Sex + Love

Making a Clean Breakup

How to end a relationship without feeling like a monster.

Illustration by Beth

Illustration by Beth

The first time I broke up with someone was in seventh grade. He was part of the gang of kids I hung out with at lunchtime, and he told my friend he had a crush on me. I was flattered, and when he called me one night and asked me to be his girlfriend, I said yes while my matchmaker/best friend listened in on another line. After we had been going out for approximately four days, I made this list of the boy’s pros and cons:

PROS: Good kisser, I get attention for having a BF, sorta cute
CONS: Awkward, shallow, wears Abercrombie

But it was more than these undeniable facts that made me want to bolt. When I saw him at lunch I didn’t feel excited—I felt like I wanted to hide inside my bag lunch, and I felt guilty that I’d said yes because my bff told me to, not because I actually liked him. I was afraid to hurt his feelings even if I did think he was shallow, but eventually I gathered up the courage, took a deep breath, and said, “Jeff,* Imsorrybutthisisntworkingoutformeletsjustbefriends?” And then I ran away before he could reply. Seventh grade me did the best she could! At least I did it in person and included an apology. Jeff was hurt, and he called my best friend and wanted to know why I’d changed my mind, but it was definitely over.

When you’ve been dumped, pop culture will happily commiserate. Think of all the songs, movies, books, and angsty poems by and/or about jilted lovers. But there’s not much out there for the person who does the breaking up. What no one seems to acknowledge is that breaking up with someone can be just as painful, if not more so, than being the one who’s left behind. Unless they’ve done something awful to you, you probably still have feelings for the person you’re leaving, and it’s hard to see them in pain, much less cause it. And it’s rare to break up without someone’s feelings getting hurt. In my example, not only was Jeff upset, but the friend who set us up was pissed off, too, since I’d messed with her matchmaking. But whatever—I had to do what was right for me. In the end that’s what a lot of breaking up comes down to: It can feel selfish, but staying with someone when it isn’t working out doesn’t do either of you any favors.

All in all, my breakup with Jeff went OK—no one got angry or yelled or spread lies about the other person, and he got over it in time. But I think it could have gone better if I had followed the wonderful advice I am about to share with you. I talked to some people who’ve recently broken up with someone, been broken up with, or just had good advice about breakups, and made a list of some things I wish I’d known when I broke up with my first serious boyfriend. I hope this list helps make your breakup a little less painful.

How Can You Tell When It’s Time to Break Up?

When you’re tired of fighting. When it saps all your emotional energy. When your currently crappy conditions threaten to ruin all that was ever good about your relationship. When you or they express strong interest in another person, emotionally or physically (unless you’re in an open relationship). When you feel manipulated or emotionally abused. Definitely, 1000%, if the person you’re with has EVER laid a finger on you in violence—you owe them nothing, even if it may feel like you do, and it’s OK to get out of there immediately. If you have ever been or think you are currently in an abusive relationship, you should seek support from parents, friends, or counselors, or click here for help. The longer you’re with someone, the harder the decision to break up can be, but if your gut is telling you it’s over, listen to yourself, and not your matchmaker friend, your parents, or peers.

The first time I broke up with someone after my seventh grade hit-and-run, I felt like everything I just described, but I mostly felt confused. I was tired of being tied to someone else’s feelings and I could feel it affecting my life in a negative way, but I was also terribly scared of not being with him anymore. I had invested so much of myself in him, and was afraid of what might happen when I lost the comfort of being one half of a dysfunctional but loving whole. I had to really steel myself to make the breakup decision, because we were emotionally dependent on each other in a bad way—the we-only-hang-out-together, why-do you-even-need-other-friends? way. After I did it I felt guilty for a long time, but I also felt free.

Breakup Etiquette, or: Don’t Be a Jerk, OK?

When you decide to break up with someone it might hurt their feelings, but you don’t have to be callous about it. As fellow Rookie Laia says, “You just gotta accept that in this moment you are making a mildly selfish decision, and while you do not wish to hurt this other person, you WILL make them sad and possible break their heart.” Acknowledge the good times you had together, but explain the things in the relationship that were not working for you—it shouldn’t be a blame game, but make clear why you are leaving. Rookie advice goddess Jamia gave me a little script you can use to soften the blow:

These are the positive things I’ve loved about us, and the reasons we’ve stayed together are _______, but here are the reasons I don’t feel like this is working any longer. This was a difficult decision, but for my own health and happiness I need to be on my own. I’m sorry to hurt you, but I hope you can respect that.

Your partner might tell you they’ll change, work harder, or just get upset—all of this is normal, but you don’t have any obligation to keep a relationship going because you don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings.

