breaking up is hard to do: how to effectively end your relationship

Jack: hey :-)
Jill: whats up?
Jack: um... i wanted to talk to you about something
Jill: yeah?
Jack: i think we should start seeing other people
Jill: OMG what!
Jack: i mean, we can still hang out.
Jill: whatever, UR such a jerk! i can't believe UR breaking up with me over text! A-hole!

Have you ever been broken up with? Have you ever had to initiate the breaking up? Whether you're the dumper or the dumpee, ending a relationship is a difficult communicative task for most individuals to complete. (And by the way, whoever decided that texting was an acceptable way to break things off? News flash: it's not acceptable. Anywhere. In the entire world. Ah, but I digress.)

The truth of the matter is that in general, people are pretty bad at delivering bad news, especially of the 'breaking-up' persuasion. From changing your facebook status to "single" and hoping that your soon-to-be-ex-partner notices to disappearing without a trace or without any explanation about why the relationship is over, we've all either been guilty of committing one of these dreadful relationship-ending acts or been the victim of these appalling crimes against love. So, if you're in a relationship that just isn't cutting it or if you know someone who is about to break up with their old flame, read this post so that you know how to effectively break up when the time comes.

According to Burleson (2008), there are two main steps to effective break-ups:
  1. Determine your goals. Ask yourself: What do I want to accomplish regarding our current relationship? What type of relationship do I want to have with my former partner in the future (after the break-up)? How do I want to see myself and have others see me? And yes, you should actually write down the answers to these questions. Articulating your goals is a vital first step to effective communication in any context. Once you have clearly identified your goals for the break-up, you can begin to choose the strategy that best suits your needs.
  2. Determine your strategy. Your choice should be based on which strategy will help you achieve your goals. Again, you want to write these out. Create messages for your partner using a few different strategies before choosing the "final" one. You may want to use just one strategy or a mix of a few.

Termination strategies can be direct, which tend to be face-to-face and explicit in nature, or indirect, which employ more implicit forms of communication like hinting, "beating around the bush", various forms of nonverbal communication, emails, or text messages (Baxter, 1982; 1984). Below are eight relationship termination strategies identified by researcher Leslie Baxter (1984):

  1. Withdrawal: reducing frequency of contact and intimacy through the use of various avoidance behaviors. Essentially, this is where you start to avoid the other person. You could quit answering your phone, stop seeing him or her as often, cease answering emails from your partner, evade your mate at social gatherings, or completely disappear.
  2. Pseudo-de-escalation: telling your mate that you'd like a different kind of relationship when you actually want to end the relationship. Something like, "I think we should just be friends" or "Maybe we should have an open relationship." This strategy is called 'pseudo' because people who use it usually don't want to just reduce closeness or de-escalate. Instead, they usually want to end the relationship. People use this strategy so that they can avoid directly terminating the relationship.
  3. Cost escalation: increasing the costs in a relationship. This is where you become increasingly rude, abusive, inconsiderate, or combative so that your partner won't want to be in the relationship anymore. You could also become more demanding of your partner's time or require that your partner do things that he or she does not want to do in order to push him or her away. You basically force the other person to break up with you.
  4. Fait accompli: explicitly stating that the relationship is over without allowing your partner to talk about your decision. You say it's over and that there isn't any room for discussion or compromise. People who use this strategy don't usually give any reason or justification for the break-up; they just end it.
  5. State of the relationship talk: explicitly stating that you are dissatisfied with the relationship and want it to end. This usually occurs during a mutual discussion about the relationship's problems and why it has to end.
  6. Fading away: an implicit understanding of the relationship's end. Here, one or both partners may just fade away with little talk about how, when, or why the relationship is over.
  7. Attributional conflict: engaging in conflict about why the end of the relationship is inevitable. This is where you argue over whether the relationship should end or continue, but about why the relationship is not working out. For example, couples may intensely argue over whether their lack of intimacy or their surplus of conflict is causing the relationship to end. Subsequently, this conflict usually causes the relationship to be over.
  8. Negotiated farewell: explicitly discussing the end of a relationship in a civil manner without conflict, malice, or resistance. Here, partners generally agree that the relationship shouldn't continue and that they should part ways.

Baxter (1984) found that the most common termination strategies are indirect like withdrawal, pseudo-de-escalation, cost escalation, and fading away. Unfortunately, indirect strategies are not always the most sensitive, thoughtful, or caring ways to end a relationship. Indirect strategies can be hurtful when the person being broken up with finally realizes what's going on. Don't get me wrong, direct strategies are not always the best choice either. For instance, fait accompli and attributional conflict can be quite aggressive and down right mean at times. Overall, the negotiated farewell strategy is likely the most tactful and respectful way to end your romance.

BUT! There's a big BUT here! Depending on your goals, negotiating a farewell with your partner may not always be the best way to go. Think back to your answers to those questions posed earlier in this post: What do you want to accomplish regarding your current relationship? What type of relationship do you want to have with your former partner in the future (after the break-up)? How do you want to see yourself and have others see you? The answers to all three of these questions will influence your choice of strategy. For instance, if you want to end your relationship immediately, to never speak with your future ex-partner again, to seriously hurt his or her feelings, and to have other people see you as a mean, heartless individual, then you may choose withdrawal or fait accompli. Both would allow you to attain your goals. So, think about your goals, and choose a strategy that will help you achieve them.

Let's say you want to end your relationship in a more civil manner and on a more pleasant note. Maybe you actually want to remain friends with your future ex after the break-up, or maybe you've been with that person for years and you don't want to severely hurt him or her, or maybe you're just a nice person. Below is some breaking-up etiquette for people like you.
  • DO talk to your mate face-to-face about how you feel
  • DON'T break things off over a text message, on the phone, or on facebook
  • DO tell our partner what's bothering you about the relationship
  • DON'T ignore your partner until he or she gets the clue
  • DO be respectful of his or her feelings- be empathetic
  • DON'T rant and rave about how they're not good enough for you or how they ruined the relationship
  • DO acknowledge the good times
  • DON'T focus the entire conversation on what went wrong
  • DO encourage your partner to find a relationship that works and is healthy
  • DON'T state that he or she is a terrible relationship partner
Hopefully, these codes of conduct will make your relationship dissolution a more satisfying experience for the both of you.

Maybe you're in a relationship that is full of criticism and conflict, or maybe you took the Romantic Potential Survey, the Trust Survey, or the Commitment Readiness Survey and realized that your relationship just isn't going anywhere, or maybe you're in a relationship that isn't working out but somehow you can't seem to break things off. If there's no hope for the future, use the tips from this post to effectively break-up with your mate. Because, as we all know, breaking up is hard to do.

Related Love Lesson posts:

  • Baxter, L. (1982). Strategies for ending relationships: Two studies. Western Journal of Speech Communication, 46, 223-241.
  • Baxter, L. (1984). Trajectories of relationship disengagement. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 1, 29-48.
  • Burleson, B. R. (2008). Personal communication.


Pants said...

Definitely a good post, Jennie. I always tell people that I had the healthiest breakup known to man, and it still killed me. :)

Jennie said...

Thanks Pants! Don't get me wrong, all break-ups are going to be difficult and will cause pain to one or both individuals involved. But, choosing a good break-up strategy and following the tips discussed in this post can help to alleviate some of that sorrow. Thanks for your comment!

SweetWICK said...

Love this blog. It looks great and the content is awesome! Thanks.

Jennie said...

Thanks SweetWICK! I love that you love it!

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