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Are you in a relationship that needs to end? How can you break up with someone without hurting them?
Even if your partner is a good person, sometimes relationships fizzle out. As long as you end things gently and with kindness, you shouldn’t have to worry about your partner holding a grudge toward you.
This is how to break up with someone without hurting them so you can both move on.
1. Prepare for the Ending Conversation
When it comes to breaking up with someone without hurting them, thoroughly prepare for the ending conversation. In Necessary Endings, Henry Cloud contends that people often go into these conversations underprepared, which leads them to make mistakes that make the process more difficult and confusing for everyone involved.
The first step in preparing for an ending conversation is to set goals for what you’d like to accomplish during the conversation. According to Cloud, people who enter these kinds of conversations without clear goals in mind often end up waffling or letting the other person convince them to change their mind. For example, if you decide to break up with your partner when the excitement has become obsolete, your goal might be to clearly communicate that the relationship is over, while also thanking them for their love. With these goals in mind, it’ll be easier to stay on task in the heat of the moment.
Once you’ve set goals for the conversation, it can help to rehearse. Endings can be emotional, and you may find it difficult to remember everything you wanted to say when the time comes. While it might sound silly, writing a script and practicing it can help you feel more confident later on.
When writing your script, focus on the problem in the relationship, not the person. According to Cloud, focusing on the other person’s flaws can make them feel attacked, which may result in a heated and uncomfortable conversation. By focusing on the relationship’s issues, you’ll maintain clarity without upsetting the other person as much.
2. Communicate Clear Reasons for the Break-up
A crucial part of breaking up is expressing why you’re taking this step. It isn’t fair to the other person to not provide a reason for ending a relationship. The best way to accurately deliver your message is to express your feelings, which Marshall B. Rosenberg’s book Nonviolent Communication goes into.
When we don’t have the words to talk about our feelings, we struggle to even identify them beyond broad categories of happy or sad. Building up a “feelings vocabulary” will help you identify and express your feelings more clearly.
The first major hurdle in expressing a feeling is understanding precisely what a feeling is (or, more importantly, what it isn’t). Feelings refer to internal physical and emotional states, not judgments of external events. That may sound obvious, but we often conflate thoughts and feelings because we use “I feel” to express opinions, not true feelings, in three distinct ways:
- First, if the words “I think” can replace the words “I feel” in a particular sentence, then whatever you’re expressing isn’t really a feeling. For example, the statement “I feel that you should know better” isn’t referring to any kind of internal state. It’s a judgment of another person’s choices, not a feeling.
- Second, if the words “I feel” are immediately followed by “that,” “like,” or “as if,” you’re probably describing a situation rather than your feelings. For example:
- “I feel like you don’t listen to me.”
- “I feel that I’m not a good partner to you.”
- “I feel as if I’m responsible for everything.”
- Third, if “I feel” is followed by a pronoun (I, you, he, she, they, it) or a person’s name or title, you’re not describing a feeling. For example:
- “I feel you are being unreasonable.”
These red-flag expressions can help you spot thoughts masquerading as feelings, but sometimes individual words are the problem. For example, the phrases “I feel inadequate” and “I feel ignored” express judgment rather than true feelings. The word “inadequate” is a judgment of your own worth; “ignored” is a judgment of someone else’s actions.
To spot judgments posing as feelings, try not to use the word “feel” at all. In English, true feelings can be expressed without that word (for example, you can say “I’m sad” instead of “I feel sad”). On the other hand, judgments naturally sound strange if you swap in the verb “to be” for the verb “to feel” (for example, “I’m ignored” and “I’m unheard”). These sound unnatural because we know that “I am” only describes states of being, not judgments.
Another important factor in how we talk about feelings is specificity. When you say you feel “good,” you could mean ecstatic, mellow, fascinated, or many other specific feelings. If you feel “bad,” you might feel scared, bored, or furious. Each of these specific emotions merits a different response. By just using the words “good” and “bad,” you give the person you’re speaking to very little information about how to connect with you at that moment, so you’re more likely to be disappointed when they aren’t able to meet your needs or expectations.
Building up a vocabulary of specific feeling words can help you express yourself more clearly. Here are some ways you might feel when your needs aren’t being met.
Take Responsibility for Your Feelings
Once you identify what you’re feeling, identify why you’re feeling it to break up with someone without hurting them. When our needs aren’t met, we often instinctively place the blame on our circumstances with expressions like “He drives me nuts” or “You disappointed me.” But in reality, it’s the way you react to your circumstances that determines how you feel, not the circumstances themselves.
It’s important to understand that this doesn’t mean your feelings aren’t justified or that you can simply choose to feel happy instead of miserable. It just means you acknowledge that your feelings stem from your own needs and expectations and not from the actions of others.
Just as in identifying and expressing feelings, language plays an important role in taking responsibility for our feelings. There are three ways we deny responsibility for our emotions.
- Using “it” and “that” to describe your reaction (like “That makes me nervous” or “It annoys me when you do that”) implies that something external is causing your feelings.
- Using a pronoun other than “I” after the phrase “I feel this emotion because.” This looks like “I feel sad because he didn’t show up” or “I feel annoyed because she isn’t here yet.”
- Correctly labeling a feeling, but attributing it to someone or something else, like “When you forgot my birthday, I felt lonely.”
3. Give Them a Chance to Speak
When you have clear reasons for breaking up with someone, listening to the other person’s point of view might be hard. While you don’t have to agree or get back together with them, it is worthwhile taking the time to listen to them. This makes the process easier for breaking up with someone without hurting them. They’ll see that you care enough about their feelings and will ultimately allow them to let go of the relationship.
You’re Not Listening by Kate Murphy points out many people have trouble listening because they find it uncomfortable. She highlights two distinct ways listening makes people uncomfortable: It forces them to deal with uncomfortable silences and it exposes them to views that challenge their beliefs.
To start listening more effectively, Murphy argues you should prioritize being curious about the other person. Focus on the things you don’t know about the speaker and the possibilities for learning. She provides two strategies for fostering curiosity:
- Make room for the unexpected. Murphy argues that when a listener assumes they already know where a conversation is going, this undermines their curiosity. By staying open to the possibility of an unpredictable or surprising conversation, a listener can stay curious about the person speaking.
- Notice your own thoughts and feelings. For example, you may feel under attack if your partner’s views contradict yours. This could lead you to react with anger or disgust instead of curiosity. By paying attention to yourself, you can notice these emotional responses and choose to stay curious.
Respond in Ways That Encourage Sharing
Murphy states that you can become a more effective listener through your responses to the person speaking. Specifically, she recommends finding responses that encourage the speaker to continue sharing.
- Nonverbal responses that encourage sharing. Maintaining strong eye contact and a relaxed posture comes across as inviting and encourages sharing. Also, allow for pauses in the conversation instead of speaking as soon as the other person stops. This gives the other person time to get their whole thought across—which is important because people often don’t say exactly what they mean on their first try.
- Verbal responses that encourage sharing. Open-ended questions allow the speaker to direct the conversation—in contrast to closed-ended questions that steer the conversation in a particular direction. By asking open-ended questions, you can encourage the other person to speak freely about whatever they want.
4. Don’t Leave Things Open-Ended
The final way to break up with someone without hurting them is to not give them false hope that you two might get back together down the line. Leaving things on a hopeful note does a disservice to your future self because you won’t be able to move on.
Additionally, pleasing your partner with empty promises leaves them vulnerable and unable to move on themselves. If they were a good partner to you, they should be allowed to be one to other people. But if they’re hanging on a promise that you’ll still be available for them, you’ll end up hurting them down the line when you reject them again.
According to The 12 Week Year by Brian P. Moran, the most important aspect of an exceptional break-up is a commitment to execute with no promises. Accountability is the ownership of your actions, and commitment is a promise to perform those actions. When you commit and follow through with the breakup, you not only gain discipline, confidence, and self-respect but also trust in your discipline, which breeds willpower.
Promises are either explicit or implicit. Explicit promises are those you’re aware of, such as promises made to yourself or verbalized to others. Implicit promises are assumed behaviors based on types of relationships: a partner’s fidelity, a parent’s love, or a boss’s support and leadership.
The problem is that each promise comes with two different kinds of intentions. The stated intention is the verbalized commitment you make. You’re aware of your intention to follow through, or else you wouldn’t have made the promise. But below the surface are hidden intentions or the costs related to your stated intention. Subconsciously, you know that following through will cause you to lose, and you unknowingly fight against your best intentions.
There are a few things you can do to decrease the power of these hidden intentions when breaking up with someone, like giving a person hope that a rebound is possible:
- Make your word count. When you give your word or make an explicit commitment, your integrity is on the line. Put stock in your word and commit to always maintaining a high level of integrity in your actions.
- Weigh the costs before committing. Consider the related sacrifices before you make promises so you can determine whether you’re actually able or willing to follow through.
- Commit to commit. You must push through discomfort or excuses that hinder your actions. Don’t break your promise to keep your promises.
A breakup is never easy to follow through with. The relationship was a chapter in your life that was spent intimately with another person. Whether it was only for a few months or several years, if they were a good partner, then they deserve dignity and respect. But with our tips, breaking up with someone without hurting them is doable.
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