How to Have the Breakup Talk at the Beginning of Your Relationship

3 coffee mugs pushed together on a plate on a wooden table
Image by Simon / CC BY

I went through a breakup a while back that went exactly as planned. Because we talked about how we’d like to break up at the very beginning. Ideally what we’d both want from the other should things end.

When we ran out of road, I knew exactly how he wanted me to tell him.

Not that it made things perfectly easy. It didn’t. Even though I initiated the end, I was disappointed, too. Neither of us was happy. Even though I think he would have gotten to the same place, too, eventually, where it would have been his idea, I know it stung even more for him that I initiated it.

But at least I knew how to talk to him. That he wanted to meet in person and discuss things. Not find out via text.

He was fairly conventional that way. Most people don’t like breakup texts and consider them a “cop out” or disrespectful (or as one person I talked to put it, “taking the easy way out”), but it’s worth noting that some people do prefer to be broken up with by text. (As they prefer to process bad news in private and find being in the same space as their now-ex quite awkward.)

In any event, it’s something that I try to sort out early on, long before it’s something I need to do. How someone would want to be broken up with should that day ever come.

The Most Important Principle of Breaking Up: Be Direct

But what happens if you don’t have the how-to-breakup talk before you need it? Are you screwed?

Well, no, not necessarily. There are a few general principles that researchers have uncovered that make for a “good” breakup (or at least one that’s better than it could be):

  • Don’t beat around the bush.
  • Tell them at the beginning of the talk that they’re being broken up with and then get into reasons (if you want to and/or they ask you) or what it means.
  • Don’t wind up slowly to the fact that you’re breaking up with them, leaving them sitting there wondering what bad news you’re about to say and getting progressively more distressed. It’s cruel and leads to a worse talk.

In movies and TV shows, people often will do the exact opposite of this, which leads to a lot of people breaking up with others in completely the most cruel and anxiety-provoking way.

In general, when it comes to conducting romantic relationships, it’s important to remember that just because you saw it on TV or in a movie, it doesn’t mean that it’s a good thing to do in an actual relationship. Movies are designed to be dramatic and entertaining — not healthy or productive.

How Consensual Non-Monogamy Can Fit Into More Easily Learning a Partner’s Breakup Style

I’ve actually found a partner’s breakup style to be easier to learn when I’m consensually non-monogamous than when I’m monogamously dating someone.

An advantage of dating someone who is also dating others is that sometimes you get a front row seat to see how your partner deals with another breakup. Nearly a decade later, I’m still seeing a partner I was dating during my divorce from someone else. And he learned a lot about what kind of partner I am from seeing how I dealt with that.

You’d have to ask him what he thinks, but I suppose it’s a good sign that he seemed to trust me more after witnessing how I treated a spouse I was divorcing.

My most recent ex-boyfriend broke up with another one of his partners within the first month that we got together (a split that was a long time coming). And as I emotionally supported him through those feelings and that situation, I learned a lot about how he processed his emotions, what he needed, what seemed to wound him more, what seemed to help him. So when the time came that our relationship needed to end, I was able to act more intentionally.

Instead of having an awkward conversation that you power through, there can be many times in consensual non-monogamy when you automatically learn about how your partner navigates breakups.

Some Breakup Talk Questions

Now, it’s 100% possible to have the breakup talk at the beginning of a monogamous relationship, even without another concurrent breakup in the picture to help spur it on. It’s 100% possible to figure out those characteristics and qualities — to discuss them in a level-headed manner. To ask questions like:

  • What did your worst breakup look like? Why?
  • What did your best/smoothest breakup look like? Why?
  • Have you mostly initiated breakups or were you mostly the one broken up?
  • Why did your relationships end? Did your ex and you agree on the reason? Not a red or even a yellow flag if not (people who can’t sustain relationships often have a hard time inhabiting the same emotional reality and will disagree about many things). But if you did disagree on the reasons, how did that play out?
  • Do you like to be friends with your exes? Why or why not? (No right or wrong answer here; just something to help set expectations.)
  • How do you prefer to find out that you’ve been broken up with?
  • Are you someone who wants space after a breakup? As an initiator or a recipient or both?
  • What are your views on closure? Do you think it’s something a person is owed during a breakup? Do you think it’s always possible to achieve?

You Can’t Have a How-To Breakup Talk With Someone Who Doesn’t Want to Have One

Now, you can’t have a breakup talk with someone who doesn’t want to have one. Some people hate the breakup talk and will flat-out refuse to talk about breakups. What I’ve found is that this often means that they’re not great with conflict, so if I choose to continue to date them after that point, I’ll proceed with my eyes open, knowing that this difficulty in tolerating conflict means that we could be in for a rough breakup if things ever ended. (Not a dealbreaker necessarily but something to keep in mind.)

Breakup talks can be awkward. But then again, so can breakups. And I’d rather know that someone can handle a little awkwardness early on than way down the line, after I’ve already invested a ton of time and energy into the relationship.

While ideally every romantic relationship we get ourselves into would last until death do us part, the odds are unfortunately against that. There are a great many other relationships that are going to be amazing while they last and then end. Making peace with that reality and having the difficult conversations can go a long way towards parting on good terms.

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Books by Page Turner:

Dealing with Difficult Metamours

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory 

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