ending a relationship

I always say that wherever you end your current relationship is where you’ll begin the next one. So if it’s time to end your relationship, you want to do it the healthiest way possible. Today I’m sharing my seven tips for ending a relationship the right way so you can walk away better, not bitter.

12 minute read

There’s no one “right way” to break up or divorce someone. However, there are some things you can do to make the ending as healthy as possible. There are things you can do to ensure you’ve got the best chance possible for feeling calm and assured as you leave.

Before we jump in, I want to be clear about what this conversation is not. It’s not the talk where you’re threatening to break up if they don’t change x or y. This isn’t a negotiation where you’re trying to come up with a new plan for staying together in some way. I’m going to be sharing with you my top tips for ending a relationship in the healthiest way possible once you’ve already decided that you’re definitely going. If you’re on the fence in some way, then I want you to stop listening right now, and listen to 143 and 197.

What Defines a Healthy End to a Relationship?

The goal in ending any relationship is to do your best to walk away knowing that you, well, did your best. This means that you find the love. Even if you’re ending because this person cheated on you or was mean to you, there were still some good reasons you stayed for however long you did. Maybe the sex was great or you had fun together. Maybe you finally started therapy because you were so unhappy and learned a ton about yourself. No matter what, you want to end the relationship better, not bitter. You want to walk away with fond memories intact while being real about what worked and what didn’t. While you don’t want to romanticize your ex, you don’t want to vilify them either.

With that in mind…

Here are my top 7 tips for ending a relationship the healthiest way possible:

Tip #1: Think About Their Momentum

If you’re reading this right now, you’ve been thinking about breaking up for awhile. Maybe you’ve even tried (but failed) to do it before. In other words, you’ve built up a certain momentum about your relationship and wanting to end it for real.

Simply put, your partner isn’t where you are, or they would have already broken things off with you. This means that your partner is at a different pace or momentum than you’re at right now. It’s like you’re driving your car at 100 miles per hour, but they’re only moving at 30 miles per hour. When you drive into this conversation going 100 mph, you’ll end up crashing into them which will look like upset emotions, hurt, anger, shock or feeling blindsided by you.

You’ve got to slow down a bit. You need to acknowledge that they’re not where you are (no matter how many times you’ve threatened that they need to change or you’re going to leave them). I’m talking metaphorically, of course, so I don’t want you to think you need to stretch out the break up process. Instead, I want you to slow down your thinking in the conversation. I want you to realize where they are and where you are and have compassion, empathy and patience.

Tip #2: Get Yourself Good First

Our still-ancient brains are hard-wired for bonding and creating coalitions and relationships for survival. When you break up with someone (even if you’re the one doing the leaving), there’s a biological chain of events that happens which hijacks our brain making it harder to be rational and make good decisions.

My girl-crush, biological anthropologist, Helen Fisher, says that love is like an addiction. She’s found in her research that people initially react to rejection and break ups like a drug addict going through withdrawal.

Learn the nitty gritty of how all this brain chemistry works and How to Move on After a Divorce or Break Up.

I’m telling you this so you can understand that both of you (especially the other person) are going to be having some brain hijacking going on which will make things more difficult.

To help override all this biology you want to prepare well for the conversation, and this means getting yourself into a good-feeling state. This is a great time to make sure you’ve meditated and calmed your nervous system, that you’ve taken some long, slow breaths and stopped a moment to check in with yourself and how you’re doing before you meet. You want to focus on being mindful throughout the conversation and notice any anxiety or impatience. You want to get yourself centered and aligned first and continue to check in with yourself throughout the conversation.

Learn how meditation benefits your relationship and the easy way to learn!

meditation for beginners

I go into a lot more detail in The Secret to Having Difficult Conversations, so make sure you check that out.

Tip #3: Speak Your Truth with New Language   

This is not the time to unload about all the reasons the other person sucks. This is not the time to list all the things they did wrong. This is not the time to unleash any rage or resentments; save that for your therapist.

Instead, it’s the time to be clear and confident about why you’re breaking things off. This is a good exercise for you anyway. You’re not breaking things off because your partner cheated or because they don’t like to go try new things or because they’re messy. You’re breaking things off because you don’t feel safe in the relationship or because you no longer feel compatible in the ways that are most important to you.

I want you to be clear about how you feel but not blame them for “making” you feel that way. It’s always, 100% of the time, your responsibility for how you feel in your relationship. Some people have a partner cheat and see it as a one-time thing and are able to trust again and others see it as something they can’t get over and can never trust them again. How you feel is a choice, not a fact (I say with love).

Famed researcher and psychologist Roy Baumeister says, “The message to get across is, ‘You’re not what I’m looking for.’” “That doesn’t imply that there’s something wrong or deficient about your partner.” Your partner isn’t wrong and you’re not right in this break up. You’re just being clear that this person isn’t right for you right now.

A great way to communicate your thoughts to them is to say that you’re not compatible in whatever area you feel is the reason you’re ending things. “We’re not compatible sexually, with money, in our parenting style, in our organizational style, in the way we like to relax, have fun, communicate.”

