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Dating Advice #137 - Exit Etiquette

May 9, 2009 | by Rosie Einhorn, L.C.S.W. and Sherry Zimmerman, J.D., M.Sc.

Keep it short and simple. And no lingering emotional attachments.

Dear Rosie & Sherry,

I'm a young widow. The first guy I dated after my husband passed away ended things in such a convoluted and thoughtless way that it still hurts almost two years later. There was enough pain in my life. I didn't need any more.

I know that many people believe that "all is fair in love and war" but perhaps you can explain some of the ground rules of "etiquette" for ending courtships. I may be naive, but if learning to end relationship correctly can help some people have less pain, then it's worth it.


Dear Helen,

The truth is that break-ups are painful, and it is virtually impossible to avoid causing some hurt to a dating partner when a person decides to end a courtship. Most of us don't want to cause emotional pain to another human being, and some of us go to great lengths to minimize the hurt that will result from a break-up, but often our efforts only make matters worse. And then, of course, there are some people who initiate a break-up after their dating partner has betrayed their trust or caused them pain. They may be so caught up in their own hurt that they in turn make a break-up much more unpleasant than it needs to be, or than they would ever want to do under other circumstances.

Since a break-up will certainly hurt someone you have dated for a period of time, no matter how "nice" you may try to be, our recommendations are aimed at minimizing that pain. Our suggestions also focus on enabling both people to acknowledge the finality of the break-up, so that they can grieve, heal and move on.

We suggest that the person who wants to break off the relationship do so in a place that is somewhat private, so that their dating partner does not have to face others after receiving bad news. Similarly, if a person decides to break up over the telephone, we suggest that not doing so when the other person is at work or in some other semi-public setting.

There's no "best way" to present the bad news, but we think that a short introduction, a short explanation, and a firm statement that you are breaking up is a good way to go. That famous introductory line, "We have to talk," may even help set the stage for what you have to say. If you absolutely have to break up over the telephone, we suggest you try to preface your conversation with a version of this: "I wish we could have this conversation face-to-face, but I can't be there right now and it wouldn't be right for me to delay talking about this until we can get together."

Consider using a variation of the following to break the news: "I have been thinking a great deal about how far the two of us have come since we first met, and where each of us is going. Even though we have shared a lot, I think we are moving in different directions." Or: "We've been struggling with certain issues for a long time and don't seem to be able to work them out." Or: "I am not ready to take our courtship to the next level… I think that it is time for each of us to move on separately."

And then add the firm statement of finality: "I would like to end our relationship. I am sorry if this hurts you. I hope that after the reality of this hits we can wish each other well."

You can get your point across without saying things that only make the pain worse, such as, "I don't love you anymore"… "I never loved you"… "I have found someone else, someone better."

Breaking up is not a time to unburden your guilty feelings. A brief "I am sorry that this may cause you pain" is enough; anything more is overkill. Similarly, don't describe the whole thought process you went through to arrive at the decision to break up. Unburdening guilt might make you feel better, and describing your whole thought process may help you justify your decision, but neither will do anything for the person with whom you're ending things. He or she will probably not "hear" your long-winded explanation, a lengthy apology will not console your partner, and s/he may figure out that all you are doing is trying to make yourself feel better. Save the guilt or the rationalizations for your diary.

You may not get to finish dropping your bombshell before you're hit with a lot or questions or a request to talk things over. (Of course, it isn't always a bombshell… Your partner may have known that a break-up is coming because things between you have been deteriorating, or can tell something is up by the sound of your voice.) If the other person is too upset to seem rational, having a discussion or answering his or her questions right now will not help the situation.

If s/he seems somewhat level-headed and asks for an explanation, you can choose to give a short explanation that you've thought out in advance.

Try not to prolong the conversation, hoping to make either one of you feel better. This can result in your making promises or concessions you may later regret. Both of you are going to have to grieve, but it isn't a good idea to do it together, even on the remote chance you would want to do so.

Sometimes, a man and woman who break up have to tie loose ends before they can go their separate ways. In most of those cases, the moment of the break-up is not the time to take care of this. You may want to ask if the two of you can talk in a few weeks to tie up loose ends, and may even agree to schedule a time to do so.

One line that we discourage people from using when they break up is, "Let's stay friends." We prefer that they wish the other well. There are many reasons for this. To begin with, many people are insulted by the gesture - "After he breaks my heart, he wants to be friends?!"

Even if two people are receptive to remaining friends after a break-up, if they are both dating for the purpose of marriage we don't think maintaining a friendship is a good idea. It often prevents one or both of them from moving on, because no new dating partner can duplicate the emotional connection that exists between them. Furthermore, when former dating partners maintain an emotional connection, each of them may not be able to grieve fully, which is so essential to moving forward.

In addition, when a man and a woman remain friends after a break-up, one of them may continue to harbor the hope that they may someday get back together, even though reconciliation is not a realistic possibility, and this can keep him or her from being emotionally available to potential suitors. Finally, the emotional energy that former dating partners may use to confide in and rely upon each other is much better applied to a new courtship.

In conclusion: be considerate, be brief, and do so in a way that enables both of you to move on. And we hope that you will soon meet the "Right One" and never need to put these suggestions to use.

Rosie & Sherry

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