How to Break Up
A therapist explains how to break up, even when it’s difficult.
They say it’s hard to part with.
“She” in this case is Neil Sedaka. And proof of his reasoning is carefully set out in his 1975 hit titled “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do”.
They say that it is difficult to part
Now I know
I know it’s true
Don’t say this is the end
Instead of parting
I wish we would make up again
In every relationship there is an expectation of how things should be and an experience of how things are. The pain in any relationship is usually represented by the gap between these two things. And sometimes the gap is too big to contemplate the hope of “making amends”. If so, it may be time to step away from the relationship.
Just like makeup, breaking up involves a complicated mix of principles and practices. Personally, I don’t have a lot of experience with the strategies and tactics associated with a breakup. I got married young and didn’t date a lot before meeting my wife. Whenever I broke up with a friend, I definitely did badly. If I got dumped, it was probably unceremonious, and I probably deserved it.
As a certified Gottman therapist and so-called “relationship expert,” I spend much more time helping couples reconcile instead of walking away. To say that, I have to rely on a few other perspectives to examine the question of how to break up.
Let’s start with Neil Sedaka, and let’s also look at Taylor Swift, Bob Dylan, Marvin Gaye, Ariana Grande, and others to see if the world’s best breakup songs can help clarify those of you who are facing an insurmountable gap between expectations and Face experiences of your relationship.
Know when it’s time to go
Sometimes relationships take their course. Still, it can be difficult to tell when it’s time to stop. Maybe there are some tell-tale signs. According to the Just Brothers in 1964, these are all signs that your partner has “lost that loving feeling.”
Maybe you never close your eyes when you kiss their lips. Or there is no tenderness in her fingertips. Or there is no welcome look in their eyes when you reach for them. Or they start to criticize little things you do.
The criticism in particular is a clear sign. It is one of the four horsemen of the apocalyptic according to the Gottman method. If criticism is left uncontrolled in a relationship, it can surely mean the end.
Other signs include a consistent inability to repair during a conflict, patterns of self-preservation at the expense of the relationship, and a tendency to think negatively rather than positively about your partner and the relationship as a whole.
Gotye warns of this in his 2013 hit “Someone I Knew Before”.
You can become addicted to a certain type of sadness
Like resignation to the end, always to the end
When we found out we couldn’t make sense
You said we were still friends
But I’ll admit I was glad it was over
It’s okay to be happy it’s over. Especially if you’re not dealing with a prenuptial agreement, children, or joint property, sometimes the only reason you need to leave a relationship is because you want to.
If the gap between your expectation and your experience of a relationship is too great, either lower your expectation or increase your experience. When relationship change isn’t possible, lowering your expectations may be your best and only option.
I know it’s okay to go
When you’ve decided it’s time to go, you know it’s okay. One of the purposes of a relationship is to teach us how to be in other relationships. In fact, when John Gottman was asked what advice he would give his younger self, his response was “Get out of bad relationships sooner”.
You should expect to be treated with kindness, love, affection, and respect. You shouldn’t tolerate emotional or physical abuse. You should expect your partner to be loyal.
When you’re ready to move on, “don’t think twice, it’s fine.” Bob Dylan coined the feeling in 1963. In the context of the song, Dylan’s narrator is the one who is “a-thinkin” and “a-wond’rin” all the way through, but he also pacifies his former partner. He gave her his heart, but she wanted his soul. She just kind of has his precious time.
But he doesn’t mind. He just wants them both to move on to the next step.
Chances are, whatever comes next will be better, healthier, and happier than before. And that’s okay. It is really very good. And you have agency in this endeavor.
You’ve probably learned a little about what you want and what you don’t. You are probably a little wiser about the limits you need and want. Chances are, you’re smarter about the qualities you want in your next partner. It’s okay to look for what you like about your past relationships and partners while looking for a more perfect match. The key is to keep your eyes straight ahead.
Adele articulates this better than most in her 2011 power ballad “Someone Like You”. She admits that her former lover “found a girl,” “settled down,” and that his “dreams have come true,” and she is still in love with their time together. “It doesn’t matter,” she says, “I’ll find someone like you.”
She is certainly tormented, but she learns to mourn the loss of what was when she gets used to what is. She offers: “I only wish you the best.” This step will likely open them up to new possibilities.
Every end is a beginning. If you end your formal relationship, that’s fine, but keep in mind that it is still a relationship.
Remember, it’s still a relationship
I had the opportunity to speak to Julie Gottman about breakups. She told me that it is important to celebrate and recognize the good in the relationship at the end.
This won’t be realistic in all cases, but there are things you can do to preserve the dignity and integrity of the original bond. It is helpful to remember that you are always connected to the person. You may not be directly related to one another, but you will always be part of each other’s story.
What will you remember about your relationship? What were the highlights? How did you grow and change?
Make sure you do the breakup as directly as possible. In 1966, Marvin Gaye hinted at a 21st century problem. In “I heard it through the grapevine” he speaks to the surprise to find out about his breakup secondhand. He even suggests that he may “go mad” and that the breakup may be the “end of his life”. While this can be hyperbolic, it suggests that the separation is delicate and should be handled with extreme caution.