And just in case you were going to go for this method, no one likes the fade-away, so don’t even think about it.

It’s a Process

It’s normal to feel sad, bad, or lonely after you break up with someone, whether it’s four days or four years after the fact. You were just sharing your life with someone, and now you’re going solo, so it’s going to take some adjustment. You might feel pangs of regret like I did, and you might cry as you hug their old sweatshirt, even though YOU broke up with THEM—that’s totally OK, and it doesn’t necessarily mean you made a mistake.

Usually, the longer the relationship, the longer the breakup takes to complete, and the longer those bad feelings linger. You might have to talk it out with your partner more than once, or cry together a few times before you’re really sure it’s finished. Or not. If you need a clean break, that’s fine too.

You can’t control your feelings, but you can control the decisions you make. If your former flame wants to meet up and you can’t handle it, just say so, and ask them to respect your decision to take time to focus on yourself.

I didn’t talk to anyone who thought that continuing a physical relationship after a breakup was a good idea. It can be temporarily comforting, but the power dynamic is off, and your partner might think hugging, kissing, or sex means that you’re getting back together. Of course, there might be some ex-couples out there who can handle friends with benefits after a big breakup, but that’s not the norm.

You Don’t Have to Be Friends

Everyone dreams of a breakup so smooth that you are great friends immediately afterwards, hanging out the next day and getting pizza or something. This is not usually realistic.

Those relationship-y feelings don’t go away overnight, and in order for them to really fade in a relatively quick and healthy way, you might need to spend a lot less time together. If your norm has been to hold hands, touch, or give each other secret smiles, these things are now off-limits, and this will make both of you sad. You might be friends in the future, but give yourself and your partner some space to mourn the end of the relationship.

And if you don’t want to talk to your ex at all, that’s cool, too. You don’t need to make promises about some future friendship if you’re really not feeling it. If this is really the end, stand your ground, and don’t float the idea of being friends at all. If your ex persists, try having a mutual friend reiterate your feelings to them. In the end, if you don’t want to have a relationship of any kind with your new ex, that’s your prerogative, and it’s not your responsibility to explain yourself again and again.

Moving On

You will survive your breakup, I promise. Your friends will still be your friends, you’ll have more time to focus on yourself, and you might even meet someone else. There’s no way to know how you’ll get along (or not) with your ex, so your post-breakup life should mostly be about self-care instead of dwelling on your ex. You might be scared to think of your life without this person, like my friend Julia, but like most people, she realized that her decision was the right one. “I think I was scared that I was going to look back and regret not trying harder to make it work, but in reality, not once have I looked back and wished I had stayed with someone I broke up with.” You and your ex will move on, and then one day one of your friends will interview you for an article about how you dealt with that stuff.

Stay strong, girl. Breaking up is hard, and seeing a future through the couple of tough weeks or months that follow is harder. Trust yourself—you know what’s best for you. ♦

* Jeff’s name was changed because my seventh grade pro/con list makes me feel like a Mean Girl.

26 Comments

  • Flossy Mae October 21st, 2013 3:14 PM

    This is such a great article, I wish this had come out a couple of months ago when I needed it….out of general interest (and also my own guilt), do people think I was mean? I had a kind-of serious boyfriend for about 4 months (I say kind of serious because we kissed and a bit more, but we weren’t like MADLY IN LOVE or anything) and after a while I broke up with him, but thinking back on it, I didn’t really have a reason. Or rather, my main reason was that I was bored, and while I crushed on him from afar I fantasized about this perfect movie-style amazing relationship that would be all I ever wanted, but obviously the reality was kind of disappointing. Of course I couldn’t very well say this to him, and stupidly I sort of ‘faded away’ for a while until HE had the courage to come up to me and ask me what was up, and then I broke up with him without a proper explanation. I still feel terrible about it, but at the same time I just don’t know what I would have said to him. I know it’s in the past, but I’m grossly overthinking this, can anyone shed some opinion?

    • marcelle42 October 21st, 2013 3:31 PM

      It’s not the best breakup ever, but you didn’t cheat, or lie, or mess with his mind. What’s the alternative: staying with someone with whom you feel bored and disappointed? You don’t have to have a solid reason beyond, “I don’t want to date you anymore.” Everyone does the best they can. I’m sure you did.

    • Monika October 21st, 2013 6:26 PM

      Dear Flossy Mae,

      While it may feel like you didn’t do the absolute perfect thing, it seems like you did the best you could at the time! And you did confront each other later about it. Bottom line, you followed your heart and your gut (it doesn’t always feel wonderful). Sometimes feelings just aren’t logical, please don’t feel guilty for having them!

