One of the most difficult ordeals a guy can face is the delicate matter of ending a relationship that his girlfriend still wants to continue, especially if he still cares for her. There are some good ways to go about it, but infinitely more bad ones, and I’ve certainly plumbed the latter category more times than I’d like to admit over the years. So, in the interests of sparing men (and women) the mistakes I’ve made, here’s what I’ve learned from my past.
First, before we can even get on to the delicate matter of how to break up with a girl, there’s the more important question of should you: Is it actually necessary? Are the reasons you think you need to break up legit? Are they instead things that can actually be worked out? Improved in some way through rational and honest conversation?
If you are certain they are not, very well then, let’s proceed:
First off, you had better make sure you’ve earned the right to break up with her.
“Earned?” you ask?
Yes, earned. If you haven’t already had a number of conversations about your misgivings about the relationship, then you’ve got a few steps to go through first.
Because the one thing that will make you an outright asshole is if she’s hearing about these complaints for the first time. Employers can’t fire you without a few warnings first, and the same applies in relationships: you need to establish a pattern here. If you’re too much of a coward to have those tough conversations first and let her respond to what you’re unhappy about (and even let her yell a bit), or are too lazy to work together to change things, then you’re not ready to break up yet. And you’re probably also not ready to be in a relationship yet, either. (And yes, I’ve beenboth of these guys over the years.) But the point is, you might learn through these conversations that you’re a bigger part of the problem than you realized, and some of the onus of fixing it is on you.
Exemption clause: of course, if you walk in one night and catch her sleeping with your best friend, then sure, no real discourse is needed, you’re fully entitled to hit the eject button. (Or if she accidentally burned your vinyl record collection—I mean, we all have our limits.) But otherwise, if everyone broke up with each other at the first infraction, the human race would never get around to actually reproducing.
Second: Is it a good time for a breakup? Can she handle this right now? If you really care about ending it tactfully, and not causing her immense pain and getting anointed as public enemy number one, perhaps you can wait another week until she’s through passing her med school boards, or until after her sister’s wedding, or until after she’s had that appendectomy. That said, if “waiting until it’s a good time” results in putting it off a year, at some point the trigger just needs to be pulled. There’s never a “great” time for a breakup, just try not to pick the worst.
Third: you’re going to be the asshole no matter what. It will vary in degree, but there’s usually no way you’re going to walk out of this with her giving you an enthusiastic high-five. Be prepared to be the recipient of her fury, resentment, or depression. It’s your unique door prize to inherit for playing the role of dumpeur. Man up, and be ready to take the heat. Your reasons may be sound, and in time, when she finally meets the guy she’s eventually going to marry in six months’ time, you’ll be forgiven a bit. But not now.
Forth: try to pick a good place. The important elements are: privacy, a calm environment, a quiet environment, and preferably a place where she can have a bit of a breakdown if the moment requires. It may sound cruel on the surface, but I personally recommend doing it at her place, where most of these elements are in place. That way, you can leave once the conversation seems truly ‘over,’ and she can have the comfort of her own environment to fall apart in. If you do it at your place, then she has the additional hurdle of trying to get herself home. While crying. In downtown traffic. As your favorite U2 song comes on the radio. If it has to be a public place for some reason, don’t pick a restaurant or café or anywhere else where you’re in full public view. Look for a park, or somewhere with a bench away from a crowd.
Fifth: we’ve all probably heard this before, but “I statements” not “you statements” are key here, and are essential if you don’t want the whole thing to turn into an emotional volcano. Say “I feel like I’m not being heard,” not “you never listen to me.” “I feel I can’t be myself around you” rather than “you’re too controlling.” And if it seems that it’s not really working for her either, point that out, so it’s not just about your needs, it’s also about what’s best for her future, too.
Sixth: honesty is important, but only up to a point. There is a point where you can go too far and do irreparable damage. Of course, there’s no point in completely sugarcoating it either, or else she’ll be left in the dark as to why you’re leaving. You can’t just tell her “I just want something new” if the truth is more like “I don’t feel like you support my dreams and aspirations.” There are a few exceptions, I think, such as if you’re not really attracted to her (in which case you’re a jerk, since: what were you doing dating her in the first place?), or is if the sex is lousy. Telling a woman she’s bad in bed (and again, the problem might not be her, it might be your inability to communicate what you like, or that you have different approaches to sex) is about the sharpest knife you can plunge into her heart. She might never recover her confidence from it. “We don’t seem sexually compatible” is about as far as you can go with this one, but if you can focus it on the conflict in values and lifestyles, that’s easier to swallow.
Seventh: give her some indication it’s coming. Don’t blindside her when she thinks you’re just going out to see a movie. I made this awful mistake once, thinking it would be easier, and have regretted it every since. It might be easier for you to stay in lala land before you drop the bomb, but it’s cruel to her. Tell her “I think we need to have a talk” at the very least.
Finally—if you can—tell her you’re open to talking about it some more if she wants to (and if you’re able to handle it). And then walk away. At some point, the breakup talk needs an endpoint, so she can process. And be aware that, just because the talk is over, doesn’t mean the process is over. There will be followup waves. And if you’re truly trying to be a - guy, you’ll stomach a few of them. Give her the answers she needs, if she wants them, and you can provide them. But at some point, you’ll inevitably need to just cut the cord, at least for a while.
And since we can’t always plan our breakup talks—sometimes they just happen—at least try to handle them with dignity. Rather than place blame, explain how the relationship just isn’t giving you what you need—spiritually, conversationally, romantically, financially, whatever. And remember that even if your time with this woman has come to an end, her romantic life hasn’t, and there will be other relationships that she can apply theselessons to. No matter how unhappy you may be with your relationship, don’t let her sour on love or men altogether. We men all have to realize: right now there’s a guy out there breaking up with a woman we’ll one day date ourselves (or even marry). And just as we don’t want him burning her so hard she puts up a wall we can never get through, let’s all try to do the same for him. Pay it forward by ending things gracefully, so she can love openly again, and hope that the guy who might be dumping your future wife has the maturity to do the same.
This piece was originally published at The Good Men Project.