particular relationship, be really clear on it because that’s what eliminates some of the pain,” Dennis says.

She recommends focusing on yourself when explaining why. So instead of saying, “You never have enough time for me,” put the focus on your feelings and say, “I've realized this relationship isn’t fulfilling all of my needs.”

While you can’t avoid all hurt feelings, putting the focus on what you’re missing from the relationship keeps the blame game to a minimum. “It just lands a little differently,” Dennis says. “You’re saying the same thing, but from the ‘I’ perspective it doesn’t feel like an attack.”

It’s important to give your partner the space they need to talk through their feelings too. Understand that each of you is coming to the conversation with different perspectives and different needs. Validation is important in a breakup conversation, though it’s key to remember that validation does not equal agreement, Dr. Fleming says.

For instance, you can say “I hear you" or “I understand why you’re hurting,” without implying that you necessarily agree with their viewpoints. “The important piece about this is reflective listening,” Dr. Fleming says. You’re validating your partner’s feelings (within reason), empathizing, and giving them the space to be heard. 

As much as you want to empathize and be respectful about your partner’s perspective, Dennis cautions against focusing too much on putting yourself in their shoes.

“Breakups can be unpredictable and the initiator is taking a big step towards choosing self,” she says. Your intention in ending the relationship should be avoiding intentional harm, not trying too hard to understand your partner’s perspective.

Beyond creating space for a respectful conversation, Tanner recommends avoiding giving false hope that you can get back together in the future. “If you’re sure about your decision to break up with this person, stay strong in that decision and don’t communicate about the possibility of the relationship reopening,” says Tanner.  

Making the post-breakup period less awful 

Once the conversation is over, try to respect the level of privacy your partner wants, within reason. If they’d like to wait a few days or weeks before telling friends and family that your relationship is over, try to honor that request.

Similarly, it’s a good idea to follow their lead when it comes to post-breakup contact. If they want a clear and immediate break on all fronts, try to respect that. On the other hand, if they want to continue to communicate in a way that you don’t feel comfortable with, be clear about that. 

Of course, any relationship that has lasted more than a few weeks will have logistics to deal with in a breakup. Do you keep following each other on social media? Do you go to mutual friends’ parties and birthdays? If you live together, who moves out and who keeps what? If you have pets, do you share custody now, or does one person take the pets?

Unfortunately, there’s no easy guide for how to end a relationship. These questions either have to be part of the first breakup conversation, or you’ll have to schedule a second conversation to figure out what happens now.

Dennis recommends thinking through your own logistics plan before the breakup conversation even happens. “You don’t want your next move to be dependent on your ex,” she says. That might include finding a place to stay if you live together and making a list of everything you brought to your shared living space or have left at your partner’s place.

If you do decide to have a follow-up conversation about logistics, you’ll again want to be as respectful as possible while knowing that emotions may still understandably be high. When having these conversations “pay attention to your emotional thermometer,” Dr. Fleming says.

If things are getting a little too intense, you may want to suggest taking a break and coming back to this at another time, or even managing some of the logistics over email or text. In addition to being a bit less emotional, this has the advantage of putting your agreement in writing, Dennis says. In case anything goes south, it can be helpful to have a written record.

After the details get squared away, there’s really no template for how you and your ex-partner move on from here. In a respectful breakup, the most important thing is to discuss and honour each other’s boundaries.

“Use common sense and trust your gut when it tells you what kind of communication feels values aligned, and which communication is preventing necessary healing,” Tanner says.

In the end, it might be impossible to break up with your partner without hurting them. But if you come to the conversation honestly and respectfully, you’ll go a long way toward making this process a bit easier for everyone involved. 

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DISCLAIMER: The Views, Comments, Opinions, Contributions and Statements made by Readers and Contributors on this platform do not necessarily represent the views or policy of Multimedia Group Limited.