At the risk of offering direct counseling (which is prohibited for therapists), at least treat the breakup personally. That is, face to face. Not through a friend. Not by email or text. And certainly not through the grapevine. Every meaningful relationship deserves a meaningful ending. And to the best of your ability, focus on kindness.
Perhaps the worst breakup song these days is Cee Lo Green’s “Forget You”. “Forget You” is the polite (and radio-friendly) replacement title for the song, which originally contains the word “f”.
Green’s song expresses a lot of contempt and anger towards the ex-girlfriend. This energy is simply wasted. Once you decide to break up, it is your responsibility to move on. And there is no reason to be rude.
As Julie Gottman says, “the breakup experience doesn’t have to be negative.” Even if it is, it doesn’t have to be you.
Set clear boundaries and expectations
Sometimes the hardest part is defining the conditions of your existence in your world and community as two people who are no longer a couple.
If you’ve been together for an extended period of time, you have undoubtedly added your friends and family to the mix. The effects of your breakup will include and involve you and your feelings. It is important that you set clear boundaries and expectations of what people should expect in the future.
Superstar Taylor Swift connected with the idea when she wrote, “We’ll never get back together.” The narrator of her song makes the boundaries explicitly clear.
We’ll never ever get back together
We’ll never ever get back together
You go talk to your friends, talk to my friends, talk to me
But we’ll never get back together
A friend broke up with me when I was in college. I was sure that I would marry this woman. But she knew it was time, knew it was okay, and knew our relationship was still important. Still, I haven’t given up hope. I thought we had a chance until I met my current wife. I actually drove for six hours to tell my ex that we would never get back together. Your answer was, “I know.” But I didn’t know until that moment.
I really like this story. But some stories are less pleasant. In Swift’s case, the narrator is empowered by setting boundaries. Sometimes borders are supposed to protect us.
We need to know our limits and that may include suggesting (if not asking) certain post-breakup relationship expectations. Gwen Stefani and No Doubt set standards in 1996 with “Don’t Speak”.
You and me
We were together
Every day together always
i really feel
I’m losing my best friend
I can not believe it
That could be the end
It looks like you’re letting go
And if it’s real
Well I don’t wanna know
Do not speak
Even if you lose your best friend, you have to set boundaries and expectations. Letting your ex know you’ll never get back together, like always, is a gift. And it is a grace to ask of them, “Don’t speak.” When you are clear about the end of a relationship and know what you need, not what you don’t, things are made much easier.
It could be as simple as saying, “I need to keep you (and your mom) off social media” or “I need to know if you will be at this party.” A post-breakup relationship is still subject to the gap in experience and expectation.
In this case, however, you can set your own limits without consent or input from anyone else. At the very least, seek mutual respect and respect.
Know that it’s okay to move on
One final step in setting out – and I purposely said “a” instead of “the” – is to move on. This does not mean moving on to the next partner. You may need to take a break, get to know each other again, or take stock of what you really want in a relationship. You might even find a way to officially mark the end. Plant a tree. Buy a new painting for over the couch. Call your parents. To throw a party.
Michael Buble captures the spirit of celebration after the breakup in his 2013 song “It’s A Beautiful Day”. It has more than a minor cold in it, but it at least reflects his commitment to clearing himself away from that relationship.
Hey hey hey
It’s a beautiful day and I can’t stop myself smiling
When I drink, I buy
And I know there is no denying it
It’s a wonderful day, the sun is rising, the music is playing
Even if it started to rain
You won’t hear this boy complain
Because I’m glad you are the one who got away
“It’s a beautiful day” is a breakup song surrounded by pop vocals, booming trumpets, and a sunny mood. Clearly, breakups can be painful and often require more than a final declaration. That said, the sun rises again and you have a responsibility to yourself and future partners to take care of yourself.
A universal self-care practice is gratitude. There’s a lot of research going on about how gratitude changes your brain, aids sleep, creates positive hormones, and leads to hope. For a few minutes or weeks, think about what you have gained from the relationship.
Ariana Grande, of all people, nails this feeling better than most, as she ponders previous partners in her hit “Thank U, Next” from 2018.
I was taught to love
I’ve been taught to be patient
And one taught me pain
I am so amazing now
Say I loved and I lost
But I don’t see that
So look what I have
Look what you taught me
And for that I say
Thank you next
Next doesn’t have to be another partner. You might consider individual therapy to help deal with the loss of relationships, routines, and rhythms. Perhaps take up a new hobby or plan a trip. Turn to a latent dream or sense of intention.
John Gottman’s research suggests that the healthiest relationships have a common meaning when partners help each other achieve their dreams. You might as well have a head start in developing a vision for yourself and your life.
It may surprise you that the Gottman Institute, a relationship company, is helping couples break up. But here’s the thing. Our goal is not to “save” relationships or to keep couples together. Our goal is to help people better understand what it means to be in a healthy relationship.
And sometimes that means breaking up, even if it’s difficult.