relationships

How To Break Up With Someone You Love, According To Experts

Here’s how to break up with someone and not feel like the devil. 
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Breaking up with someone you love is hard. I broke up with my first boyfriend over text message. I didn’t even have the balls to do it myself. I got my best friend to write and send the text and then immediately removed his name from my MSN tagline. I could argue that it was because I was 14 years-old and didn’t know how to break up with someone, but later on in life I did it again to another boyfriend. In response, he sent me a lengthy email with the subject line “Devil Woman.” 

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There are a million guides on how to get over a break up, but not as many on how to break up with someone. If you are thinking of ending a relationship, you have nothing to feel bad about. Sometimes things just don’t work out. 

In fact, a number of people were dumped during the pandemic. According to Relationships Australia, 42 percent of people experienced a negative change in their partnership post-lockdown. So you’re not alone in perhaps wanting to re-evaluate your relationship

It’s hard to know exactly how to break up with someone. But there are a few choices you can make to mitigate the pain - and not feel like the spawn of Satan. 

How to know if you should break up with someone

“We get stuck in the comfort of our discomfort,” Joanne Wilson, a relationship expert and neuropsychotherapist, told VICE.

“Our brains will always go to the path of least resistance. So if there's the thought of breaking up with someone, it is far easier just to keep doing what you're doing. Our thoughts can be limiting, so it's important to push past that resistance and get to the core of the issue.”

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When there aren’t any obvious signs that your partner is mistreating you, it can be hard to determine if you should break up. To overcome this, research suggests shining the spotlight on our behaviours - particularly how you and your partner communicate. 

According to psychologist and renowned marriage researcher John Gottman, there are four clear communication behaviours that increase the likelihood of divorce. Dubbed the “The Four Horsemen,” these behaviours are criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse according to John Gottman

1. Criticism

Criticism, according to Gottman’s theory, refers to an attack on your partner at the core of their character. Aka, dismantling their whole being when you criticise their character flaws - as opposed to a complaint, which focuses on the actual issue.

Criticism example: “You never do the dishes and you always leave me to clean up.”

Complaint example: “When I came home from work I noticed you didn’t do the dishes. This makes me feel frustrated as I need to walk into a tidy environment.”

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Antidote: Instead of criticism, try to approach the topic softly and be clear about why you are upset. Rather than dishing out insults, think about what you noticed, how that made you feel and what you need to resolve the issue.

2. Contempt

Contempt goes further than criticism and enters into emotional abuse territory. When communicating with contempt, a person has the intention to insult or cause harm and will utilise shame, name-calling, sarcasm and hostility to put someone down.

Example: “You’re tired? You didn’t do the dishes because you’re a pathetic, lazy, idiot. Oh, you’re upset because I called you an idiot? Go cry me a river.”

Antidote: Learn to navigate your own inner world instead of attacking the other person. Build a culture of appreciation and remind yourself of your partner’s good qualities.

3. Defensiveness

Typically a response to criticism. Defensiveness involves victimising yourself to ward off a perceived attack and reverse the blame.

Example: “You are always telling me what to do. I will do the dishes when you stop yelling at me all the time.”

Antidote: Take responsibility for your actions and try to understand and accept your partner’s perspective.

4. Stonewalling

Stonewalling involves withdrawing from the conversation altogether and avoiding any chance of conflict. Doing so conveys distance, disapproval and disconnect.

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Example: The silent treatment/an unwillingness to engage in conversation.

Antidote: For the person stonewalling, it’s likely they are in a state of physiological flooding - meaning the body detects a threat and has gone into survival mode. Which for some people means going offline and tuning out of the conversation. If you find yourself doing this, take a step back from the argument and try self-soothing tactics like going for a walk and returning to the conversation when you feel calm.

How do you know it’s time to break up?

Resonate with some of the above horsemen? Like the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in the New Testament, Gottman’s Four Horsemen signal the end of times. If you and your partner are unable to confront these habits then there is a very high chance your relationship is likely to become unstable and unhappy.

How to break up with someone you love - 9 steps to consider

There is no right or wrong when navigating how to break up with someone. There are, however, steps you can take to get through it more gracefully. 

1. Don’t be afraid to communicate how you feel

The damage caused by a break up can be minimised when handled correctly, and the best way to do this is through open communication. Whether you are in a situationship, monogamous or polyamorous relationship, communicating your needs in a non-blaming and honest way is always the best foot forward. 

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2. Break up in person if possible

Of course, it’s not always possible to break up with someone in person. Especially if you are still easily manipulated by that individual. But if you believe the relationship is at a level where you can communicate openly, then always do it in person. 

“The rule of thumb should be: ‘would you like to get that bad news?’ It’s all about treating someone the way you want to be treated,” said Wilson. 

“And don’t be afraid to keep it short and succinct. You don’t have to give them a 10-page speech.”

3. Don’t try to make the other person feel better

Once the relationship has ended, the other person’s emotions are no longer your responsibility. Sometimes comforting them will only make you feel worse and stop you from healing yourself. 

