The etiquette of the breakup is one of those things that people will comment on but never really unpack. "Never on the phone" is said with the solemn tones of one incanting a rite against loneliness, "always in person." As someone who once left a voicemail saying "Um, hi, it's me! I don't think we should see each other any more!" I clearly have little respect for the so-called rules. But now that I'm in a relationship - one that I like and care about very much, with a dude I like and care about very much - I've recently given more thought to breakups. It sounds counter-intuitive - why examine what I hope will never be? But should a separation occur, what would I want done to ease the pain? What would I do and say to make things easier?
Like most urban, mid-twenties folks, I'm a dedicated Savage Love reader, and he often has a lot to say on the topics of breakups. As the writer behind "DTMFA", Savage clearly understands that, for most relationships, endgame is part of the package. We almost never enter into a relationship with the intention of ending it - most of us want forward movement in our lives, and that often takes the form of dating/cohabitation/marriage/kids. But hello, I'm not married to my first boyfriend, and chances are, neither are you. In a world where Facebook relationship statuses have serious emotional weight, and more people are willing to consider a flexible or open marriage, some new relationship continents have been discovered. Time to map them.
But as we move past legitimate reasons to leave a relationship and into the hows of actually doing it, I'm going to pause for a moment and say: yo. Breakups suck. I've never met anyone who really enjoys sitting someone down to have the "I no longer want to know you" talk. Like everyone, I've been dumped, the way you dump a murder victim on the side of the road - hard, by a dude still makes me want to slash his tires when I think about him. One of my friends threw a celebratory DTMFA brunch when she finally broke it off with her former fella. The demise of that relationship was excruciating: it took months for her to work up the ovaries to kick him out, he still owes her money, and oh, by the way, he left his kid behind. Classy, non?
The zen master in me wants to put on a soothing voice and say that everything happens for a reason, that we learn from our pasts, and that pain can be a teacher. But we all know that guy is an asshole. So there are ways of doing it classily, that make it hurt less and leave the door open to friendship. Maybe not right away, but eventually.
Rule #1: always do it on neutral territory. I got Big Dumped in my kitchen, which sucked. I would have been embarrassed if I had started sobbing on the Starbucks patio, but at least I wouldn't have gone downstairs the next morning and been like, "Here are my eggs, my Cheerios, the place I was emotionally eviscerated...I'm not hungry anymore..." I'm not saying that you have to end it on a busy streetcorner with a busker providing the soundtrack. Go somewhere you've never been, and will likely never go again. Do not break up with anyone in a bedroom.
Rule #2: Cliches are your friend. It's not you, it's me. I need space. I'm going to figure myself out. That said, only use cliches that actually apply. If you don't want to be friends, don't say, "Maybe someday we can be friends." Don't say, "Maybe someday we can get back together" if you already have your eye on someone else. Know that the person you're breaking up with will likely examine everything you say with a microscope, so don't say anything you don't mean, even if you're saying it in the tritest way possible.
Rule #3: Be nice! If you're breaking up with someone, you're already rejecting them pretty hard. One of my exes, mid-dump (gross!) told me I "wasn't inspiring," a comment that drove me batty for years. It was unnecessary! Moreover, it was designed to hurt, and in a breakup scenario, that's uncalled for. So BE NICE. Don't be that guy. Be complimentary. "You're going to be fine," you'll say, "you're so smart and pretty and fashionable and well-read that guys will be falling down to date you. But I need to find myself? And so, um, we should see other people."
#4: But be honest. If there's someone else, or there's going to be someone else, give your new ex a heads-up. You may want to choose different words than "there's someone else" or "I have the hots for Emily from work," but the sentiment remains the same. If at all possible, try to make sure your romances are more like pearls on a string than Venn diagrams, but if that ship has sailed, be courteous. Facebook pictures will show up of the two of you smooching, and your ex may not be a fan of finding out via the internet that you've been groping new people.
#5: Be respectful. This is the biggest one, maybe the only real rule. It obviously applies during the relationship, but the post-breakup temptation to be spiteful and malicious can be overwhelming. If you're the dumped party (table for one - zing!), you're entitled to your Lost Summer: the six weeks following a major breakup when you drink too much, smoke too much pot, make out with some regrettable people, and call your ex at five AM after a bender just to be a dick. But that's it: 45 days of breakup-induced craziness, and then you have to come back to reality. Oh, sure, you'll likely look like a grizzled old mountain man when you do, but that's fine. It's expected!
If you're the dumper (again, gross), you have to grin and bear it. If they want to talk, let 'em. If they don't want to see you, that's just fine. You, mister or miss relationship-ender, are not allowed to touch them (not even hugs), tell them about your sex life (if there is one), or allow them to buy you things. The friendship status is wholly up to the person you just split with. Some folks will turn out to be great friends, but others may call you in the middle of the night to slur obscenities in your ear. Forty-five days, and then you call the cops.
The trick about breakups is the long view. There's no-one I've dated that I think about wistfully and say, "You know, we really had something there." Two of my exes are married or engaged, which is great: they found their Big Love, and it wasn't me. Breaking up was a necessary step to getting them there. One of my exes, shortly after we split, became an insufferable hipster, someone I would pay money not to hang out with. But I'm rid of him, which is fab, and with someone I really dig on. They suck, they hurt, they make you drink too much and shake your fist at happy couples on the street, but in the end, breakups are like ipecac for the soul: getting rid of what's not good for you, in the most painful way possible.