Can you break up with someone without hurting them?

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So, I have some bad news for you. Many, many people before you – almost definitely millions, possibly billions — have tried to figure out how to break up with someone without hurting them, and no one has really figured it out yet. I know. It’s sad. It’s hard. Being a human is hard sometimes. And being a human with a kind heart? Oof. Tough stuff. But also good stuff. We like kind hearts. All of our favorite people have them.

Where does that leave you? Is there anything that can make this any easier? Actually, yes. We have some thoughts that will help. They basically boil down to this:

You’re not responsible for other people’s feelings. But if you are kind and you care about someone, you can be responsive to their feelings.

It’s like this: Love (and even its less turbulent cousin, LIKElike) is risky, vulnerable stuff. When you get involved in it, it’s not always going to go smoothly. I hate to be the one to tell you this if you don’t already know from experience but: you’ll probably get your heart broken at some point in your life, too. Heartbreak is basically part of the price of admission to the human experience. No one else can protect you from it, and not to sound too harsh but… YOU probably can’t even protect you from it. Unless you go seal yourself off in a cave, which would mean no more ice cream or baby sloth videos ever. Plus, actually, you’d probably go through some pretty deep sadness alone in a cave forever, so… looks like the hard feelings are just a part of life no matter what!

But just a part! The other part is ice cream and baby sloth videos, and love. So it all balances out.

No one can protect your soon-to-be-ex from heartbreak either. Not even you. Or, I mean, you could protect them from it by just sacrificing your own happiness for theirs until one of you dies. But are you really ready at this point in your life to say that you’re ready to devote the rest of your life to putting this one person’s happiness above your own? If you subscribe to the idea that humans are born equal, then you’ve got to admit that your happiness is equally important to theirs.

You’re your own person, and you’re responsible for your own feelings, and they’re responsible for theirs.

But, you’re a kind person, and you know this is going to hurt, and you want to do this as gently as possible to minimize the sting. That’s really, really good of you. You can be responsive to their feelings by:

NOT LYING: It is so tempting (sooooo, so tempting) to tell some untruths in order to sugarcoat this painful experience. This is usually people’s first strategy for “not hurting someone” but guess what: it fails, pretty much every time. You know why? Because sugarcoating something like this is not heroically helping someone else avoid pain; it’s actually you trying to avoid your own pain. You’re trying to avoid the discomfort, the guilt, the sadness, the seeing the face of someone who just got hurt… by you. And rather than preventing their pain, you’re actually potentially increasing it. Even the best, most believable lie (“I’ve decided I just want to be single for a while”) leaves them brokenhearted but hopeful, only to have their heart DOUBLE-broken when they see you start dating someone else, whenever that happens. Don’t leave them hanging onto false hope; rip off the Band-Aid, cleanly, quickly, kindly. It’s a kindness to soothe your own guilt another way, like going for a long walk, or asking your best friend for a hug.

Choosing your words carefully: For instance, maybe don’t go into too much detail about why you think they’re wrong for you. Some words can really get stuck in people’s heads. If you can keep the message clear but succinct, you’re doing a kindness: “I just don’t have those feelings for you [anymore] and I’m sorry.” No false hope, no unnecessary opinionating about their suitability as bf/gf material.

Being respectful: For instance, not gossiping about how you’re so deeply over this person before you’ve talked to them about it. Also, not gossiping about any reactions they had in the process of getting dumped, because people can get really raw and you wouldn’t want someone talking about you that way when this happens to you. Talking over your decision and the difficult feelings that come with it in private with your friends is not the same thing as gossiping btw, if your friends are capable of keeping it to themselves.

So, I’m sorry that I couldn’t give you a free pass with some creative lies that will magically make a person not be hurt that you’re breaking up with them. If it helps at all, hard experiences like this one – both for the dumper and the dumpee – are what make people grow stronger, wiser, and better.  So it’s worth it, even though it’s not fun.

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