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Research from the '80s and '90s taught us that breakups are often a painfully long process, marked by fits and starts, internal debate, and lots of negotiating with your partner. One study found that it took 16 steps to break up with someone. On the other end of that spectrum is ghosting. If the relationship is casual enough, we can just stop communicating and the relationship dies quietly.
We know there is a middle ground between these two where, even in an uncomfortable breakup situation, people can go their separate ways with a bit of dignity left intact. Research shows that this process takes a set of breakup skills that no one really teaches us.
Both our culture and relationship research teach us that relationships take work to make them last. But what relationships are worth working for? What kind of work is healthy and necessary? And maybe most importantly: How do you know when to stop working at it?
In our study, we didn’t propose answers to those questions. However, with my colleague Dr. Jonathon Beckmeyer in the lead, we decided to explore what it takes to successfully break up with someone. This is what we found.
1. Know when to break up.
Dr. Beckmeyer and I have spent most of our careers studying emerging adults—or people ages 18-29 that are still figuring out who they are, what careers they want, and what education to pursue. They usually feel like they are somewhere in between adolescence and adulthood, and the world seems full of possibilities for them.
During emerging adulthood, people also explore their options for relationships. Research suggests that they must figure out how to coordinate their love lives around their education and career plans. If you’re in this age group and unmarried, this juggling act might sound familiar.
Aside from the more obvious reasons to break up (e.g., physical, emotional, or sexual abuse), it is important to assess whether your relationship is compatible with your individual goals. Does your relationship present barriers to you finishing school or taking a job you need or want? Do you feel supported by your partner as you pursue your goals? Does your partner want to live a similar kind of life to you in terms of work and family balance, having children, and geographic location?
These questions are especially important for emerging adults. If you’re in a relationship that is happy, healthy, and supportive, you can work together to make sure each of your goals is being met. If not, it may be time to move on.
2. Follow through on the breakup.
Breaking up with someone can be stressful, especially if you have been together for a long time. Unfortunately, if you aren’t clear and direct when breaking up with someone, they may end up confused about the status of the relationship. In this case, the breakup might drag on and on or you end up sliding back into the relationship.
Whether your breakup style is more self-focused (how does this affect me?) or other-focused (how can I ease their discomfort?) being clear about your intentions to end the relationship serves everyone’s interests. You get out of the relationship and they are not left wondering what happened.
3. If your partner wants to break up with you, accept it and move on.
Let’s imagine you’re on the other side of the breakup. Your job is to accept your partner’s wishes. You may disagree with their reasons for ending the relationship, but you can’t disagree with the breakup itself.
Truly accepting the breakup might also mean severing the ties you have to that person on social media. Research suggests that staying connected is likely to cause additional stress, anger, and pain. It also keeps you psychologically invested in their lives, which prevents you from moving forward separately from them. This kind of rumination has also been linked to more distress after a breakup.
If you really think the relationship still has potential, consider the old wisdom from Khalil Gibran, “If you really love somebody, let them go, for if they return, they were always yours. And if they don’t, they never were.” The key is that you have to honestly let them go.
4. Don’t delay the breakup.
Once you know the relationship is unhealthy or unsatisfying, just end it. In another study, we explored what happens when people linger in unsatisfying relationships for too long. In hindsight, the people we interviewed were full of regret that they hadn’t ended the relationships earlier. They felt stuck, but they had trouble overcoming the barriers they saw to leave the relationship, whether that was living together, being enmeshed with their partner’s family, or having children together.
We were surprised to find that sometimes unexpected events like the death of a family member or a diagnosis with serious illness delayed breakups because individuals felt obligated to see their partners through a difficult time. There is certainly room for kindness and consideration about the timing of a breakup, but there is unlikely to be a good time to end a relationship. When it’s time to move on, don’t delay.
Breakups can be painful and difficult, whether you are the “leaver” or the “left.” However, they are also a normative part of being a young adult. Leaving a relationship that isn’t working (or accepting when someone wants to end a relationship with you) helps you move toward the kinds of partnerships you truly want. The key is to try and learn from the experience so that the next relationship you form is stronger and more satisfying.
Facebook image: Antonio Guillem/Shutterstock
Beckmeyer, J. J., Jamison, T. B. (2019) Is breaking up hard to do? Exploring emerging adults’ beliefs about their abilities to end romantic relationships. Family Relations. Advance Online. doi.org/10.1111/fare.12404
Jamison, T. B., Beckmeyer, J. J. (2021) Feeling stuck: Exploring the development of
felt constraint in romantic relationships, Family Relations, 70(3) 880-895. https://doi.org/10.1111/fare.12496