Breakups don’t have to be messy. Lion Goodman reveals the art of clean endings.
Simon & Garfunkel offered advice through their 1970’s hit song, “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover.” Included were “Step out the back, Jack,” and “Make a new plan, Stan.” This is decent advice if you need to escape from a dangerous relationship, but forty years later, what’s the best advice for leaving a relationship?
Unfortunately, none of us took the class, “Relationships 101.” If we had, we might have learned how to intelligently begin, sustain, and end a relationship well. When we learn to drive a car, we study, practice, and we’re tested for our competence. Relationships are much more dangerous than driving. We can have sex, fall in love, get married, and bring children into the world without any previous experience or qualifications. No wonder most relationships fail!
The uncomfortable truth is: ALL relationships end. Even in long-term marriages, one of the two dies before the other, leaving their partner in deep grief.
And when relationships end, they usually end badly. One, or both partners, experience pain and suffering. There is a better way. The way of integrity.
Most of us received our relationship training by closely observing a dysfunctional couple: our parents. They, too, missed out on that Relationships 101 course. If your parents divorced, it was most likely messy and uncomfortable. If your parents stayed together, they were likely unhappily married. Only a small minority of relationships are both happy and long-lasting.
There are couples who end their relationship in a good, healthy and friendly way. Most end too abruptly, or are drawn out affairs with more suffering than necessary. We’ve never been taught how to end a relationship in a good way. The uncomfortable truth is: ALL relationships end. Even in long-term marriages, one of the two dies before the other, leaving their partner in deep grief.
There is a way to end it cleanly, responsibly, and lovingly. It takes a very conscious effort to end things well, because there are so many ways to end it badly.
Here then, are five BETTER ways to leave your lover:
1. Take full responsibility.
It’s easy to blame your partner for causing the problems. Remember that it takes two people to create and maintain any pattern of behavior. Blaming the other is a major destructive source in a relationship. Don’t go there. “Taking responsibility” means being able to respond from an empowered place of choice, rather than from reaction to the situation.
However things came to this point, you may be hurt or angry. Feel those feelings fully as they move through you, but don’t act out from them. Anger, contempt, and disdain are corrosive and toxic. If you need to complain and rant, do it with your close buddies, or a therapist – not your partner. This is a time to take care of yourself and learn how to express your anger in healthy ways. Don’t let your emotions drive your decisions, or your behavior. Come to a more balanced state before making decisions or taking action.
Responsibility is the willingness to acknowledge that you are cause in the matter, whether you recognize it at the moment or not. Remember that you put yourself into this situation, and it’s likely that your behaviors and actions have done some of the damage. If you’re didn’t get what you want, part of the problem was you. In 12 -Step addiction recovery, Step # 4 is making a “fearless moral inventory.” This means looking honestly at your actions throughout the relationship, and with great courage, seeing what you did that caused separation and loss of intimacy and caring. Did you stay true to your own values and principles? Did your heart (or loins) wander? Did you fail to express your real feelings and needs? Where were you out of integrity? What did you keep secret?
When you choose to leave your relationship, take full responsibility for your part in what happened. This will lighten the “pain load” that any break-up carries. Here’s an example: “I’ve been looking deeply into my role in the mess we’ve created. I see where I screwed up, and I apologize for my part in it. I know where I caused our feelings for each other to change. I need to end our relationship now, before any further damage is done.”
Bottomline: Much less damage is done when you stand in your truth and take full responsibility for it.
2. Speak your truth with clarity and certainty.
Begin by telling the truth to yourself. What is really going on inside you? Are you hurt? Afraid? Sad? Do you feel vulnerable? Note the sensations you feel in your body. When you focus there, you’ll get important information, and your feelings will shift, lighten, or even disappear.
As men, we’re trained to NOT feel our feelings from the time we’re young. “Big boys don’t cry.” “No pain, no gain.” We learned to stuff our feelings or move up into our heads to avoid them. Honesty begins with yourself.
The next step is honesty with your partner. If you speak from honest body sensations, the other person has a chance to care about you. Try this the next time you have that difficult conversation: “I’m feeling a sensation of heaviness around my heart, and an agitation right here in my solar plexus. I’m feeling a lot of sadness and fear right now. The sadness comes from the realization that our relationship is over. I’m afraid that your reaction will be violent, and that we’ll repeat the same pattern we’ve gone through before.” When you honestly discuss your feelings and sensations, without blame, the other person can feel compassion, and stay in their own feelings without blaming you.
