By it’s very nature dating is a temporary state. When was the last time you saw a greetings card for “Congratulations on 17 Years of Dating!”
You see her across the Bistro. He invites you for coffee. Maybe you go running together. Then dinner. Maybe a weekend away. By and by you decide not to date other people. You’re in that “I like what I see. I’d like to keep the competition at bay while we have a chance to see where this leads. Will we find more and more in common, get closer and find it easy to be with and talk to one another, or will we stall out in stagnant-ville, or will we lurch into a nasty, belittling downward spiral of misery, pain and suffering?”
You have no idea at the get-go. That’s why you date. You’re dipping your toes into the relationship. At some point you’ll decide to go fully in or fully out in which case you’ll need to make a transition out of dating and into:
- Long term commitment (see NOTE below)
- “Mutually-Ex” ~ either you know from the start that the relationship has a built-in expiration date due to other life circumstances –e.g., finishing college, distant graduate schools, work overseas, military service, etc; or you both agree it’s time to move on and part ways amicably.
- “Unhappily-Ex” ~ when only one party wants to end the relationship.
This article is for those facing Option #3. You’re dating but feel the relationship is not right long-term. You want to end it. But how?
Obviously there are dreadfully heart-wrenching breakups (which perchance can be lucrative if you channel that pain – think Taylor Swift, Adele or indeed any one of the writers of the 50 greatest breakup songs of all time). But there can be breakups which are dignified-if-bittersweet. Endings which are firm-but-gentle, with a genuine nod to what “might have been”, and an acknowledgment of good-times-shared and lessons-learned, even as you guide your soon-to-be “Ex” through the transition from “main squeeze” to “former squeeze”.
As a relationship therapist I’ve come to understand 3 important truths which may help you here – as you contemplate your farewell:
- You have 100% control over how you behave in this transition
- You have ZERO control over how your soon-to-be Ex behaves
- Having compassion both for yourself, and your friend, makes a huge difference
When you bring a relationship to a close with compassion, you’ll be able to see ~
- You are both good folks
- You’ve probably both been bruised a bit by life
- You’ve probably both said and done dumb things
- Dating is dating – it’s OK to move on if you want to
- This is an opportunity for some good learning
- Learning is a choice not everybody makes
- Bitterness, blame, vengeance and anger hurt the person who feels them way more than the person toward whom these emotions are directed
- You will always have what you two had – the good, bad and ugly
- You are now simply this person + these experiences
So, practically speaking, how does one break up?
The Five Stages of a Principled Break Up
- You begin to have doubts
- You try to fix things
- You realize it’s not going to work
- You declare it’s over to your partner
- You learn, heal and try again
Let’s break it down.
1. You begin to have doubts
Whether it’s her habits or his disorganization; the way you fight or your differing loyalties to families-of-origin; her ambition for med school or his desire to take his bagpipes and busk through Europe, but somewhere along one sunny afternoon you’ll be visited by an inkling of “I’m not sure this will work.” Some intuitive, gut-clenching, heart pounding, sad dawning will flutter across your consciousness and you’ll find yourself seeing your sweetie in a new, less certain, light. You’ll feel suddenly alone. A chasm of possible mis-match has thrust its way between you and now, for the first time, you experience some doubt.
Compassion Point: When you are first in love you see your partner through rose-tinted specs. As your love matures you’ll encounter genuine power struggles as you each need to get back in touch with who you are in this relationship. Doubt is common as this stage. It’s normal.
2. You try to fix things
This is where your relationship goes through some heavy lifting. Hopefully you’ll have the awareness to begin to name the differences you notice and discuss them. This can open up a rat’s nest of course, since discussing differences is tough even for seasoned couples. But you’ll notice one of 2 things: your discussions will bring you closer or drive a wedge between you. Pay attention to which it is.
It is very typical for dating couples to cycle through a Beatles’ play list:
- Faith “All you need is love”
- Doubt “We Can Work It Out”
- Hope “Oh Darling”
Repeat . . .until you’ve become jaded by the cycle and “Yesterday” becomes your background theme tune more often than not.
Compassion Point: All couples go through this cycle. You are going along. You bump into some differences. You try to figure them out. You muddle through. Until the next time. You go around again. If, however, you begin to feel like you’re trapped in a situation you can’t improve, or your differences mostly lead to painful fights which are driving a wedge between, you’ll need professional help, or to move on.
3. You realize it’s not going to work
Professional help failed, or you know your paths are leading to different horizons and you’ve come to the conclusion it’s time to move on. This post on “When to call it quits” might be helpful here. This can be a lonely time. For some couples it can be helpful to have an honest conversation about how you feel, at this stage. Your partner might be relieved, admit to the same realization and you can shift to parting more or less amicably. If there is a chance this could be a mutual parting, then some sort of conversation about “How do things feel to you? Are you hopeful we’ll pull through these differences, or not so much?”