      Love,
      Monika

  • rats-for-candy October 21st, 2013 3:48 PM

    I haven’t even read this yet, but I’m so thankful/excited about it already. My boyfriend(of almost 4 years) and I had a really intense talk last night because were thinking about breaking up soon. It was highly emotional and I’ve been so scared to talk to him about it because I want us to be able to break up and stay good friends, especially because both of our friend groups hang out together pretty often. This was perfect timing, rookie. I’m gonna read this now and hopefully it will really help! <3

  • periwinkle_dreams October 21st, 2013 4:45 PM

    I’m dating right now, but I’ve been thinking about breaking up with him…I dunno…

    We’re in college, and I’m spending next semester in Europe. We live on opposite sides of the U.S., so visiting is hard. That means we wouldn’t see each other for about 8 months. I don’t think I’d be a very good long distance girlfriend – I usually stay fairly busy and out and about, not skypeing with people all the time. I love him, I honestly do, but I know now that that isn’t as rare as I once thought it was. He has everything I think I’m looking for in a boyfriend, but I don’t know about committing further than that. I don’t want to marry the second guy I’ve ever dated. There are no glaring flaws in our relationship. He has strengths and flaws, and so do I. But I don’t want to settle down for another 6 years at least, which is a long time to date one guy…

    I feel like when this semester ends, either I’m going to have to really commit to not ignoring this relationship for the next 8 months and putting effort into it because I want it to really last, or else we’re going to break up.

    Again, there’s nothing obviously wrong…it’s just, he seems like he’d be thrilled if we were just together for the rest of forever and ever, and I’m not sure he’s the guy. I feel like it’d be better to break up sooner rather than enjoy being his girlfriend through the rest of college, knowing that I might just end up saying, “Well, that was fun. I’m moving away now. Nice being with you!” That wouldn’t be fair to him.

  • mildflower October 21st, 2013 5:41 PM

    This article came out just when I needed it most.. I’m breaking up with my boyfriend tomorrow and was seriously nervous about my decision. But all in all, it’s the right decision. Thank you so much.

  • Yellie October 21st, 2013 9:33 PM

    Clean breaks don’t exist.

    • mariasnow October 22nd, 2013 10:09 AM

      Oh yes they do. My last boyfriend started acting weird in ways that made me feel bad (not introducing me to friends, not calling me his girlfriend, making plans and then being super-late and not keeping them) and it seemed like he was avoiding something so I sent him an email or message or something that said, “hey, I know you don’t want to take it to the next level and make a real go of it because you’re not over your ex. I just have this strong gut feeling that you have this Super Important Woman looming over your love life and that’s fine. I’m not really over my ex either so I relate and I didn’t mind that you had your issues. No hard feelings let’s be friends for real?” And then we were just friends after that. Zero drama. Well he did immediately call me and say, “HOW DID YOU KNOW ABOUT MY EX???” I’m good at reading folks and sometimes it’s freaky.

      So it can happen but not if you’re both completely invested. Now six months ago I broke up with my best friend after three years of nonstop drama and it was horrible and I did my best, I did the breaking up and I’m still not over it.

  • FlaG October 21st, 2013 11:09 PM

    I wish this had been here for me six months ago. But even reading this now makes me see that we broke things off the right way (if such a thing exists) and even until now are handling things pretty maturely. I’m hesitant to remain BeSt FrIeNdS 4EvA, like he wants, but we’ll see how it turns out.

    Living in two different countries helps immensely, though.

  • Amanda Gomez October 21st, 2013 11:31 PM

    I recently dumped the guy who I’ve liked for 2 years after a few weeks. He didn’t care though because he likes someone else (which is why I dumped him) and I still have some lingering feelings :-P. So this article was awesome right now:)

  • julalondon October 22nd, 2013 5:40 AM

    I would have needed this when i broke up with my (now ex-) boyfriend. I tried everything to make a “just-friends”-relationship work and he said he was fine with everything we were doing but in the end, when i met someone new, he got upset and angry and it just didn’t work anymore. Now we hardly speak which i think is a shame because we were such good friends before.. Anyway, great and very helpful article. But in my opinion and from my experience, a “clean breakup” doesn’t exist.

