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How to break up

Morgan Givens met his girlfriend of six years in college and planned to spend the rest of his life with her. All of that changed after she moved to Vermont. (Video: Erin Patrick O'Connor/The Washington Post)
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We know how to break up. In theory, it’s easy: Mention the good things about this person (you’re awesome, funny, smart, etc.), deliver the bad news (you’re breaking up) and wish them well.

After all, as dating and relationship experts counsel, direct rejection is the most effective, kindest way to part.

Yet we’re still bad at it. We ghost or send text messages. We gradually pull away and hope our partner will be the one to say, “Let’s talk.”

Sometimes it takes experiencing a really bad breakup or a rare good one to get singles to step up their breakup game.

Morgan Givens’s worst breakup — and ultimate lesson in how to break up — was six years ago. He and his long-distance girlfriend were well past the point of a text breakup. They’d been together since age 18; she’d stuck by him as Givens transitioned from female to male in his early 20s; and at the point they split, Givens was planning to move to Vermont to live with her. Right before the split, he says, he’d visited her for his birthday, and it had been wonderful. But after he left, his texts and phone calls went unreturned for about a week. Finally, she surfaced in a text, saying: “I’m sorry. I met someone — and I slept with him.”

It sounded like lot like Carrie Bradshaw’s infamous Post-it breakup. (“I’m sorry. I can’t. Don’t hate me.”) Only it wasn’t a television plot — it was Givens’s real life — and he was devastated.

“We probably would’ve broken up anyway,” Givens tells me while at Idle Time Books in D.C.’s Adams Morgan neighborhood, a spot where he and his ex-girlfriend had had an argument that he now considers the beginning of the end of that relationship. “But that’s not the way to break up with someone after six years. … It’s painful in this heart-wrenching way to think that you’ve given your heart to someone and trusted that they would take care of it and they discard it so cruelly.”

For Givens, who’s now 29, that breakup shaped every split he’s initiated since then. When I ask if he’s ever dumped someone by text message, he cuts me off with an hearty, “oh, God, no!”

“That type of callousness, I don’t think I could ever, ever hand off to someone else. I know how much that hurts,” he says. “I make it a point to try to be as respectful of people as possible when I’m in relationships with them, because I was so greatly disrespected that one time that I wouldn’t feel right doing that to someone else.”

So when is it okay to text, then? When you’re one or two dates in, dating coach Laurie Davis says. At that point it’s rejection but not a breakup — and it’s fine to do over text, Davis says, as that’s how “so much of how we communicate with each other socially.” After a certain level of intimacy, however, don’t say goodbye over text, Davis stresses, even if a lot of your communication is done that way. If you’ve been integrated into each other’s lives by introducing each other to your friends or revealing parts of yourself that are more personal, “you need to honor the relationship” by parting in person, Davis says.

Kelly Carnes doesn't want kids. Her ex does. They couldn't make it work. (Video: Erin Patrick O'Connor/The Washington Post)

For those face-to-face conversations, Thomas Edwards, a professional wingman and Davis’s husband, has a trusty formula for disconnecting. He calls it the “s— sandwich,” which goes a little something like this: Start by listing the things you like about the person you’re seeing, or about your connection (this the first slice of bread for your sandwich). Then deliver the bad news (a.k.a. the s—), something like: I don’t feel like this is going to become a long-term thing. Follow up with something positive and forward-looking, such as: I hope that things work out for you.

In a breakup conversation, “you have to create comfort through discomfort,” Edwards says. “In an ideal place, you want to be constructive and productive.”

And you want to provide some closure. Whether you’ve been dating a month or a year, relationship expert Esther Perel, the author of “Mating in Captivity,” recommends staying positive about the relationship and conclusively stating that it’s over. “Avoid a state of of stable ambiguity,” Perel says, “where you’re too afraid to leave and be alone and too immature to make the commitment. You simmer in a stew of ambivalence.”

Today’s singles’ scene — where undefined relationships can last months to a year — is full of ambivalence. So a clear ending can provide the kind of closure that ghosting or a fade-out lacks. In a breakup talk, Perel recommends expressing these ideas: It was really beautiful to meet you. I know we’ve been seeing each other for a while. We want different things. I know you want to build something that I can’t offer. I want to thank you for what we had together.

My breakup story: Garrett Schlichte and his ex only had three months to date before they both left town. It allowed them to stay in the moment rather than focus on the future. (Video: Erin Patrick O'Connor/The Washington Post)

Garrett Schlichte, a 25-year-old Washingtonian, had one of those good, definitive breakup conversations about a year ago — and he speaks about it so fondly it sounds more like romance than rejection. Schlichte was finishing up grad school in Connecticut when he met someone he was interested in; they were both moving away in three months, but the connection was so strong that they decided to expiration-date anyway. To end the relationship, he and his not-quite-boyfriend went out to dinner to have a breakup talk they knew was coming.

“We both got to say our goodbyes and leave on super-good terms,” Schlichte told me recently, about an hour before heading out to a first date with someone new. That breakup talk allowed him to “genuinely hope that they find someone great to date who will care for them in the way they deserve to be cared for.”

Schlichte says that he and his now-ex joked about whether they should air any grievances about each other, or the relationship, while acknowledging its end. Perhaps that would make it easier to say goodbye. But they didn’t have any to air.

“There was no crying; there was no yelling,” he says. “In comparison to other breakups I’ve had in my mid-20s, it felt very adult.”

That good breakup, Schlichte says, has helped him stay positive in the other splits that have come since. “It’s hard,” he admits. “I’m not always successful at it. In the back of my mind I’m like: Remember the time it was good; remember the time it was good. And then I still want to throw a drink sometimes.”

So far, though, he’s holding steady.


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