Or, you may know that your partner is much more committed than you are and you’ll have to take charge of the transition. If you are to make Stage 4 successful (when you tell your partner you are leaving the relationship) you need to do your homework here.
Ask yourself the following questions (because your partner is going to ask you)
- What do you feel for your partner?
- What emotional needs are not being met?
- Have you tried to get these needs met with your partner?
- What is causing you to give up on the relationship?
- Why now?
- Is there anything your partner could do that would make enough of a difference that you’d stay?
Compassion Point: As you answer these questions, keep your focus on YOU – your feelings, your needs. These are not up for discussion and cannot be dismissed even by a potentially angry or grieving partner.
4. You declare it’s over to your partner
When you know you are through; you’ve tried and tried again; and you’ve done your homework (above) it’s time to tell your partner, firmly but gently, that you are moving on. The following tips might help.
- Call and ask to have some time one morning / afternoon / evening.
- Go to their home – in this way you have control over your departure and they do not have to drive.
- Let them know you’ve come to a decision and want to let them know.
- Keep your opening statement simple: “Mary, we’ve been dating for 2 years now. I’ve loved getting to know you and the fun times we’ve had. However, these past 9 months of fighting and name-calling and drama have been pretty tough. The way we are together isn’t good for either of us. We’ve both tried – I know that. But I’ve come to the decision that I need to move on. I’ve come to say goodbye.”
- Be prepared for all sorts of possible responses – anger, pain, tears, shouting, a speedy invitation to “get out and never come back” – you can imagine how your partner might react.
If your partner behaves badly ~ lashing out with verbal, physical or emotional abuse, take your leave quickly. Let them know if they want to have a more reasonable goodbye later, you’d be open to that. But for now protect yourself and leave calmly. Do your very best not to get caught up in more drama – this is why you are moving on.
If your partner becomes unglued ~ and you fear for his or her emotional stability, let them know you are worried about them and you’ll be calling in their friend (helps if you know someone who cares for your ex whom you can call). Leave them with this person for comfort – not you.
If your partner behaves well ~ and the two of you can process your relationship’s evolution – wonderful. Have the conversation. A great deal of healing can come as the two of you sit together, side by side, and mourn what was.
Compassion Point: Given the sudden quality of this news, your partner will be plunged into a shocked, reactive state. They will not be at their best. They need you to be the adult – so be one.
DO NOT ~
- Go back and forth, “OK, you want me to stay through your exams?”
- Cultivate dependence of any sort – it’s only good for your ego, not their Self-hood;
- Forget that your partner was successfully single before they met you and will be successfully single after you as well;
- Bad-mouth your “Ex” to others;
- Agree to lingering connections that feel sticky like “We’ll still swap cars next Thursday right?” “Will you still feed my cat? Come to my performance? Celebrate my parents’ wedding anniversary-they do love you! Attend cousin Chloe’s wedding, we’ve already accepted!” Those arrangements were for you as “date” not you as “Ex”. Your “Ex” needs to know they can survive without you more than they need you at these events. Honestly.
If you are living together, things are more complicated certainly – you’ve got to deal with your shared living space, possessions, pets, and finances. However, all the work you’ve done to become clear about your decision will be the same.
5. You learn, heal and try again
You may be in considerable pain, even though it was your decision to move on. You are likely to feel a whole bucket full of complex emotions – guilt, loneliness, embarrassment, anger, loss, frustration, relief, excitement, sorrow. Trite as it sounds, let it be. Let the feelings wash over you.
Undertake a deliberate course of self-care ~
- Start a blog / journal
- Take up a new sport
- Consider martial arts
- Take a class – Japanese cooking, singing, French, archery
- Get into nature
- If necessary, schedule one or two sessions with a relationship therapist to process what you’ve learned
Let yourself rebuild trust in the idea that relationships can be happy, equally satisfying, nurturing and positive. Start gently though and definitely wait a few months before “going steady” with someone again.
Compassion Point: If you find you are telling yourself a story that is filled with how dreadful your “Ex” is and what a victim you were, see if you can change that story. As long as you are Victim in one story it’s hard to be Heroic in another. Work to understand what you were responsible for in your old relationship. If you avoid this introspection, you may find yourself getting a chance to re-learn that lesson next time around.
NOTE (from beginning of Blog)
Obviously “Happily Ever After” belongs in story books. Just because someone makes a transition from dating to long-term-commitment does not mean the relationship is – as they say in New Zealand – “done and dusted.” These fizzle half the time as well. But working through the breakup/divorce of a long-term committed partnership is a tiger of a different stripe. Maybe for another blog mini-series.