Heartbreak sucks. And it doesn’t matter what side you’re on. We’ve all experienced it in some way. When a romantic relationship comes to an end, is there a way to ease the pain?
Yes, there is. (And staying in a relationship long after it’s expired isn’t the answer.)
One day a friend, Jess, asked me this tough question. She still loved the guy she was dating, but felt it was time for the relationship to end. Since she’d been hurt by a messy breakup before, she didn’t want to do that to someone else. “How do I communicate what I’m feeling?” she asked. “How do I be honest and have integrity without completely crushing him?”
This is exactly when many people keep quiet and avoid the inevitable, rather than mustering their courage to face the honest conversation that needs to be had. Understandably so! Most of us don’t want to hurt someone else. And when it comes to love relationships, those hit us at the most vulnerable part of who we are.
Before you have this often intensely emotional conversation, ask yourself two important questions that can reveal what’s really happening.
First, Is Your Fear Really About Not Wanting to Hurt the Other Person?
Or might your hesitation actually be about how you’re going to handle yourself in the face of the other person’s emotion? What if they fly off the handle? What if they don’t want to speak to me ever again? What if they say I’m the worst person in the world? When those types of thoughts are running rampant through your mind, then your fear may actually be more about how you will handle your emotions in response to their reaction, and less about whether they can handle the conversation. You don’t know how they’ll respond because you haven’t had the conversation yet. You might just be giving yourself an excuse.
Second, Do You Believe the Other Person Is Strong, Capable and Resourceful?
Because they are. They’re responsible for their own emotions and reaction. When you trust that they’ll figure out how to handle this transition in your relationship—you’ll enter the conversation with a very different intention. If necessary, remind yourself, “So-and-so is strong, capable and resourceful” before you engage in the talk. That way, you’ll stay focused on managing the person you’re in charge of—YOU!
Once you’ve answered these questions, you’re ready to engage. It will take courage. Your responsibility is to
- Be honest about yourself, expressing your emotions and what’s important to you while also staying open and curious to the other person’s experience.
- Use your breath to manage your own emotions.
- Be compassionate and listen deeply when they respond.
For example, when you say, “This isn’t working for me. I’ve been trying to make this relationship work, and it just doesn’t feel right. I was going to give it a few more months, but I realize that I would be deceiving myself and you if I did that. Integrity is really important to me and that’s why I’ve decided to talk to you now.” Your job is to breathe deeply and pay attention to what comes up. You may feel intense emotions. You may feel surprisingly calm. You don’t know yet, so just manage yourself, so you can focus your attention on the other person and be present for their response and really listen to what they have to say.
Listening is about more than what the other person is saying. Pay attention to their body language, tone of voice and what it feels like to sit in silence. Even though you are listening to their words, it helps to go deeper and listen to hear the emotion beneath what they’re saying. Respond with what you hear, such as, “I hear how surprised, shocked, upset or devastated you are” or “I hear that you resonate with what I’m saying. It sounds like we are both on the same page.”
When you trust yourself, speak with compassionate honesty and believe the other person is strong, capable and resourceful, you can be present and focused in the conversation. It allows you to be there for yourself as well as honor the other person the best you can. And sometimes it’s not your job to be there for them. That might be for their friends and other support people in their life. While there are nuances to any breakup conversation, these communication principles will help you stay true to yourself while being compassionate toward the other person.
Moving on can be painful, messy, and full of guilt, or it can be clear, honest and compassionate. Will you take ownership for your part in the conversation? What will you choose?