“If you don't want to be with someone then you don't have to be with them. Take the time you need to forgive yourself and do what’s best for you,” said Wilson. 

4. Cut all contact for as long as you need to (yes that means blocking on social media)

An ex once blocked me on LinkedIn. I don’t know what was more embarrassing, the fact that he thought to block me on LinkedIn, or that I checked to see if he did. 

Mustering up the courage to block an ex on social media can be extremely hard. It’s too easy to get stuck on the idea of staying friends (or worse, fuck buddies). It’s tempting to leave yourself open to contact in case there’s a chance things change. But trust me, you’ll just end up watching their Instagram story over and over again looking for clues that they’re dating someone else. 

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5. Talk about the breakup with someone you trust

We are often poor observers of our own relationships. But sometimes our friends and family can see how it’s affecting us better than we can. Having a strong support network can help keep you accountable and stay afloat. 

“Make sure that you surround yourself with encouraging and helpful people. Talk to a trusted friend or family member before making the decision,” said Wilson. 

6. Allow yourself time to be sad

You still have a right to be sad even if you are the one doing the dumping. Allowing yourself space to feel all the feelings is important. If you don’t want to get out of bed today, that’s totally fine. Just take care not to get too self-indulgent in sorrow. 

7. Put yourself first

The longer you spend time in a relationship, the more your sense of identity melds with theirs. So when you break up, if it feels like you’ve lost a part of yourself it’s because you have. This is why the best advice is to invest in yourself. 

“After you break up with someone, take time to put yourself back together again,” says Wilson. “Focusing on Dr John Ardens SEEDS theory (sleep, education, exercise, diet and socialising) is a good place to start.” 

8. Don’t let the fear of being single hold you back

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When you’re looking down the barrel of a break up, one of the major things that could be holding you back is the thought of being single.

Learning how to be comfortable being single can be easy for some. For others, it’s a real uphill battle (*cough* me *cough*). Instead of focusing on who you are going to date next, take a step back and take a moment to try new things and explore. 

Being single is the easiest way to get to know yourself. Whether you like it or not, sometimes you only have yourself to hang out with. So you know, you should at least try and enjoy it.

9. Think twice about staying friends with your ex

If you make the decision to stay in each other's lives it's VERY important to set boundaries. You didn’t spend all that time working out how to break up with someone for nothing. There’s no point staying friends with your ex if you’re just secretly hoping you’ll get back together. Doing so can be counterproductive to moving forward for both of you. 

How to break up with someone in love with you

You don’t want to hurt them, of course, but for the sake of their feelings the best thing to do is to not let it drag on too long. The longer you lead them on, the worse they’ll feel – the more betrayed and hurt. Rip the bandaid off and be real with them. Be kind and gentle, because you are in the position of power. But don’t lie. And don’t delay.

How to break up with a friend 

These tips aren’t just isolated to romantic relationships. Breaking up with a friend – especially those that you’ve haphazardly clung to well and truly beyond their expiration dates – cuts deep. I’m still mourning a friendship break up that happened almost five years ago. Why? Attachment issues. But also, the communication wasn’t great. 

Unless they’ve done something so awful you can’t bear to see them again, passively phasing out a friend can cause more hurt than necessary. Don’t be afraid to communicate how you feel (without going on a rant about how awful they’ve been) and set solid boundaries

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How to break up with someone you live with 

Dealing with a real estate agent is almost as terrifying as dealing with an ex. This is part of the reason why knowing how to break up with someone you live with can get messy real quick. To avoid this, it’s important to maintain as much civility during the break up as you can. 

Consider what you are going to do after having the initial conversation, as staying the night with the person you’ve just broken up with is not ideal. I once dramatically exited a break up by yelling, “you ruined the best years of my twenties,” and then slammed the door, promising never to return. Only I did return, almost instantly. Because I had nowhere else to go and it was cold outside. 

How to break up with someone you’re not dating

Talking about staying with someone because it’s cold outside, breaking up with someone you’re not dating can also be difficult. If you’re planning on ghosting your situationship, do it early. The longer you stay, the more chance they’ll develop feelings. But if you’ve dragged it out, then now is the time to learn how to take accountability. The best thing to do is be honest. 

It can make you feel worthless when you spend a lot of time with someone and they suddenly ghost you. It doesn’t take much to send a message letting them know how you feel. They might not reply, but they will respect your honesty. 

Remind yourself it's ok to break up with someone

There is no easy way of knowing how to break up with someone. Whether it was a long or short term relationship or even just a casual fling you thought could be more, it’s always going to hurt. But learning how to let go is a continuous part of life. And each time you achieve it, you get a little better. 

So remember, it is ok to break up with someone. Despite what your ex says, you are not the devil. You are doing what’s best for you. 

If you are in an emotionally or physically abusive relationship seek help from a health professional. You can find a list of resources here for help and advice on how to get out of your relationship safely.

This article was updated for clarity. It was originally published on June 22nd 2022.