Ending a Relationship? Here Are 6 Ways to Break Up Better

UPDATED: April 19, 2020
PUBLISHED: February 12, 2018

Can you recall a time when you stayed in a relationship long past its expiration date? If so, you’re in good company (my own included).

Most people struggle with ending relationships, even the lousy ones. The reason is simple: Severing relational ties is hard. And it’s not just hard in our romantic relationships; it’s hard in all relationships in which we have invested significant time, emotional energy, identity and sometimes a great deal more. It’s why we make excuses and hold onto unrealistic hopes that problems will just “sort themselves out,” sparing ourselves any undue stress. Unfortunately, they rarely do.

Related: 7 Signs It’s Time to Let Go of a Friend

While there is no magic recipe to end a relationship, there are actions we can take that enable all parties to come out the other side less hurt, more whole.

1. Set your highest intention.

As human beings, we are wired for belonging and connection. Cutting off connections requires a lot of courage because it risks a lot of fallout.  So before you set the wheels in motion, get really clear about why staying in a relationship is no longer serving your highest good and, by default, that of others (because if you’re miserable, it cannot be serving others!).

Ask yourself, What do I most want (in my business, career, partnership, marriage etc.), and can this relationship move me toward it? Writing down your reflections in a journal can really flesh out your thoughts.

2. Embrace discomfort.

Not being willing to get uncomfortable can create deep wedges in a relationship and ultimately lead to breakdown. What we most want often requires stepping away from the familiarity of the known and risking psychological discomfort. This is as applicable to the matters of the heart as your desire to build a successful business or pursue a rewarding career.

Yet our innate desire to “seek pleasure and avoid pain” explains why we too often stay in relationships long past their use by date. It’s just easier… at least in the short term. However, as I have learned from nearing 25 years of marriage, the most important conversations we ever need to have are generally the least comfortable and require the most vulnerability.

Ask yourself, What lays at stake here if I stick with the status quo and let my fear of feeling uncomfortable call the shots?

3. Take responsibility. (No victim and villains!)

When relationships turn sour, we naturally want to lay the blame on others—to cast ourselves as a victim and others the villain. Yet, as I wrote in Find Your Courage, abdicating ourselves of responsibility for the past also keeps us from exercising our own personal agency to improve the future. So take 100 percent responsibility for what you did (or failed to do) that led you to the point you are now.

Perhaps you trusted too easily. Perhaps you failed to be truthful yourself. Perhaps you stepped around issues years ago that ultimately chipped away at trust and intimacy. Perhaps you failed to listen, downplayed tensions or ignored what is now obvious. But even if you feel you did all the right things all of the time (and come on, few of us ever do), take responsibility for the state of this relationship and your behavior from here on.

Be civil, no matter what. Have character, no matter want. Go high, no matter what.  

4. Practice compassion.

Showing compassion for someone whom you are choosing not to be in a relationship with is not about being weak or tolerating being treated with disrespect. It is about taking a moment to put yourself in their shoes—to see as they see and to feel as they feel. It may not change how they respond, but it will most certainly shape how you do.

A simple shift in the tone of your voice or email may help to diffuse tension or ward off full-blown conflict. Remember, when people act poorly, they are not feeling good about themselves. It’s because they’re hurting, they’re afraid and they don’t know any better. If they did, they would most definitely not behave that way.

Ask yourself: What must it be like to be walking in their shoes right now? What story are they living in about this?

5. Dont should your relationships.

When ending a relationship, many people struggle with a lot of guilt. As my sister once confided to me when considering ending her engagement, “It will just kill him, and I’d just die if I had to do that.” As I pointed out to her, his heart would continue to beat, and quite frankly, her fiancé deserved better than to marry someone who felt as she did.

Invariably, the word should will enter these conversations (in my sister’s case, “I should just go ahead with it”). But here’s the deal: If your main reason for staying in a relationship is because you think you should rather than because it’s what you truly want, ask yourself, Is what I am getting from staying in it this relationship greater than what I am giving up?

There will always be a reward for staying in a relationship (financial security, social networks, belonging), but don’t deny the cost or let what other people expect or think dictate your future. As I wrote in Make Your Mark, tune into your “inner sage” and be true to whatever is tugging at your heart. Anything else is a recipe for far greater heartache in the end.

6. Focus on the future.

Our instinctual “negativity bias” drives people to focus more on what they could lose than on what they might gain, more on what could go wrong than on what might go right, more on what is missing in our past than on what we want to create for our future. So be very intentional not to get caught living through the rearview mirror, dwelling on what coulda, woulda, shoulda happened in the past.

Ask yourself: What new relationships would I love to build? Who do I need to be to attract that?

The past is done. Learn the lessons it holds, then focus your time and energy on your future that is yet to be written and yours to create.

Related: 4 Important Truths of Lasting Relationships

Best-selling author and mother of four, Margie Warrell is on a mission to embolden people to live and lead more bravely. Margie’s gained hard-won wisdom on building courage since her childhood in rural Australia. Her insights have also been shaped by her work with trailblazing leaders from Richard Branson to Bill Marriott and organizations from NASA to Google. Founder of Global Courage, host of the Live Brave podcast and advisory board member of Forbes Business School, Margie’s just released her fifth book You’ve Got This! The Life-Changing Power of Trusting Yourself. She’d love to support you at www.margiewarrell.com .