  • elliecp October 22nd, 2013 7:07 AM

    This is a great article <3

    I tried to break up with my ex in person but he refused to meet, and forced me to end it over Facebook. It was awful and I felt terrible for it….we've never spoken properly since and I feel like I still owe him an explanation

    http://roseandvintage.blogspot.com/

  • snicklefritzz October 22nd, 2013 2:31 PM

    Has anyone been in a situation where they tried to break up with their significant other and that person threatened self harm if they left? I really care about him and he has openly told me that he has attempted suicide multiple times as a teenager. I tried to break out with him the other day, and after screaming at me and throwing the things I was trying to pack up, he physically put himself in front of the door, bolted and locked it, and told me that there is no point in him being alive if I’m not in his life (along with a handful of other hints at self harm). Can anyone give advice on how to navigate these waters? It would be much appreciated

    • starsinyourheart October 22nd, 2013 7:05 PM

      Wooooah, NEVER okay for anyone to blackmail like that. When I was 15, a 22 year old I was seeing threatened suicide in detail. I contacted several of his more trusted friends and told them what he was threatening me with and could they look out for him. I’d also advise him to contact help lines ect. but make it clear he can’t blackmail you into staying. It’s NEVER somebody’s fault that someone else harms themselves, that’s a choice only they can make. Hope you’re okay bb <3 best of luck xoxo

    • lxmldrt October 23rd, 2013 10:11 AM

      I don’t have any advice but I feel like hugging you because I fear I’m in a kind of similar situation. Just remember that staying with him by force, like this, will do him no good either. Maybe he’ll understand that. Self-harming people are so complicated, and since you are the strongest one you should be able to help him, but of course it’s hard to stay strong when things like that happen. You shouldn’t ever hurt yourself as a consequence of helping others. Hope it turns out OK in the end <3

  • Cameron McGlade October 22nd, 2013 5:07 PM

    I broke up with my boyfriend yesterday. Good timing. But this was useful for the future.

  • mtraptor October 22nd, 2013 11:06 PM

    I love this article. I know it sucks to get dumped, but breaking up with someone is really, really hard as well.

    I completely agree that you shouldn’t feel bad if you don’t want to be around the other person after you break up with them. When I broke up with my ex a couple years ago, I felt HORRIBLE because she really wanted to stay together. I promised that I would be there for her because I knew it was going to be hard for her. Then when we hung out two days later, she tried to sexually assault me after I said I didn’t want to have sex with her and told her to leave my house. Aaaaaand proceeded to stalk me off and on for about six months. At first I spent way too much energy trying to understand and forgive her, when I should have been looking out for myself and my own safety and happiness.

    tl;dr: Don’t let anyone make you feel guilty after a break up. You deserve to do what’s right for you.

  • Nimsi October 23rd, 2013 1:29 AM

    It’s funny how this came at the perfect time.. Everything you described is exactly what I’m feeling.. I had to erase his phone number so as not to text him and apologize. It was a two year long relationship and I clung unto it until I knew we were really done. It took a while to realize it, but I guess it was for the best. I somehow feel like my future has gone to shit. But I will be strong and push through. I’ve been through worse and I’m still here! Anyways…Wow. It’s just funny…I needed this.. I love Rookie and thank you so much Monika <3

  • Isabella Iodice October 26th, 2013 11:31 PM

    ugh advice PLS:

    i had a kind of thing with this guy i met at my summer art program that i was super jazzed on while now we havent had an actual conversation in like 3 weeks and like i dont miss him…. i’m just indifferent and have no lovey feelings and a new crush and i want to end things w him but a) he lives two hours away and b) we were never officially together… we never had any conversations about what we were…. what the heck do i do???? i’m not upset, i just dont care but i fele like i SHOULD sty something….. help!

    • Anaheed October 26th, 2013 11:58 PM

      Has he been trying to get in touch with you? How do you two usually communicate? And what do you think he wants/expects from you?

      • Isabella Iodice October 27th, 2013 12:14 AM

        we usually call/text and we’ve hung out at a middleground a few times.. the last time we did was the last time we actually communicated. he hasnt tried talking to me since then until this thursday (and i have only tried talking to him a few times). i have not responded.

        • Anaheed October 27th, 2013 12:16 AM

          Does he consider you his girlfriend?

      • Isabella Iodice October 27th, 2013 12:16 AM

        i have no idea what he wants from me. we were headed towards relationship but like i said it stopped p much dead in its tracks. nothing bad happened, it just kind of went away (on my end, anyway).

      • Isabella Iodice October 27th, 2013 12:22 AM

        i dont think he thinks i’m his girlfriend.

        • Anaheed October 27th, 2013 3:37 AM

          Then I don’t think you need to reach out to him at all! If he reaches out to you, you can tell him you’re not really feeling it anymore. And/or you can tell him that you’ve met someone else that you want to pursue a relationship with. I don’t think you have an obligation to do any more than that.

  • Squid_Catcher October 29th, 2013 10:47 PM

    hi there! i really enjoyed this article, do you think i could write one about really sticking it out in a relationship if you want it to work? sorry to leave this in a comment x