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How to Break Up a Failing Romantic Relationship as Compassionately As Possible
by Rachel G. Baldino, MSW, LCSW for

Alleged couple Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughn are currently starring in "The Break-Up," a summer blockbuster focused on the always-popular subject.

Whether in the movies or real-life -- and like the old song goes -"Breaking up is hard to do."

This is especially true for empathetic people who value The Golden Rule-"treat others as you wish to be treated"-and who make a point of "putting themselves in other people's shoes" on a regular basis in order to better understand how others feel.

Please note that this article is not about how to end an abusive relationship, but rather, it is about how to end a relationship in which the two people involved are simply not compatible.


Applying 'The Golden Rule' to a break-up conversation is the most compassionate way to end a failing relationship.

First Ask Yourself: Do You Really Want The Relationship To End?

For starters, you need to be absolutely certain that you want to end the relationship. If you still have hope that things might get better, and if you genuinely want to give the relationship one last chance to succeed, you may need to find a way to warn your significant other that he is "on notice," or that the relationship is entering a sort of "probationary period."

Believe it or not, there are actually gentle, loving-but still direct and truthful-ways to impart this admittedly tricky information without setting off a series of emotional landmines.

For instance, if your significant other has been paying attention at all, then he is already likely to be well aware of the fact that there are problems in the relationship, so you would not be catching him totally off guard if you were to tell him something along the lines of:

"You know we have been having some problems lately, and I need you to know that they are serious enough for me to start asking myself some tough questions about our relationship, including the biggest question of all: 'Should we really stay together?' However, I think that if we try to work on our issues [NOTE: do specify exactly what these particular issues may be, such as communication, trust, intimacy, etc.] then we might have a chance of making it through this rough patch."


The most compassionate kind of break-up is one that is handled gently but directly, offering both partners hope for more successful relationships in the future.

If You Really Do Want To End It, Here Are Six Big "No-No's" in Break-Up Etiqutte

  1. When it comes to break-up etiquette, it is not acceptable simply to stop calling and/or to stop returning phone calls, and this is especially true of serious relationships.

    In other words, if two people have been dating seriously (or even not so seriously), have been in almost daily telephone contact throughout their dating relationship, and have been seeing each other one or more times a week, it is entirely unacceptable and extremely disrespectful for one of the two individuals to simply stop calling (and/or stop returning calls from) the other. In fact, such behavior would be a classic example of blatantly disregarding The Golden Rule.

    Of course, a big part of functioning in the world like a mature, compassionate adult is facing up to the fact that sometimes life compels us to have incredibly uncomfortable conversations. And just because we would rather not have such conversations, this does not mean that it is okay for us to avoid them, because everyone deserves to be treated with a fundamental level of respect, kindness, decency and honesty.

  2. Don't behave so badly that the other person is forced to break up with you.

    I knew a guy in college who got tired of his long-term girlfriend but who also hated the idea of breaking up with her directly, so he took the very roundabout approach of acting like a total jerk until she finally broke things off with him. The craziest part of the whole situation was that everyone but his soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend knew that this was his grand plan because he told everyone in the dorm that this was what he was going to do.

    A few of his more immature friends thought it was funny and sort of egged him on, but most of them told him it was cowardly and obnoxious, and asked him how he would like it if someone were to do that to him.

    She did end up breaking up with him, just as he had hoped she would, so in the end his little scheme worked.

    However, I do like to think that all these years later he has come to regret how he handled that particular break up.

  3. Don't be exceedingly harsh.

    In other words, don't use a break-up conversation to vent all of your anger and frustration and to rattle off a long, merciless list of all your soon-to-be-ex-partner's faults. The human ego is a fragile thing, and this is a person you once cared for (and you probably still do, albeit no longer in a romantic way), so keep the conversation as civil and above board as humanly possible. Be direct, but don't be brutal.

  4. If the other person tries to cause the break-up conversation to escalate into a big fight, don't bite!

    Even if you are conducting yourself well during the break-up conversation, the other person, feeling hurt and angry, may choose to lash out at you. No matter how angry you may be feeling, don't give in to the temptation to have a massive blow-out. Simply refuse to engage at that level, and, if you have already said (in the most civil, humane way possible) what you needed to say, feel free to excuse yourself from the conversation.

  5. Don't place all of the blame on the other person (even if they are mostly to blame).

    Relationships are always a two-way street, so it is okay for you to assume at least part of the responsibility for the relationship not working out in the end. This is also a way for the other person to save some face, and not feel so sad and bitter about the dissolution of
    the relationship.

  6. Don't muddy the waters with mixed signals of any kind.

    Breaking up is never a time for ambivalence in what you say or what you do. For example, some people who break up make the decision to be intimate with their soon-to-be-ex one last time "for old time's sake," but this may lead the partner who is being broken up with to believe that there is hope for the relationship, when realistically there is no hope for a future together. Therefore, even if there is still some physical chemistry left between the two of you, don't give in to the temptation to "go there."

Do You Have To Provide A Reason For Breaking Up?

For the most part, human beings crave explanations. We want to know why something went wrong, and how we can use this knowledge to be more successful in the future.

However, human beings also want to be treated as gently and compassionately as possible.

So, if you are breaking up with someone because the two of you don't have enough in common, it is a good idea to say so, but it's also a good idea to word it in the least hurtful and most constructive manner.

Be specific, but also be compassionate. That is, if your passion is for long, intimate, in-depth conversations at the dinner table, and if he is not a big talker but prefers going on adventures in The Great Outdoors, emphasize that he would probably find much greater happiness and fulfillment with someone who shares his interests.

This is just one way to "reframe" a fundamentally negative situation (a break-up) in a more positive way. The occasion marks an ending, to be sure, but it also marks a new beginning for both of you; and this is the point that you want to drive home above all else-the fact the break-up offers him the opportunity to find someone with whom he is a much better match.

Presenting the break-up in this light won't take away the hurt completely, but it will soften the blow, at least a little bit, and it will also demonstrate that you still care for him, and that you have no desire to trample all over his feelings.

Recommended Reading:

The Top Five Things Couples Argue About

Who Is Better at Revenge, Men or Women?


Dumping Him (Nicely)

Don't Leave Like A Louse

Break Up Etiquette 101

Break Up Etiquette

About the Author contributing editor Rachel G. Baldino, MSW, LCSW, is the author of the e-book, Loving Simply: Eliminating Drama from Your Intimate Relationships, published in 2006 by, and the print book, Welcome to Methadonia: A Social Worker's Candid Account of Life in a Methadone Clinic, published in 2000 by White Hat Communications.

Her articles have appeared in Social Work Today, The New Social Worker, New Living Magazine, and other publications. After earning her MSW from the Boston College Graduate School of Social Work in1997, she provided counseling services, first at a methadone clinic, and later at an outpatient mental health treatment facility.

Ms. Baldino has been quoted about managing anger in relationships in Kathy Svitil's 2006 book, Calming The Anger Storm, which is part of the Psychology Today Here To Help series. She has also been quoted in such magazines, newspapers and online publications as For Me Magazine, Conceive Magazine, The San Francisco Bay Guardian, The Albany Times Union, The Tallahassee Democrat, Bay State Parent Magazine,,,, The Newhouse News Service, and Indianapolis Woman. She lives with her husband and children in Massachusetts.

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