Is it possible to end a relationship with someone – a partner, a friend or a family member – respectfully? We explain how to make the break kindly.
When relationships end, REM sang it right – everybody hurts.
While we mostly think of breakups as signalling the end of romantic partnerships, they can happen in any of the significant relationships in our lives. However, much like the end of an intimate relationship, managing the fallout with a friend or putting some distance between you and a family member can be equally as painful. In fact, research shows that allowing ambivalent relationships to be present in our lives can actually cause more stress than if they were outright negative.
Ending a relationship with someone is never easy, and the internet is an ocean of advice on how to survive a bad intimate breakup with self-care (generally lots of yoga, acceptance, and bad television choices). But there’s not a lot on how to end a relationship with grace and empathy.
The following tips can help you navigate this process respectfully, and minimise the stress involved.
Honesty is key
Regardless of whether the relationship is an intimate one, a friendship, or a family bond, feelings of loss will be inevitable. If you’re the one ending the relationship, explaining why, as best you can, will help them come to peace with it and avoid further confusion.
However, don’t use this as a licence to unload every grievance. Instead, stay with the central point – remember, this conversation is for closure; try to avoid getting into an argument even if you feel you’re being provoked.
Also, just as you want to be heard, allow the other person to express themselves. Whatever the reasons are, the other person may need the chance to be heard and to let you know how they feel. Simply listening to them, and acknowledging what you can, shows respect and empathy.
Do it face-to-face
A conversation in person is best. It is considerate and compassionate and shows respect to the relationship that once existed. You are looking someone in the eye to tell them why your time together can’t continue and perhaps, recount what happened to contribute to the relationship’s ending. It may take more than one conversation.
Don’t break up by text or email – it is cold and impersonal and doesn’t allow an individual to have their say. This option should only be considered if it’s likely that the conversation could be unsafe to have in person.
For relationships that may be salvageable or have strong and lasting ties, such as children or family, discussions in person can also provide an opportunity to resolve differences. In such cases, it may be more of a conversation about what behaviours, interactions or patterns need to stop than the whole relationship ending. Be sure to have a goal around what the best outcome would be. Doing this with a professional in the room could also add safety and a greater possibility of change.
Consider taking a break
Sometimes, taking a break can be more useful and effective than a complete break up, if you use that time wisely.
Simply stepping away for a little while can provide room for a new, fresh perspective on the person and the relationship; it gives time to cool down if you’re upset; to do some work on the problem from your perspective and in relation to your contribution to it, and give an opportunity to better assess the value of the person’s presence in your life. You may announce a break-up up front, or it might be something you do more quietly and privately, by just not initiating any catch-ups.
Clearing the mental space that was once occupied by someone can be a helpful reset and benefit you moving forward, with or without that person. Spend time separating the person from the triggers in the relationship. You might be able to do more on your end to re-engage more successfully. And if you choose to come back to the relationship, be sure that both of you communicate your boundaries and expectations moving forward.
Watch your language
Focus on using “I” statements when you speak. An “I” statement, such as “I feel disappointed when you don’t do what you say you will,” puts the emphasis on your feelings instead of placing blame only on the other person, as would happen if you start with “you never…”.
Own your own part in the negative interactions and let them know the parts you do appreciate about them. Just because you’re ending or changing the friendship or relationship, doesn’t mean you don’t value the time you spent together. Have as a goal the preservation of dignity for all parties, and let go of the need to be right.
Decide your future
This point is a little more around future-proofing for the person doing the breaking up, especially where children are involved or if you live in a tight-knit community, where a complete break off poses some challenges. If this is you, ask yourself a couple of key questions beforehand – how do you see your future without this relationship in your life? Is it even possible, or is this more a matter of getting space and transforming it into a different, more manageable relationship?
Working on ascertaining your values is a good place to begin, to gain a bigger perspective on where you want to be in your world. What do you value most in a relationship? How do you see yourself when interacting with others? Do you always live up to your own values? What kind of relationships do you want to be in? How can you be proud of your own relational contribution, even when others may not do the same?
Breaking up any relationship can be just as stressful and emotionally draining as ending an intimate, romantic relationship, and can involve just as much heartache. The person who breaks up tends to get less sympathy and support as they appear more resolved.
Keep on top of your mental health and lowered resistance to stress, and start to look at the new networks you need to match your goals going forward. Getting some professional support along the way is always worthwhile to double-check your thinking, and to make sure the direction you are going is the best one available.