How to Break-Up (Online or Otherwise)
In the last year, I have watched the fallout from a number of relationships and break-ups take over the bulletin boards. These problems have caused hurt feelings, have ended friendships, and have come to involve dozens of people (through bulletin boards, email, and other electronica) who have no personal stake in the outcome. The emotional devastation these poorly handled situations bring is totally unnecessary, and prompted the following.
The following is not scientific fact: it is based on my own observations, the experiences of my friends (male and female; straight, gay, and bi) and family, and a lot of tired, commercial popular psychology. That doesn’t, however, mean that it’s bad advice.
1. Do it in person. If this is an online relationship, it may not be possible. That doesn’t give you an excuse to send a Dear John/Jane e-mail. Get as close to in-person as you can, given the limitations of space and time. Call on the phone if you must, go over if you can. But NEVER break up with an answering machine, an e-mail account, or a public forum. You and your ex both deserve better: if this relationship ever meant anything to you, it needs closure. If it didn’t, you have no right to take that out on them by treating them callously; it’s not your ex’s fault that you don’t love them anymore. You are not “off the hook,” you still have to treat them like a real person, with actual feelings.
2. Be honest, and do it before you’re so upset that you can’t be reasonable. If you’re having problems, that doesn’t necessarily mean that your partner knows about them or understands what they can do to help. Take the time to let them know what’s bothering you. If your partner really cares about you, chances are some compromise can be reached, or they will at least try to address the behaviors that make you crazy. If it’s unsalvagable, at least show them enough respect to end things finally, and with dignity. Don’t say you want to be “friends” if what you really mean is “drop dead, you jerk.” There’s a big difference between letting someone down easy and leaving them hanging, emotionally manipulating them to serve your own ego needs. Be clear, concise, and as reasonable and respectful as possible. This isn’t easy for anyone, and your ex deserves, at minimum, as much truth as you can give without being brutal and/or hurtful.
3. Your (ex)partner is not a mind-reader, and neither are you. Don’t think that they will automatically know what you want or need, or how you would like to handle the break-up. Do you need some time apart before you can face each other and perhaps build a new friendship? Tell them so, it will impact both of your social worlds, who you hang out with, etc. Do you think it’s totally unfair and passive-aggressive that she wants to keep the book she gave you for Valentine’s Day? Does he insist that you stop being friends with his buddy’s girlfriend? They might be doing it for purely sentimental reasons, they might really be evil, but the point is you don’t know, so it’s unfair to assume that your worst suspicions are accurate. If you cared about and trusted them enough to be in a relationship, give them the benefit of the doubt, even if they’ve betrayed your trust and you’re bitter. This is not easy to do, but it WILL help in the long-run. You will solve nothing by assuming the worst and treating them badly based on those unproven beliefs.
4. Keep private things private. Even if your ex has hurt you immeasurably, that doesn’t give you a right to behave badly. If he said things to you in confidence while you were together, don’t spread them around. If she was upset about your breakup and sent you an overwrought e-mail, don’t forward it to everyone in your address book. This goes double for sex. I don’t care if she liked to have sex in front of a full audience at the opera, or if he screamed “Mommy” when he came–it’s fair to assume that only the people involved in the actual sex have any right to talk about it. This might be unnecessary if they’re particularly open about their sexuality, but if you’re going to be wrong, err on the side of caution and respect for privacy. If you had sex in front of a hundred tourists, that doesn’t give you the right to send the video to his pastor.
It’s a difficult and dangerous world, and anyone who trusts you enough to share themselves with you in the most intimate ways deserves for you to respect that trust. Often people violate this when they feel sexually betrayed, by a cheater or by being dropped for someone else. Being cheated on is emotionally devastating, but it’s a different kind of betrayal than spreading someone’s secrets to a wide audience, and this is not a fitting response: making public the private sexual events of your relationship can have serious consequences for you both, economic, financial, social, and even legal problems that neither of you deserves. Not to mention, spreading stories about your sexual escapades together makes you look like a braggart at best, and a lying hypocrite at worst.
5. Don’t hijack the kids. Any children that you share responsibility for (through birth, marriage, adoption, foster care, etc.) will be attached to you both. Just because you think he’s a lying, cheating ass doesn’t mean that your children are obligated to think the same, or that they don’t still love him. Even if she’s the no-good bitch who screwed your boss, she’s their mother, and it’s unfair to ask them to take your side. They love and need you both. Your break-up will be hard enough on them, don’t compound their struggles by asking them to choose between you, or pass judgment on either parent. Because they treated you badly doesn’t mean that they’re bad for the kids, one has very little to do with the other. If you’re really not sure of their judgment or parenting abilities, be an active parent. By all means, make sure that your children spend their time with your ex in a safe, healthy, supportive and supervised environment. But don’t interrogate your kids or accuse your ex of misconduct in an attempt to gain emotional leverage; you will only end up looking mean spirited and spiteful. As your children grow up, they’ll make their own decisions and pass their own judgments. Be a role model, and provide them with the skills they’ll need to make those judgments, but don’t try to force them into taking your side in disputes with your ex. The emotional damage accumulates, and you can’t take it back.
6. Be fair to your friends. Your friends have a different experience than you do, they will have different responses to your break-up. The surest way to lose friends at the end of a relationship is to demand that they “choose” one of you, right now. Even if they think you’ve been wronged, they haven’t been, and it’s perfectly reasonable for them to make decisions about their own social lives based on their own experiences. If the ex is really a jerk, be a good friend and warn them. But leave it at that. Your actual friends will consider the evidence. If you trust their judgment, trust that they’ll hear you, and will ultimately adjust their perceptions accordingly. But don’t put them in the middle, they’re already feeling the strain. You didn’t always think that your ex was a jerk, did you? Your side of the story isn’t the only one, and friends will have the chance to hear both sides, making their experience very difference from yours. In all likelihood, both you and your ex are right in some ways and wrong in others, but your emotional involvement keeps your from seeing it. You can ask your friends to love and support you, but you can’t ask for them to be you. Accept that their life is different. Finally, don’t make things harder by asking your friends to endlessly analyze it for or with you.
7. If it’s over, let it end. Don’t flaunt your new relationship in front of him at every party. Don’t call her when you get drunk, to rehash all your problems with her or call her names. If it’s really over, then let both of you move forward with your lives. If you have no interest in each other, then act like it. If you really hate them, you need to examine yourself: there’s a fine line between love and hate, both are enormous investments. Do you really hate this person, or do you just have bad feelings? Can you ever be friends? If you can, then give it time, and don’t say anything you’ll regret later. If you really hate them, why would you keep interacting with them? You’re free, stop holding yourself back by beating a dead horse. There are few things more pathetic than people who broke up years ago who still waste their time spewing bitterness about each other; think of all the time you’re wasting that you could be spending reading Literotica stories instead!
8. Take some time. Even if it’s been ending for months, and you’re desperate to get back out there and date (not to mention get laid), you probably won’t be emotionally ready for a relationship for a while. In the meantime, be honest with anyone you go out with. Plenty of people will be willing to have sex with you for the physical pleasure, not looking for a lasting committment; don’t lead them on if you aren’t ready for more than that. Rebound relationships are a nice salve to the ego, but they’re horribly unfair to that rebound man or woman. The rest of the world is not there to help you get over your ex, and you have no right to expect that they will. All you can hope for is honesty, and to meet someone who has similar needs and desires for now. The rest will develop if and when you’re ready, and not a moment sooner, no matter how much you try to force the issue.
9. Revenge makes everyone look bad. Sure, you can bring pain into your ex’s life. You might even be able to expose them for the asshole you know them to be. But doing it will put you in the awkward position, not them. They’ll look victimized and gain sympathy, and you’ll end up looking somewhere between mean and psychotic. If they cheated on you and you can’t get over it, leave. Don’t send the pictures you took of him in panties to his commanding officer, period. If he hit you, call the police and prosecute, don’t run over his cat.
That doesn’t mean that you have no right to assert yourself and declaim what they’ve done to you; just remember that revenge and justice are different things. Make sure that your actions are carefully considered, and not driven by hurt feelings and ego-deflation. Use your head, your best judgement, and the official mechanisms of justice when necessary. Why would you give anyone so much power over you that they dictate your feelings and actions even after they’re gone? This is a sure-fire loser plan. And you aren’t a loser, I can tell.