DEAR DR. JENN,
My girlfriend and I have been together for two years. She is an amazing, sweet, attractive woman but I just don’t see my future with her, and I am at the point in my life where I want to me with someone I could imagine walking down the isle with and having kids together. I feel like a jackass to break up with her because I know she doesn’t see this coming. How do I do this? — It's Me
DEAR IT'S ME,
I don’t think you are a jackass. Setting this woman free to find someone who will appreciate everything she brings to the table and who will want a future with her is a gift. A painful gift, but a gift nonetheless. You don’t want to hog her up any longer, and acknowledging that is a good thing. Whether she sees it that way right off the bat or not is a different story. (Unless you're really, really lucky, she probably won't.) There's still hope for uncoupling empathetically.
It's gonna be tough, it’s gonna hurt, and you need to be emotionally prepared. The kind of breakup where you're still basically in love but making a break for supposed future-life reasons can be especially painful for the rejected person. Breakup brain scans show that the withdrawal of romantic love creates a similar experience to withdrawal from substances like cocaine or opioids. In other words, it is as difficult and painful as getting off of drugs. And when it's precipitated by a lengthy explanation as to why this person is utterly, unbelievably perfect on paper and just not — you can't put your finger on it — enough, somehow, it's truly like a punch to the gut.
Now here’s the important part, that doesn’t mean it is not the right thing to do. It is crucial that this kind of split is handled with care, and not impulsively. It should not take place in the heat of a fight. It should be mature and respectful of the multi-year history you have shared. Keep in mind, feelings are like waves: they come and they go. As upset as she may be, eventually it will pass. (Don't say that to her, either, though.) Since you've got to extricate yourself somehow, here's what you need to know.
How to Break Up, Compassionately
1. Get your head in the right place. Hope for the best and prepare for the worst. Go in prepared to handle tears, anger, shock and sadness. Make sure you are coming in confident that this is the right choice. If you waiver or appear to be unsure, this opens the floor for negotiations which will likely make this a more long, drawn-out breakup. That's not better for either of you.
2. Find a location. Needless to say, an I-still-love-you breakup should not be done on the phone, in an email, or a text message. The only exception is if you are in a very long-distance relationship and have no plans to see each other anytime soon.
If you’re doing it in person, finding the right location is important. There are many people who believe being in a public place is ideal because no one can get too emotional or aggressive. We tend to be better behaved around others. On the other hand, the privacy of your own home can give the both of you more opportunity to really talk about your feelings about what is happening. This allows for tears and emotion. You should know your partner well enough by now to know which version will be more comfortable with them; try to go with that. If you don't live together, and break up in her home, it saves her from having to sob all the way back to her place when it's time to go, and you can leave when the conversation has comfortably ended.
Note that an at-home breakup also allows for breakup sex, which I do not recommend.
3. Map it out. Go in with talking points prepared in advance. It is too easy to get distracted or dissuaded by the other person's emotional response. Make sure that you are clear about what you want to convey. I recommend the sandwich technique. You start with something positive and end with something positive (and, yes, the harsh part is the meaty middle). Let her know the wonderful qualities she has, and some things that you have valued about the last two years together. But don't rush past the "but we need to go our separate ways" part.
4. Own it. Be honest, respectful, and avoid blaming. This is not the time to share criticisms, relationship feedback, or let her know what she could’ve done better. Own what is not working for you. At the risk of sounding like a cliché, “it’s not you, it’s me” works really well at a time like this. While you may not want to say exactly those words, conveying that idea in what you say is important. You love her and have loved her, but there is something else you want out of your life — it's not on her to figure that out and fill that void.
5. Don’t negotiate. Too often, people mince their words during a breakup resulting in confusion about whether a couple is over or not. This can give false hope and open the door for a back-and-forth relationship that is likely to cause more pain. Keep things clear and clean. The only way to do this is to end the relationship definitively and with clarity. Keep in mind, it only takes one person to end a relationship. If one person wants out, it’s over. Make sure your communication is clear, direct and kind.
And Tidy Up the Aftermath
Once the breakup conversation has been accomplished, it is important to make a plan of action. When it was a longterm relationship and you're lives and intertwined, this makes your separation real and also makes the end of the relationship clean, preventing misunderstandings and drawing out the process. Your plan needs to be as collaborative an effort as you can muster in the immediate aftermath of a breakup. Here are the moving-on subjects you need to master:
- Who's moving? (If you're living together at the time of breakup, that is.)
- Giving and getting all your stuff back (who's keeping what, and when is the rest changing hands).
- Telling friends, and how to handle social media status changes or announcements about the breakup.
- Decide about whether you will remain friends. It's not always recommended.
- Set communication boundaries. I always recommend a detox — a.k.a. no communication between couples after a breakup, for an amount of time that you can work out together. A breakup is like a wound, and every time you have contact you rip off the scab and you bleed again. Don’t make each other bleed. Come up with a communication plan that works for both of you and figure out how to handle any logistics that come up after the fact (i.e. will an email be okay, but texting is too personal?). Lay out some rules and follow them.
And because it can't hurt to say this one last time — do not engage in “one last time” sex! Breakup sex seems like a great idea in the moment but inevitably causes at least one person a lot of pain. Be kind in your breakup and disciplined in your exit.