Updated: Sep 1
Breaking up with someone in a compassionate, caring, and considerate way. Is it even possible? And how in the world would we go about it??
This topic comes to us from one of our Instagram friends as part of our “as requested” series. It’s a great joy to me to be able to answer your suggestions for topics for our blog.
Just so you know, we’ve been through this issue with countless individuals and couples, and there’s a ton of understanding about kind and cruel ways to go about breaking up with someone.
But first of all, just so we don’t descend into an abyss of bullshit, the question “How do you break up with someone in a compassionate, caring, and considerate way?” is a tiny bit like asking, “How do you blow up someone’s house in a compassionate, caring, and considerate way?”
Breaking up with someone is typically—though not always—a devastating blow, and nothing you do can make it less than that. It is commonly experienced as a terrifying abandonment and the ruination of a person’s life. This is not a neurotic response, either. It’s normal and understandable. We only want the person we’re breaking up with to take a calmer view of things because it’s more convenient for us, easier on our nerves.
Okay, we’ve gotten the reality check out of the way.
In spite of this, if you’re in a relationship that’s painful for you, one where you tried to make things better and now you have no reasonable hope that things can be better, one where, by staying in it, you are cut off from the possibility of love or peace in your life, then it’s reasonable for you to say you have to leave.
And that actually brings us to the first step in being kind. The reality is it only takes one person to end a relationship. It’s not something you vote on. More important, it’s not something you debate. Yes, you might very well go to a couples therapist to discuss how you as a couple can find a way to go forward together. That’s great! But once you’ve decided to leave, there’s nothing to debate.
And so, to be kind, you don’t offer reasons for why you’re breaking up. Surprising, right? But every reason you offer will seem to your partner like an offer of negotiation.
“I need to break up with you because of your temper.”
Your partner falls on the floor, howling in an agony of remorse, promising they’ll enter every anger management program in existence immediately and then promises that, if they ever lose their temper again, you can toss them out.
This is a negotiation.
But you’ve already been down this path.
So instead you say something like, “I need to break up. I’m so sorry. This just doesn’t work for me anymore. I know hearing this is very hard for you, but this is the way it is.” And this is kind because it’s not offering false hope, nor is it wasting your partner’s time. Yes, it would have been great if the two of you could have talked your way into agreeing to break up for reasons you both understood and were on board with. But wasn’t they way things were.
So what else can you do to be compassionate, caring, and considerate?
To lay the groundwork for that, I strongly advise that before you break up with your partner you consult an attorney if you share significant assets, like a house, or have children together, or are married. Depending on the state you live in, the law may well have binding opinions about what constitutes being compassionate, caring, and considerate in a situation like this!
Beyond that, you need—beforehand—to dig deep into how compassionate, caring, and considerate you can actually go. The very last thing you want to do is to seem to offer to “be there for you” in ways you can’t or won’t deliver.
That said, having announced unilaterally and with finality that you are breaking up, you can offer to talk about all kinds of topics. First on the list would be whatever you thought would be your partner’s greatest needs as they were hit by the news that you were breaking up with them. Where will they live? Money? Address that in the most reassuring way possible right away. Other topics:
“What do you need during the transition?”
“How can I help?”
“What do you think would be a fair way to divide up our stuff?”
“How do you want to handle the whole moving out, who lives where thing?”
“Do you want to talk about what you’d like our relationship to be like once the dust has settled?”
In reality, it may take months for either of you to be able to have a sensible conversation about this last question.
There’s one more aspect to this whole compassionate, caring, and considerate thing. Just the way you are the one to decide whether you want to break up or not, you are the one to decide if you want to have an after-the-breakup relationship with your partner. It may be that one of the very reasons you wanted to get the hell out of that relationship was to not have anything more to do with your partner’s emotional needs.
If that’s the truth, then the faster your partner is ushered onto a path of processing their emotions with people other than you, the better.
The two of you can have any kind of post-breakup relationship you want. I’m personally gratified when I see people break up and go on to maintain some kind of friendship. But you just have to understand how it works: the nature of your post-breakup relationship will be determined by the person who wants the more distant and minimal version of that relationship. And for many, this is just another part of the sadness of the death of a relationship.
But there are two big pieces of good news here.
First, by ending relationships that don’t work, we can create more relationships that do work. This is a historical fact.
Second, people are amazingly resilient, and most people, however devastated by the loss of a relationship, come back from that and achieve levels of life satisfaction they would have never thought possible.
Still, much better than a breakup is preventing a breakup. One way to do that is to not marry the wrong person. And here’s the book that’ll help you with that: Is He Mr. Right? (And by the way, in spite of the title, it’s just as much for men as for women.)
Another way is for your decision to break up not to be a mistake. The book for that is the classic Too Good to Leave, Too Bad to Stay. It’ll help you think through your reasons for staying or leaving. Lots of people have come away for TGTL and decided to re-commit to their relationship.
And why break up if you can resolve your problems!?! That’s where Why Couples Fight comes in. This book will show you why it’s been so hard for you to get your needs met and why there’s been so much conflict, and it’ll give you a much better way of going about things.