Finding the Right Time to Break Up

Finding the Right Time to Break Up


Sometimes scheduling a break up smoothes the transition process for everyone involved.

I was recently coaching a couple in which the woman was clear she wanted to break up but the man, although he had plenty of red flags and deep concerns, was not so convinced. He kept thinking they might be able to salvage the relationship. My normal intent is always to teach skills and tools so that people can, indeed, stay together. However, in this case, they had some insurmountable issues. We turned our attention to what I refer to as negotiables and non-negotiables, and identified several non-negotiables that were in conflict for these two, interfering with their relationship’s potential no matter what their intent.

Non-negotiables are the circumstances, values or conditions that one or both parties are not willing to or can’t compromise on. Age differences, spiritual differences, conflicting life goals, differing locations, having children or not, even politics, all may be among the list.

When all was said and done, they decided they should break up. But when? They had another week of vacation planned. After a fascinating discussion, they both agreed they would carry on intimately in the relationship until the end of their vacation and then break up.

My first thought was concern over the messiness of this and the mixed messages they were throwing at each other, but then I remembered one of my own break ups when I was younger. My boyfriend of several years and I decided to end our relationship but the decision came days before the Christmas holidays and lots of family plans together. We discussed the situation and decided that we didn’t want our decision to throw a damper on our families during the holidays so we scheduled our break up for after the New Year and carried on.

I then started doing research on how common it is to schedule a break up. It turns out this is actually not as crazy as it sounds. Sometimes the timing may have to do with upcoming events like weddings, birthdays, graduations or other celebrations. Or perhaps the timing is related to when the last child is out of the house or of a certain age. I’ve seen people wait until an inheritance came through to ease the transition (or even stay married to be entitled to it). And indeed, there are definitely bad times to break up. Times of stress, while someone is grieving, when someone is already struggling with other losses, can be particularly insensitive times to add to the pain. The more compassionate path may be to wait a bit. However, if you are going to be mean, cold or distant during the wait, you aren’t really relieving the stressful time, you are adding to it.

You also don’t want to be held hostage to a relationship because the other person is perpetually unwilling to do their own personal work to make his or her life better. When they threaten suicide or other self-harm if you leave, you may need to call in someone else to support them while you remove yourself from this manipulative situation. It could be devastating if you were to just walk out without those other support systems in place.

Rarely is breaking up with a moment’s notice a good idea as such a rash decision is usually blame-generated. As an advocate of personal responsibility, I always encourage self-reflection and self-improvement before a serious break up. Some questions to explore: Have I been honest? Have I been in integrity in the relationship? Have my boundaries been clear? Have I been communicative? Have I been authentic or was I controlling or seeking approval? Have I been kind and loving? What has it been like to be in relationship with me?

It is my experience that one should not walk away from a relationship unless or until they know they have taken 100% responsibility for their part in the troubles. When we clean up our own act, sometimes the relationship magically improves. If it does not, get the timing right to walk away knowing that you have done your part.

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