Breaking up is still hard to do
Washington - We know how to break up.
In theory, it is easy: mention the good things about this person (you are awesome, funny, smart, etc), deliver the bad news (you are breaking up) and wish them well.
After all, as dating and relationship experts counsel, direct rejection is the most effective, kindest way to part.
Yet we are still bad at it. We ghost or send text messages. We gradually pull away and hope our partner will be the one to say: “Let’s talk.”
Sometimes it takes experiencing a really bad break-up or a rare good one to get singles to step up their break-up game.
Morgan Givens’s worst break-up – and ultimate lesson in how to break up – was six years ago.
He and his long-distance girlfriend were well past the point of a text break-up.
They had been together since they were both 18; she had stuck by him as Givens transitioned from female to male in his early 20s; and at the point they split, Givens was planning to move to Vermont to live with her.
Right before the split, he says, he had visited her for his birthday and it had been wonderful. But after he left, his texts and phone calls went unreturned for about a week. Finally, she surfaced in a text, saying: “I’m sorry. I met someone – and I slept with him.”
It sounded a lot like Carrie Bradshaw’s infamous Post-It break-up. (“I’m sorry. I can’t. Don’t hate me.”) Only it wasn’t a television plot – it was Givens’s real life – and he was devastated.
“We probably would have broken up anyway,” Givens tells me while at Idle Time Books in DC’s Adams Morgan neighbourhood, a spot where he and his ex-girlfriend had had an argument that he now considers the beginning of the end of that relationship.
“But that is not the way to break up with someone after six years. It is painful in this heart-wrenching way to think that you have given your heart to someone and trusted that they would take care of it and they discard it so cruelly.”
For Givens, who is now 29, that breakup shaped every split he has initiated since then. When I ask if he has ever dumped someone by text message, he cuts me off with an hearty. “Oh God no”
“That type of callousness, I don’t think I could ever, ever hand off to someone else. I know how much that hurts.
“I make it a point to try to be as respectful of people as possible when I am in relationships with them, because I was so greatly disrespected that one time that I would not feel right doing that to someone else.”
When is it okay to text, then? When you are one or two dates in, dating coach Laurie Davis says.
At that point it is rejection, but not a break-up – and it is fine to do over text, Davis says, as that is “so much of how we communicate with each other socially”.
After a certain level of intimacy, however, don’t say goodbye over text, Davis stresses, even if a lot of your communication is done that way.
If you have been integrated into each other’s lives by introducing one another to your friends or revealing parts of yourself that are more personal, “you need to honour the relationship” by parting in person, Davis says.
For those face-to-face conversations, Thomas Edwards, a professional wingman and Davis’s husband, has a trusty formula for disconnecting.
He calls it the “s*** sandwich”, which goes a little something like this: Start by listing the things you like about the person you are seeing, or about your connection (this the first slice of bread for your sandwich).
Then deliver the bad news (aka the s***), something like: I don’t feel like this is going to become a long-term thing.
Follow up with something positive and forward-looking, such as: I hope that things work out for you.
In a break-up conversation, “you have to create comfort through discomfort”, Edwards says.
“In an ideal place, you want to be constructive and productive.”
And you want to provide some closure.
Whether you have been dating a month or a year, relationship expert Esther Perel, the author of Mating in Captivity, recommends staying positive about the relationship and conclusively stating that it is over.
“Avoid a state of stable ambiguity,” Perel says, “where you are too afraid to leave and be alone and too immature to make the commitment. You simmer in a stew of ambivalence”.
Today’s singles’ scene – where undefined relationships can last months to a year – is full of ambivalence.
A clear ending can provide the kind of closure that ghosting or a fade-out lacks. In a break-up talk, Perel recommends expressing these ideas: It was really beautiful to meet you. I know we have been seeing each other for a while. We want different things. I know you want to build something that I can’t offer. I want to thank you for what we had together.
Garrett Schlichte, a 25-year-old Washingtonian, had one of those good, definitive break-up conversations about a year ago – and he speaks about it so fondly it sounds more like romance than rejection.
Schlichte was finishing his post graduate studies in Connecticut when he met someone he was interested in. They were both moving away in three months, but the connection was so strong that they decided to expiration-date anyway.
To end the relationship, he and his not-quite-boyfriend went out to dinner to have a break-up talk they knew was coming.
“We both got to say our goodbyes and leave on super-good terms,” Schlichte told me recently, about an hour before heading out to a first date with someone new.