Every broken heart has a heartbreaker. You may not want to admit it, but it’s true. It’s also true that some heartbreakers are more graceful than others. But how do you spurn someone gracefully? There’s no easy answer, but we want to offer a word of advice that seems to have helped many who want to sever the ties to a romance without shattering the other person’s heart. The advice? Make it a clean break.
“He just doesn’t get it,” we hear heartbreakers say. “What do I have to do, spell it out for him?” Yes! You do. You may think the humane thing is to hem and haw about the issue, or that maybe a gradual series of disappointments will do the trick. You think that if you make the other person miserable he or she will break up with you. That’s emotional terrorism. It whittles down the other person’s self-esteem to zero.
The best approach is to be honest and direct. That doesn’t mean you say your piece and disappear like the Lone Ranger. But it does mean you send a clear message: This romantic relationship is over. The key is to communicate this message in the context of compassion. How do you do this? First of all, communicate it in person. That may sound obvious, but you might be surprised how many people say “good-bye” on the phone, sometimes even through an answering machine. We know of one relationship where the heartbreaker actually had his sister tell his girlfriend the relationship had ended. If you have any decency, you can’t break up by absentee ballot. So to make a clean break, be honest and be present.
Being honest, by the way, is not the same as being brutal. We’ve known some heartbreakers who were downright mean. Wishing they could close their eyes and make the relationship go away, they lost all sense of common courtesy and pointed out every frailty the other person ever had. On the other end of the heartbreak continuum are those who sugarcoat the rejection with conciliatory words. They send mixed messages, saying to the unwanted person something like, “I really like our relationship, but it’s moving so fast and I just want to enjoy a good friendship before we rush into anything.” Translation: “I’m not interested in you for a romantic relationship, so it’s over.”
The problem with being so conciliatory is that the other person will never really hear what you want them to hear. They will read into your nice words a lot of hope for your future together. The would-be ex seizes on the positive side of the message and disregards what you intended them to hear. If you are going to make a clean break, you can still be gentle but you’ve got to be honest. Begin by telling the person what you like and appreciate about them. Point out their strengths and what drew you to them in the beginning. Express what you like about your relationship in general.
Confess your difficulty in what you are about to tell them and then say it straight out: “I want to break up.” Explain your reasons for ending the romance in terms of your own values, rather than pointing out what you think is wrong with the other person. Don’t make promises you can’t keep. Don’t say, for example, that you want to remain “good friends” when you know that isn’t likely. While some couples can break up and remain friends, it’s rare. Planting that idea during a breakup can lead the other person, and possibly yourself, to expect too much from one another.