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How to Break Up with Someone (Without Being Mean or Hurtful)

You might remember when Carrie Bradshaw, Manhattan’s Cosmo-drinking gal from ‘Sex and the City’, was broken up with on a Post-It note. Those of us who saw that particular episode let out a collective gasp at the horror of it all. Yet every day someone breaks up with someone else in a hurtful, dismissive way, and the one who gets hurt carries that frustration into their next romantic encounter. Let’s all agree to work a little harder at breaking it off with someone in a sensitive way so that everybody benefits from positive dating karma!

Dating is all about finding the right puzzle piece that fits neatly with yours. If you’ve met someone and decide that he’s not for you, proceed delicately. Be clear that you’re not interested in pursuing a relationship, but do it in a way that is tactful. Below, I give you some guidelines to follow when you’ve decided he or she isn’t right for you. Because the length of the dating relationship you want to end can vary – from a single date to a relationship that spans a few months – I’ve tailored my advice accordingly.

A Single Date  

The scenario: The two of you went on a date and you’ve decided it’s just never gonna happen. If he calls the next day or later that week, it’s polite to call him back. That is the goal that you should aspire to reach: to be civil and kind, and to not leave someone wondering if you’re ever going to call back.

Sample conversation…

You: Hi, listen, I wanted to call you back because I think people should treat each other well when dating, but I hope it’s okay to say that I don’t feel you and I are a really good fit. That said, I hope our paths cross again one day and we can say “hi.” Most of the time, the person you say this to will say “okay” and will soon after end the call. If he persists, however, don’t outline the specific reasons. Simply reiterate what you said and then soon after end the call.

Him: But why?

You: I’m not sure exactly, but I just feel it’s not the right fit. But I do hope that you have a good (week/weekend) and I’ll see you around.

Multiple Dates/An Actual Dating Relationship  

In many cases, the relationship you have with someone falls somewhere in between a first date and boyfriend/girlfriend status. After at least a few dates, you have formed a relationship, even if it’s only in the early stages. At this point, if you decide to break it off, you owe it to that person to break it off in a nice, respectful, and – I’m serious – direct way. You need to tell the other person that you want to call it quits. Ideally, you’d do that in person, but you can do it by phone if you just can’t bear to say it to the person’s face.

Caveat: If you have been dating seriously for over a month, you really should do it in person. Seriously, people! When a dating relationship gets more serious, the other person is going to want to know why, and you are going to have to give them some reasons.

The next issue, of course, is how honest you should be. In deciding what to say, the goal is to be honest – but not so honest that it will hurt the other person’s feelings unnecessarily. I sometimes think I’ve heard every possible reason for breaking up, given the countless men and women who sit on the couch in my office and talk about their romantic lives. The list ranges from bad breath or using too many emoticons in text messages to the more serious deal breakers, such as drugs and alcohol or the inability to commit.

If you decide you want to end it with someone, ask yourself if most people would feel that your reasons for ending it are understandable. If so, share those reasons with the person you’re ending the relationship with. If, on the other hand, your reasons are more particular, ones that would make him or her feel awkward and uncomfortable if you were to say it out loud, then keep it general when you say why you want to break it off. Talk about how it’s not a good fit, how you think you might not be ready to settle down yet (a white lie, perhaps, but you’re protecting the other’s feelings), or how you want to focus on your job or school as opposed to your relationship.

Role-Play the Breakup Conversation  

As a therapist, I love role-plays. (Okay, I might actually be obsessed with them). I find the best way to learn how to have uncomfortable conversations is to do role-plays in advance. Find a friend who will role-play with you and get to work.

Try it a few different ways: she is hostile; he keeps asking if he did something wrong; she tries to convince you out of your decision. There is no better preparation than role plays. When all is said and done, having good experiences dating depends on how adult everyone chooses to be throughout the process.

My advice is to be nice to each other, relax, and confront things head-on when you decide it’s time to go. How you break it off – and how much integrity you choose to show – is entirely up to you. Now, go out there and find the loves of your lives!

Learn more about Dr. Seth Meyers, including his book Dr. Seth’s Love Prescription: Overcome Relationship Repetition Syndrome and Find the Love You Deserve.