What makes an effective breakup conversation?

How to have a constructive breakup conversation that leaves both parties better off.

This stub was tagged with: Breakups

This stub was born on February 1, 2024.


Breakups are obviously about ending a relationship, but at its core it’s about creating opportunity for both people to be more happy. The person could be happy now, but they shouldn’t be if they know that their happiness is coming at the expense of their partner’s. If our goal is creating opportunity for the other person to be happy, that means that we have to handle the breakup carefully. Regardless of how conduct ourselves, 99% of the time the other person will be hurt if they are not expecting a breakup. If we take it as a given that we will be hurting the other person, our goal then shifts to reducing the amount of emotional pain that we are inflicting on the other person.

What complicates this picture is the fact that this emotional pain will not just be felt during the conversation, but potentially long after the actual breakup occurs. The other consideration you must have then is alleviating the longer term suffering. As a surprise to perhaps no one, these two goals are actually contradictory. There are things you can do to inflict less pain on the short run, but are potentially detrimental in the long run, and vice versa. There is no perfect balance between the two goals, but I do think that you have to understand that it’s better to optimize for the long term.

You should definitely schedule time to gather belongings, as well as a period of no-contact. You can set an expiration date for no contact, but usually that just sustains hope.

Breakups as a process

Breakups offer a time to unmask and begin to talk really candidly about what you like and don’t like about the relationships and start airing grievances. A good conversation should allow for some people to gain closure as well as some semblance of an idea of what they could have done better. A breakup doesn’t have to just be one conversation, you can have a period of tapering off if that would help both parties. It will absolutely hurt in the moment, but its about whether or not it will help you in the longer term.

  • You could do Start/Stop/Continue feedback if you wanted to, but this usually requires more reflection

The use of softening language

Breakups, for the most part, have to be handled delicately because usually you still care about the other person and want to let them down easily. Even if you don’t feel anything toward them, I think that in most cases general decency is owed toward the other person. The problem is that a lot of breakup etiquette is so heavily mediated by social convention that it can sometimes get in the way of actually having a healthy and productive conversation. A lot of the reasons that we fail to have productive and healthy breakups is because we are avoiding having a tough conversation.

Softening language makes it seem less decided that it already is. “I think we need to break up” is a common opening line, but to me it leaves much to be desired. Firstly, the verb “think” subtly opens you up for conversation because it doesn’t show anything for sure, for that you would say “I know that we need to break up” however most people would read this phrase as somewhat rude, or at the very least, jarring. However, I don’t think that we should necessarily lean against jarring.

  • i think we should vs i’ve come to the conclusion that we need to—making sure that you communicate that this decision has already been made and is final and that there is no room for negotiating
  • active voice? “we are breaking up”

Degree of information sharing

Closure isn’t fake, but it’s something that ultimately is made by the other person. The best and only thing that you can do to assist in this process is to not lie or withhold too much information from the other person in a way that will not allow them to change/grow. It is a balancing act.

  • You don’t have to justify yourself.
    • If they are asking questions that you don’t want to answer, you don’t have to answer them
    • Appeal to inscrutability of emotions (“I don’t know why, but it just is”) or question the relevance of their questioning
  • Don’t make up things on the spot when they ask questions, if you don’t know, don’t answer, especially if you haven’t had time to reflect on their answers to dignify it with an actual answer
    • Some things cannot be known and the other person has to come to terms with that. sometimes this is done by making up reasons to believe in their own head that may or may not be actually supported by actual facts or just their own beliefs and insecurities
  • You can explain some reasoning about breaking up but you don’t need to list everything

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