3. Be kind and loving.
Breaking up is one of the most stressful and difficult acts you’ll ever undertake, so be kind. Relationships are always a mix of good and bad. They start out with good feelings and good intentions. Both people want to be loved, and want to love. Both want to feel secure, and feel cared for. Those initial motivations are rarely enough to sustain two people who have a mix of real feelings and the full range of reactions we have to others. When you decide to end a relationship, remember your original intention was to love. This person has shared their life, their time, and their body with you. This act is worthy of your kindness and your love, despite whatever happened to end it.There is always pain in separation. When you separate out of a loving space rather than a cold, distant, or angry space, you can reduce the pain. Part of the Hippocratic Oath is “Do no harm.” If you modify that advice to “Minimize harm,” you’ll have a good formula for ending a relationship. Kindness goes a long way toward minimizing harm and pain.
4. Honor and respect yourself, your lover, and the relationship.
Honor is defined as holding someone in high regard, or esteem. Respect is a feeling of deep admiration for another person. When you respect and honor yourself, you treat yourself as important, and worthy of love and care. When you honor another, you are careful to not do anything to hurt or demean them.
There is a third “person” to consider, which is the relationship itself. The relationship deserves to be respected, as well, even when it’s over. This means that you don’t talk badly about your former partner OR the relationship. There should be no blaming, no contempt, and no demeaning speech or actions. This commitment keeps the pain to a minimum throughout the long healing process that follows the break-up.
5. Use a collaborative ritual to honor the loss and begin the healing process.
This is perhaps the best recommendation for completing a relationship. Whatever is born, dies. Whatever begins has an ending. When a person dies, we have burial rituals, a period of official mourning, and community grieving ceremonies. The same thing should happen when a relationship dies. If you’ve used the previous four recommendations, your relationship will have ended with kindness, honesty, and integrity, and there is the possibility that you can collaborate with your partner to officially honor the ending. This requires a calm and reasoned discussion, careful planning, and some understanding of the role of ritual.
With one of my previous partners, we created a ritual at the beach. We sat across from each other, and told each other what we loved about the other person, and what we learned from our four years together. We didn’t bring up our past problems or issues. We were there to honor what was good about our time together, and to acknowledge the value of the relationship. We gave each other small gifts, and together used yarn and sticks to create a construction that represented our relationship. We walked down to the ocean, broke the art piece together, and threw it into the ocean. We felt our deep love for each other, and walked back to our cars holding hands. Those who saw us would have thought that we just fell in love, rather than having fallen out of love. This is what’s possible, and ALL loving relationships deserve to be treated this way.
Five ways to leave your lover – responsibly, truthfully, kindly, lovingly, and with honor. Now you’ve gotten this section of Relationships 101. Go out and make the world a safer and better place to love.
Looking for a relationship? The Good Men Project promises to have a really good one with your inbox. Sign up for our daily or weekly newsletter here.
Lion, Excellent article. Breaking up is difficult no matter what. I’ve found if people have the clarity and maturity to follow these practices, in many cases they can work things out and remain together. The people I see in my practice often need help and support to move from “I want out, but my partner refuses to see that its over for me” or “my partner wants to leave, but I still think the relationship can be saved” to a place where both people are on the same side. I work with a lot of people with the promise that… Read more »
And then there’s the situation when there’s nothing seriously wrong with them or the relationship but you recognize you’re f*cked-up and they will be better off without you.
But how do you break up with a person who’s too emotionally vested in the relationship? Even after stating the facts honestly and truthfully and even after accepting one’s faults and taking full responsibility for it, what if the other person still doesn’t want to accept the “death” of the relationship?
How do you break up then?
Because obviously, the relationship is toxic for both of them..and while one understands that, the other doesn’t.
So what to do in that case?
Sounds nice and I am sure this can work in some cases, but – when one person doesn’t want to end the relationship and has been putting all the effort to grow as a person to be a better partner for her/his significant other; – there’s a marriage, with children, and the relationship has not been one of abuse (where I know even children can recognize that it’s better to end it), even breaking up nicely stirs their world beyond what they are able to rationalize – when a partner is somewhat blindsided with the breakup, who had thought that… Read more »
This was absolutely beautiful & touched me deeply. I have always felt this way about ending relationships. I have parted & ended relationships with respect, kindness & love to honour what we once had. Another big challenge is to accept someone breaking up with you with dignity & respect.
Small correction: 50 Ways To Leave Your Lover was not a hit by Simon & Garfunkel. It was a Paul Simon solo hits about 4 or 5 years after they split up 😉
Thanks, Ornithorhynchus! I stand corrected. (And I now know what an Ornithorhynchus is!)
More good advice for men: Download a free copy of my book, “Menlightenment,” by registering here: http://beliefcloset.com/men/