How to End a Relationship: Step by Step

You’ve been putting it off for weeks, maybe even months: your relationship just isn’t working, and it’s time to end things. You’ve tried making it work, and your significant other may be a great person, but it’s better for both of you if you move on. Whether you love them or just like them a lot, even deciding it’s time to split up can be a difficult call to make, and you don’t want to hurt them in the process.

There’s no way to sugar coat it. A completely pain-free breakup is rare. You know that—that’s part of why you’ve been so hesitant to call things off. But the good news is that if you think about the steps you need to take in advance, you can end a relationship respectfully. This is the best way to lessen the emotional blow for everyone involved. Here are the steps you can take to make the rockiest of rocky situations go a little more smoothly.

Sad Man sitting on a Bench

First: Don’t Move on Until You’ve Both Moved on

Even if you’re mentally and emotionally ready to make the split, don’t act as if you’re single until you’re actually single. For better or worse, you may be ending your relationship because someone else has caught your eye.

Whether it’s physical or emotional connection, it can be hard to put those feelings aside until your current relationship is over, but you have more willpower than you think. Access it and make sure your current significant other gets the respect they deserve.

Keep this in mind, though: there’s a difference between treating someone with respect and faking it. Pretending to be more committed than you really are could make you look like a liar, even if your motivations were good. Try not to mess up anyone’s birthday or Christmas, but don’t go overboard talking about future plans if you don’t intend to see things through.

It’s definitely a delicate balance—it will feel nearly impossible—but your significant other may notice the shift, which may actually start the breakup discussion more naturally. Don’t be dishonest or petulant. Just be authentic.

Second: Be Sure You’re Sure

Every relationship has highs and lows, and it can be difficult to judge what’s a rut and what’s a breaking point. While many couples play makeup-breakup, it can be exhausting, and it’s usually not the sign of a healthy relationship. While trusted friends (make sure they’re not mutual friends!) or a therapist can help you sort through your feelings, here’s another exercise you can do to help clarify things:

Make a list of goals you have for yourself, and a list of goals you and your partner share—literally, relationship goals—and see how much they overlap. Are there goals you have for yourself that can’t happen within the bounds of the relationship you have now? How important are those goals to the life you’d like to have?

Ideally, you’ll know your significant other’s life goals as well. If not, that’s a big neon sign that something in your relationship is off balance anyway. While only your partner knows for sure what their goals are, you probably have a pretty good idea.

Do their goals mesh with yours, and with the relationship’s? Don’t pretend to be noble and say “I’m just holding you back,” (the second most cliché line you can utter during a breakup after “It’s not you, it’s me) but are you holding them back? As you think about—and later discuss—the adjustments you’ve each made for the relationship, acknowledging you have divergent goals can put things into perspective.

Third: It’s Time for the Talk

If you’re in a relationship, then yes, you need to break up in person. (A face to face breakup is respectful if you’ve been dating someone for more than a few months, too, by the way.) If you live together, have the talk there. If you live separately, arrange to talk to them at their place.

That way, they’re in control of the situation and can ask you to leave at any time. And while that also gives you the opportunity to leave if the conversation ceases to be productive, you do owe it to your now-ex to listen to their side of things. While you’re sure you need to break up, part of being respectful is making sure the other person feels they’ve been heard.

Finally: Take the High Road

The breakup talk is rarely the true end of a relationship. You may have to negotiate moving out, or exchanging things left at each others’ places. When you’re deciding who gets what, think about what really matters to you.

Don’t request things back out of spite, and if your ex wants to keep something—even if they’re doing it out of spite—let them have it, unless it’s truly something irreplaceable. It saves time, energy, and emotion for you both.

You’re bound to get questions from people about the breakup. There’s no need to go into specifics. “It just didn’t work out” is good enough, especially when the questions likely come more from curiosity than concern. You may want to say more, especially if it was a frustrating relationship, or if you left because you’re infatuated with a new love, but it’s best to take the high road and treat the situation with respect.

That doesn’t mean your ex will. There’s bound to be gossip, and it’s possible you’ll get dragged on their friends’ social media, but there’s no way to win in that situation. Your ex’s friends think they’re supporting your ex. There’s no logic involved in the exchange, so defending yourself online is a waste of energy. Silence speaks loudest.

Finally: whether or not you want to remain friends, if you want the breakup to stick, you should keep a little bit of (kind) distance for a bit. Post-breakup friendships can also rope you both into old patterns and back into a relationship.

This seems like a lot, but ending a relationship is a big deal. Handling it with tact and respect is a tall order—but ultimately a rewarding one.