Like Neil Sedaka said, breaking up is hard to do. Whether you’re dating someone with low self-esteem or someone with a big fat ego, you may worry that dumping him will leave him shocked and devastated, with feelings of worthlessness or even serious depression. You want out, but you don’t want to hurt your partner! How do you break up with someone without harming his or her fragile self-esteem?
If you aren’t right for the company you work for, would you rather be fired right away or have your bosses keep you on but constantly yell at you, withhold your paychecks, and maybe even divert your 401(k) to another employee?
While breaking up can be awkward, if you keep your boyfriend or girlfriend around just because you dread the breakup conversation, then you’re just going to wind up becoming bitter toward this person for not taking the hint. She might fool herself for quite a while that the relationship is working because she’s blinded by love (or fear). But your desire to be rid of the ol’ ball and chain will cause more fights and more damage to her sense of self. It may even cause you to start exploring other avenues of dating before you’ve left your current Lover’s Lane, a situation that will be especially devastating to her self-esteem if she finds out.
If you’re absolutely certain that you’re miserable in the relationship, don’t drag things out to the point where you’ve beaten your partner’s self-esteem into the ground. Make up your mind that breaking up is the right thing. Be polite but resolute that things need to stop here and now. It’s far better for the other person to have things end with a bang than with death by a thousand cuts.
Don’t Make Weak Excuses
A lot of times, our exit strategy from a relationship is hard to explain in ways that aren’t hurtful. So we tell a big lie, often a variation of “It’s not you, it’s me.” Or we may say vague things we don’t really mean, like, “I just don’t want to date somebody my own age” or, “I need to take some time to think about my path in life,” because saying, “I’m sick of your laziness!” is just too honest.
There’s nothing wrong with being civil during a breakup or even omitting certain details that would be needlessly cruel. But if you make a weak excuse, something that’s not definitive, your ex might not believe the breakup is really final. He may think he can win you back by fixing something about himself, and expend even more self-destructive energy failing to win you over by changing his hairstyle and music collection. Or he may take your word that you’re “taking a break,” and then feel devastated when, after spending two weeks thinking about your paths in life, he spots you on a date with your tennis instructor.
If you’re breaking up and don’t want to crush the other person’s self-esteem, it’s best to say something firm, something that lets her know that it’s over because you’re incompatible. It’s okay to talk about the fundamental differences between the two of you: “You like to go out and I like to stay in” or, “I need somebody who thinks of her career the same way I do.” Let your partner know that you don’t believe this gap is something she will be able to bridge so that attempting to stay in more often or to get a new job is no longer an option. It’s too late, you’re leaving, but it’s not because she’s a terrible person. It’s just because you have different goals and needs.
Give Your Partner Space to Grieve
Many psychologists say that losing a lover to a breakup is similar to losing her to death. A person who was so integral to us has been ripped away, never to return, and it hurts in the way that death hurts us. In some ways it’s worse, because when the person who breaks up with us is always around, it’s like being haunted by a ghost of lost love.
If you break up with someone, you may be shocked by how lonely you are at first or by how much you miss the good things about the person, even if you don’t miss the romance. But don’t make the mistake of constantly reconnecting or trying to stay friends immediately after a breakup. For sure, people who once dated can become great friends, but only if there’s a period of time in which they are allowed to heal and accept that they now lead separate lives.
If you feel that you would like to stay friends with your ex, it might be a good idea to set boundaries, or at least a schedule, immediately after the breakup happens. Perhaps there’s an upcoming event, like a social gathering, where you can agree to meet up and say hi, preferably in a month or two. Until then, refrain from phone calls, emails, IMs, and walking near his or her work.
Of course, you can’t stop a person from calling or emailing you. And you shouldn’t feel like a shut-in who’s not allowed to go out because your ex is everywhere you want to be! But keep as much distance as rationality allows. Screen your calls and set up your IM program so that you don’t show up as online — that way your ex won’t wonder what you’re doing online at 1 a.m. If you must respond to emails, do so quickly and politely in a way that lets your ex know that you care, but that you are maintaining distance — something as simple as, “I’m doing well, keeping busy. I’ll say hi in two weeks at Jake’s house.” That lets him know that you are maintaining distance without being rude about it and doesn’t ask him any questions that would invite a dialogue.
No Breakup Sex!
It almost goes without saying, but one of the most harmful things you can do after a breakup is to sleep with your ex. You may find yourself comforted by temporarily reconnecting with a partner. You may even find him more attractive now that you don’t have to see his baseball hat collection or pretend to enjoy her cooking!
But resist that self-destructive urge. Sex with an ex can loosen boundaries of all kinds and possibly pull you back into the relationship in some way. But for the person who didn’t get to make the decision to break up, it promises on an emotional level that some kind of closeness still exists, closeness that you’re not really interested in having anymore. So in its aftermath, the other person may emotionally relive all the horrors of the original breakup, leaving her depressed a second time and really hurting her self-esteem. In fact, it may lead her to think that she’s not worth much as a human being if her body is good enough for you but her soul isn’t. Sex with an ex is a bad idea all around, so avoid it.
No matter how you handle it, breaking up with someone will leave wounds. But if you make the breakup a firm, one-time thing and allow time to heal before trying to be friends later, you’ll affirm your ex as a person, even if you reject the potential for a relationship. And that kind of respect and love (on a human level) will minimize the chances of bruising your partner’s ego on the way out the door.