How to Break Up and Keep Your Dignity Intact

Breaking up well involves much more than one big talk.
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Breaking up well involves much more than one big talk.
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Art Credit: Alex Mazurev

Several years ago, I ran into an ex-boyfriend—let’s call him Ryan—and, after some awkwardness, we decided that it’d be a good idea to grab drinks. It had been a couple years since we’d seen each other, and we both just so happened to be in the same city—so sure, why not? After all the niceties were exchanged, he began speaking with more candor and bluntly acknowledged the huge we-used-to-date elephant in the room. “You know, you really managed our breakup well,” he told me. “It wasn’t messy, and unlike other exes, I feel no resentment toward you.”

Before I had met Ryan, I had gone through a breakup that gave reality TV a run for its money, with a tall, soft-spoken gentleman we’ll call Tom. The relationship was on-again, off-again and full of passionate tears, grand accusations, and ambiguous texts. It involved many, many mutual friends taking sides as they witnessed our young love explode and fizzle. At a low point, I think I may have aggressively thrown a banana at him. Eventually, my relationship with Tom finally ended. The pain lasted for months; the resentment lasted for years.

I guess I really had learned some things in between Tom and Ryan.

Breaking up well involves much more than one big talk. It’s a commitment to follow through after the talk by trusting your instincts, standing your ground, giving the past its space, and both parties practicing some patience and dignity. But, oh, I know how hard this is! It is much easier said than done, especially in an age of insta- and auto-everything, where you can make a fool of yourself by accidentally Snapchatting the wrong Tom or Gchatting him impulsively on a Tuesday. (I don’t think anyone conveys it better than graphic artist Sarah Hallacher, who illustrates a user experience of a modern-day breakup.)

The key to breaking up with class has much more to do with what you do afterward than what you do while ending it. In an effort to avoid a reenactment of Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space” video, here are some quick dos and don’ts to keep in mind when a relationship ends.

01. DON’T: MAKE IMPROBABLE PROMISES.

“Let’s just be friends.” Even though that might seem like an authentic possibility in the moment, saying such will only hinder the potential for a future friendship, as it confuses expectations before distance provides perspective. Plus, if you ask most men, “LJBF” (yes, it’s now Internet slang) is even worse than the “friend zone.” While real coed friendships are completely possiblethey have their caveats. Real, solid friendship takes time and won’t simply take root after dating.

Initiating insta-friendship right after a breakup is kind of like walking through a cave dripping gasoline and insisting on using candlelight to find your way. Sure, there’s a possibility that you’ll brilliantly navigate in the dark, flammable caverns, but there’s a far greater chance that you’ll blow up. Do both of you a favor, and say instead, “We’ll need space, and I don’t expect us to be friends, at least at first.”

02. DO: ELIMINATE CONTACT.

Our post-breakup feelings can range from elated to brooding to livid, all within an hour. Because it’s not the best time to be making decisions based on your feelings, give your ex as much space as possible. Unless you have a puppy together—or if you unfortunately work together—there should be no reason to reach out to him once you’ve decided to call it quits.

Even if you think you’re just being friendly, or if there’s something exceptionally funny that made you think of him (“You’ll LOVE this video!”), sending him a quick text or an email after you break up will actually send a confusing message—and you'll potentially confuse yourself even more. If you’re really struggling with this, delete his phone number, and text a close friend instead.

03. DO: BE GRACIOUS, NOT CHATTY.

If you’re in a situation where you might have to see each other (say, you’re in the same MBA program or have mutual friends), smile and be friendly,but don’t see this as an opportunity to “catch up” or ask him prying questions about his life. It may be hard, and achingly so, not to corner him and give him a thorough update on how great you’re doing. But if you respect his space, he’ll likely respect yours. Simply saying, “Hey! Glad to see you’re doing well,” will set the appropriate tone. Essentially, be kind, be warm, but also be a bit formal.

04. DON’T: SHOW OFF ON SOCIAL MEDIA.

Ah, social media. The perilous platforms of jealousy. Theodore Roosevelt had never imagined social media when he said, “Comparison is the thief of joy,” but I can’t think of words more apt to describe it. When you’re down in the dumps, the last thing you need to be doing is looking at everyone else’s highlight reel—especially your ex’s. This is not the time to post that flattering selfie with #FINALLYSINGLE #havingSOmuchFUN. Actually, it’s really never a good time to do that. Trying to make your ex jealous is not classy. You’re better than that. Instead, unfollow him (or maybe even unfriend him), and stay off social media for a while. If you want to let other guys know you’re single, start involving yourself in real social activities instead.

05. DON’T: GOSSIP.

But we all need to vent, right? Isn’t that a crucial part of sisterhood bonding? Well, be careful here. According to studies, venting actually makes you feel worse, not better. Plus, what we often call “venting” may just be a flimsy veil for really malicious gossiping. Sure, he might have been an awful boyfriend—maybe even an awful person. But will detailing all his failings to your girlfriends make anything better? Words can’t be taken back. If you’re cruelly misrepresenting someone, and he finds out about it, how do you think he’s going to feel about you? At best, he’s certainly not going to think you’re acting with class; at worst, he’ll reciprocate by spreading personal details about you. That being said, if he did hurt you—in a way that was potentially abusive—confide in a close friend or family member, and seek help. Then venting isn’t gossip. It’s therapy.

 06. DO: FORGIVE YOURSELF—AND HIM.

Forgiveness is the cornerstone of closure and the most important part of any relationship, whether it’s ending or just beginning. Take a deep breath, and put the past behind you. Initially, you may need to remind yourself every day that you’ve forgiven him, but with time, you will heal—and looking toward a future without him will become routine.

Meanwhile, respect the breakup, and give it the time it needs. Even if you’re 100 percent sure it was a mistake, and you want to get back together, take advantage of this time to really grow into the person you want to be. Give him the time to discover who he is without you. And if it’s never meant to be? Well, at least you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing you can act with class in the most trying circumstances possible. And who knows—maybe he’ll remember you as a class act, too.