You are probably familiar with the iconic song by Paul Simon, 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover. As great as that song is…slipping out the back, Jack, is not one of the better ways to end a relationship.
When the blinding light of knowledge hit Charlessa one morning, she knew it was time to end her marriage. She began to plan how she’d tell her husband. Her intention was to avoid harm at all costs, and yet she did more damage than she could have foreseen. For example, by refusing to engage in any conversations with him, she left him frustrated and in agony. Her vague statements about “needing change” did nothing for him. Plus, at the time, they were walking through the midst of a street festival surrounded by people. She thought it would feel comforting but they both just felt exposed and vulnerable.
For David, it was the opposite. When he broke up with his long term girlfriend he overshared every detail of his process with her, to the point where he picked apart everything about her that he had found objectionable over six years. Not helpful. Being in the car driving down the highway added to the problem. They were both literally trapped in what seemed like a nightmare scenario. She reacted by withdrawing at first, and then resorting to shouting out examples of his flaws as well, in self-defense. It got ugly, fast.
There are ways to do this painful and unpleasant thing that are less awful than others. Avoiding the mistakes Charlessa and David made, and others, will help you get through this process intact.
If you’ve been in that situation—knowing it’s the end—chances are you were not the only one. You both probably felt it coming. However, that does not mean the awareness is conscious for your partner. Denial is very powerful and the state of “unknowing” it creates is as real as actual ignorance.
Procrastinating the inevitable is very common. There are so many reasons for people NOT to want to pull the plug on a relationship.
♦ We hope things will get better and cling to any sign that all is well.
♦ We don’t want to hurt anyone, especially someone we have loved.
♦ We are afraid. Afraid to start over. Afraid we won’t be okay. Afraid we will harm our children, if children are involved.
♦ Then there is pride—the public shame of a failed relationship takes on huge proportions in our imaginations and we dread judgment from others (when in fact compassion is often much more in evidence when the time comes).
♦ And we simply don’t want to disappoint… our parents, our partner’s parents, friends, siblings, ourselves. We can almost hear them… “How could this have happened?” or “But you were so happy!” What other people don’t know about your relationship could fit into a box the size of Saturn, but everyone thinks they know. Don’t let other people’s know-it-all vibe get you down. You know, and that is what counts.
Consider the following steps. (If children are involved please seek the advice of counsel before anything else.)
- Before you speak the words—“It’s over”—to your partner, be very clear that this is what you want. There is no going back. No matter what, things won’t be the same. Even a relationship that continues past “I want to break up” is going to be a very different one indeed. It may seem obvious, but don’t make a rash decision based on anger or manipulation to change your partner’s behavior. Threats of a break-up are absolutely the worst thing for a relationship you actually have hopes for.
- Take the time you need to make a plan. How do you hope it will play out? (Realize that in such cases there is no way to script the outcome as you only write your part). Be considerate of your partner as you work out logistics. Remember he or she is unaware these plans are in the works so what seems like old news to you could come across like a tidal wave to your partner.
- Unless there is a threat of violence, it is always best to do this in person. Texting, phoning, or using a third party are completely unacceptable.
- Where are you going to have this talk? Neutral is best. A favorite restaurant is too emotionally fraught. It is best not to do it at home, either. You want no distractions. And you don’t want either of you to feel trapped. A spot where one or both can leave readily is a good idea, and where you won’t be observed.
- Decide when the best time is. You don’t want to be rushed, and you want to be sure you have as much time as you may need. The conversation may only last five minutes because emotions run high. You will then return to it after the information has “settled.” Avoid moments like these: the end of a stressful day, a few minutes before the kids are due back from soccer, holidays, family events….
- It is not a good idea to “wing it”—so be sure you know what you are going to say. Be firm and clear. Use “I” statements. David’s mistake was that he kept saying, “You always…” or “You tend to…” or even, “You make me feel…” –no good. So stick to statements like these: “I am breaking up with you;” “I want a divorce;” “I don’t want to be in the relationship anymore;” “The relationship isn’t working for me.”
- Charlessa did not blame, but on the other hand she did not provide the reasons her husband so desperately needed to hear. So be prepared to give support to your decision, without blaming. For example: “I want to advance my career and relocate;” “I want children;” or (if it is not a concrete cause) “This relationship does not fulfill me.” Be honest, compassionate, and respectful. There is nothing to be gained by criticizing or blaming your partner or being vengeful. The truth is that it doesn’t matter who is right or wrong. The relationship is over.
- If you co-habitate, make a plan about who will go where. Just because you are initiating the split does not automatically mean you have to move out, but have a sensible idea for this.
- Prepare for the emotional fall-out. This is a painful conversation under any circumstances. Even if you are sure your partner knows… somewhere inside…you may be surprised. Denial is powerful. The words turn our fears into truth. If your partner screams, threatens, or exhibits any loss of control, you need to leave immediately and explain that you’ll continue the conversation when he or she is calmer.
- Be kind and maintain your boundaries. Do not negotiate. Since you are sure (step one, remember?), there is no point to agreeing to do x, y, or z in order to make this moment less painful. Saying something you don’t mean to soften the blow leads to more pain down the line. Be firm and compassionate.
- No matter how much you’d love to feel reassured that this break-up won’t mean “losing each other forever”—trying to plan the future now is a bad idea. You may be friends one day. You may be able to laugh together, have lunch, send funny emails. But you may not, and a break-up can’t be muddied with such hopes and dreams. First, you both need to heal and reevaluate your lives so you can move forward.
Being the initiator of a break-up doesn’t make the big life changes any simpler, or the sadness and confusion any less real. My final advice: stay single for awhile Take your time to get to know yourself before jumping into another relationship.