You could also say that something doesn’t align well anymore. “Our plans for how we’d like to spend our retirement aren’t aligned.” “Our communication styles aren’t aligned well anymore.”

People change and grow over the course of a relationship so what you once wanted and what you need or want now might have shifted and it’s fine to say that out loud. “In the first few years of our relationship I felt so aligned with you in our goals but we’ve both grown and changed, and I don’t feel that anymore. I want both of us to be happy and not feel we need to give up or water down what we really want.”

Tip #4: Listen but Don’t Defend

This conversation is different than other times when you’ve tried to communicate a need in the hopes of making changes in the relationship. In those conversations I’ve taught you to listen like you’re wrong and be relentlessly curious as you try to come up with new solutions to old problems.

This is a completely different type of conversation, so it requires a different mindset and steps.

Your partner is likely going to fight what you say. As I said earlier, if they’d wanted to break up, they’d have already done it. Your job is to listen and not defend but I also don’t want you listening for hours. If you follow these tips, you’ll be able to keep the conversation on track and walk away with a clear ending to the relationship.

When the other person attacks what you’ve said or argues a point you’ve made, don’t bite the bait. Instead, stick to your feelings because those can’t be wrong. They might even say a lie but stop yourself from challenging them or getting into a debate!

I recently worked with a woman who was breaking up with her long-term boyfriend because she felt like he kept taking out his anger at other things on her. She felt like whatever she said, he’d pick at it and tell her how wrong she was. She’d brought up the issue multiple times and he always denied it. A couple of times he did actually acknowledge it and acted better for a few days, but then reverted to his old behavior.

When she broke up with him, she told him that she felt lonely and unloved. He argued and started listing all the things he did that showed he loved her, but she stuck to the tips and didn’t get drawn into a conversation defending her stance and trying to prove to him that buying her flowers occasionally wasn’t what she was looking for.

Instead, she stuck to the tips I’m outlining here and just kept repeating like a mantra, “I still don’t feel loved so it’s time to go our separate ways.” No matter what he said, she kept sticking to how she felt instead of getting drawn into a debate and, eventually, he ran out of steam when there was nothing else to fight.

Just remember, you’re not opening up a conversation for debate. There are no facts you’re trying to prove. When you stick to your feelings, you’ll stop arguing the “facts” where you both hold different viewpoints. Your feelings aren’t wrong, but facts can be shredded and dissected.

So, no talking about where things fell apart or re-living events and details. I know you might want to “get them to understand” but you couldn’t do that the whole relationship (or you wouldn’t be here right now) so you’re certainly not going to get them there here at the end.

Tip #5: Get Your Logistics Tight

I want you to do this in person. No emails, texts or calls unless you’re worried about your physical safety. Doing this in person is the healthiest thing for both of you and what everyone deserves.

Pick a public place to have the breakup conversation. Don’t do this at your home (or theirs if you don’t live together). You don’t want to have an endless conversation and doing it in a public place ensures that. People are also more conscious when others are around, so it’ll help you both stay more present and mindful.

If you live together or are married, make a plan for what you’ll do after this conversation. Going home and sleeping in the same bed together is not the way to go. Even if you have an extra bedroom or couch, I highly recommend that you find somewhere else to be right after this conversation; have another (at least temporary) option for where you’ll be staying. This could be a hotel for a few days or with a friend or whatever else works but you both need a little distance and time so you can each have your own thoughts without rehashing the conversation or having negative reactions when you’re home together right away.

Tip #6: Really End It

Under no circumstances do you want to leave anything open-ended or up for interpretation. You might start feeling really bad when the other person starts crying or acting upset but keep your boundaries! Don’t offer to “be friends” or to “just have a break and see what happens.” Do not give any false hope or lie in any way.

It’s not “nice” to be unclear. It’s not kind to tell your partner something they want to hear because you’re uncomfortable with their reaction. It’s cruel. You can care about them without worrying about them.

You cannot control their reactions. It doesn’t matter how much time you spend “doing this right” the other person is going to have their own reactions. Your job is to keep your boundaries and not change what you’re saying or doing based on their reactions. That’s your people-pleasing jumping in. That’s your guilt jumping in. That’s your fear-based shit and it’s NOT going to help the other person!

Do not, under any circumstances, go back and have sex with this person (now or in the future). When you keep all these doors open, you’re not only doing a disservice to the other person, but you’re doing a major one to yourself.

We are energetic beings and when this other person is still in our energy field, it closes us off to new relationships, opportunities and growth.

Tip #7: Remember it Well

You’re likely going to remember this person for the rest of your life. They’re probably going to have a permanent little corner of your head where they reside in some way. Years from now you’ll visit San Diego and remember a trip you took there together. Or you’ll finally take that trip to France and remember that you’d talked about going together way back when. You want those memories to pop up in an easy way with no heat or pull, no trigger for bad thoughts or feelings.

I always say that wherever you end your last relationship, you’ll begin the next. This means you want to end as well as possible so you don’t bring old crap into your next relationship. You want to break up with integrity, love and respect… at least for yourself.

Dr. Abby with her Book "Be Happily Married, Even If Your Partner Won't Do A Thing"


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