Social Minefield: How To Break Up With Anyone


Breaking up is one of the most difficult social minefields of all — but today, we offer you tips on how to cut ties with everyone from a bad date to your therapist.

A lot of social life is about resolving disagreements and fixing problems. But sometimes the problems can’t be fixed, and it’s time for everyone to cut ties and move on. How to do that without being a dickwad or a doormat? We’ve broken it down by scenario.

A first date

Let’s be honest: we’ve all been the asshole here. Show me the person who has never claimed to have a good time out of sheer politeness and then cravenly failed to pick up all subsequent phone calls, and I’ll show you either a saint or someone who hasn’t dated very much. That said, you can do the world a favor by not being that asshole anymore. Commenter audreyapple has a good approach:

I think a good line is “Thank you for the date. I had a lovely time, but I don’t feel we have the necessary spark to really pursue this. I wish you all the best.”

If you’re online dating, this is absurdly easy to deliver in a post-date message. If you’re not on a dating site, audreyapple points out that an email or text is totally fine for this kind of thing — you only went on one date, after all. And of course, there’s no reason to deliver the message unless the person actually asks you on a second date. If he/she says something along the lines of “we should really do this again,” though, and you don’t want to, just say so. It’s uncomfortable to reject people, and it can be especially hard for women, who are expected to be super-nice and flattered if a guy likes them. But rejection just gets harder the longer you drag it out, and you’ll be surprised at the warm glow of self-respect you feel when you’re direct and honest with someone. Often enough, they’ll appreciate your directness too.

A casual dating partner

Say you’ve been on a few dates with someone, maybe hooked up, and you’ve decided you don’t want to date/hook up anymore. I tend to think of two dates as the benchmark for when you owe someone a phone call to officially break things off, unless there’s obviously no interest on both sides. Of course there’s a lot of wiggle room here, but a good rule of thumb is that if the other party seems into you, it’s nice to give them a little closure. You don’t owe them an explanation, although a simple one, if you have it, may make the call a little easier. Good examples of simple: “I’m becoming exclusive with someone else,” “I don’t think we’re a good fit.” Bad example: anything that requires a psych degree, a dictionary, or several bong hits to understand.

Should you say, “let’s be friends?” Opinions were divided when I suggested this approach in an earlier post. By way of clarification, I’ll offer this simple test: do you actually want to be friends with the person? If so, go ahead and say it. If not, don’t.

A significant other

I’m not going to lie: this fucking sucks no matter how you do it. But even here, there are a few ways to be less of an asshole. Rule number one: for the love of god, do it in person. If you’re in a serious relationship, a breakup is going to necessitate an emotional readjustment on the part of the dumpee, and it’s a lot easier to accept this process if it starts with a face-to-face conversation. Talking to someone in person might seem harder, but it can actually minimize trouble down the road — your ex is less likely to think you weren’t really serious, or that you were just drunk when you made that phone call, or that someone mean has hacked into your email account and cell phone and Twitter and soul. The only potential exception to this is long-distance relationships — there are times when a dedicated breakup trip doesn’t make sense, but I still think you should make it whenever possible.

In the case of a serious relationship, the dumpee may well want an explanation, and it’s kind to provide one. However, it’s also kind to think of the other person’s feelings and not say anything malicious or soul-destroying. I-statements like “I’m unhappy in this relationship” are usually better than things like “You’re a loser.” You can go wrong with the I-statement, though — for instance, avoid “I never really loved you.” In all cases, if you’re set on the breakup, don’t agree to try for a little longer as a way of being nice to your SO: this is really not nice at all. Oh, and breakup sex — I’m resolutely against it, on the grounds that it puts off healing by leaving the dumpee with a weird mixed memory of the whole dumping. But I’m aware that I’m likely to hear dissent on this one.

A friend

I’ve said before — and still believe — that most friend breakups can be avoided. If your friend is just kind of annoying you, or spends all her time with a partner you can’t stand, or is going through this phase where all she can talk about is rubber-stamping or whatever, you can often just cool relations for a while (be a little more busy when she asks to hang out, don’t initiate contact) until things get better. It can take a long time, but especially if the relationship is an old one, it can be worth it — I’ve had friendships rise from the dead after years of estrangement, to the joy and surprise of both parties. That said, a bad friendship can be as draining as a bad relationship, and if someone is consistently pissing you off or making you feel bad, a regular hangout session isn’t doing either of you any favors. Sadie’s dad once advocated the direct approach in such a situation, and I agree: a simple “I don’t think we have much in common anymore, and I don’t think we should spend time together,” delivered the next time she asks to hang out, should get the message across. Unless of course your toxic friend, like Sadie’s, refuses to break up. In that case you’ve definitely made the right decision, and you should start screening your calls.

A therapist

This one seems hard, but it can actually be easy. The key is not to let things drag on too long. If your therapist sucks, or just isn’t a good fit for you, don’t keep going week after week, wasting your money and time and building up resentment that will just take more therapy to undo. Instead, if you think the relationship might be salvageable, be upfront about your concerns and see if things get better. If they don’t, or if you’ve come to the conclusion that your therapist is just never going to be right for you, just say, “I’ve been doing some thinking about what I want from therapy, and I think this should be our last session.” Unless your shrink has a policy about giving advance notice, or believes you’ll be seriously harmed by stopping treatment, he/she should be okay with this. The therapist may suggest one more meeting to decompress or get closure, and unless you’re really itching to be gone, it could be a good idea to accept. A friend of mine had this to say about the “weird limbo period” when you know your therapeutic relationship is about to end:

In a way, that’s kind of an awesome opportunity. When you break up, both sides always have questions about what the other person is really thinking. And in the case of a romantic breakup, you hesitate to go there, because if you make things awkward, you still have to live with having mutual friends, etc. But with a therapist, you can be pretty damn sure you’re never going to see them again.

So you can say all those things you held off saying to your significant other. Or, you know, just stuff some tissues in your pocket and be on your way.

A toxic family member

This may be the toughest breakup scenario of all. Frequently, people who are related to you by blood will assume a right to be in your life — and most of society will agree with them. And since you often have to see these people at holidays, family reunions, and the like, it can be pretty uncomfortable to try to cut things off. In less extreme cases, a grin-and-bear-it approach can work — if you can handle seeing your obnoxious cousin once a year without taking anyone’s head off, it’s probably easiest to just do so. But as many commenters have pointed out, sometimes a family relationship can cause such pain that a break is the only answer. In this case, the key seems to be setting boundaries and sticking to them. If what you need is no contact at all, don’t respond to phone calls and texts. If you’ve agreed to correspond by email but not to meet in person, don’t agree to meet up before you’re ready. Find someone to confide in — whether a professional or a friend — who respects your decision and won’t try to make you feel guilty. And if anyone tries to tell you that your decision is unnatural or that you owe your family member a close relationship, remember that you’re the only one who can decide what’s healthy and possible for you. Which is actually a good thing to keep in mind in any relationship, whether you’re ending it or not.

Need help with a sticky social situation?
Email us! We’ll sweep your social minefield!

For all Social Minefield columns, go here.

Image via blueking/

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin