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August 22, 2017

The Science of Breakups: How To “Uncouple” With Compassion

Couple leaning against wall.

Is there a right or wrong way to break up with your partner? Today on The Morning Show, Jess & Jeff discuss the science of compassionate break-ups and strategies for effective uncoupling. Check out the summary notes and video below.

1. There is science to breaking up. What do we know?

Research suggests that there are five stages:

  • Pre-contemplation: feelings of unease without doubt.
  • Contemplation: doubts about the relationship.
  • Preparation: you’ve made the decision, but haven’t put it into action — this can last months.
  • Action: this could be withdrawal or another less straightforward approach.
  • Maintenance: final exchanges that might include returning belongings, moving out, etc.

If you don’t get back together in the fifth stage, chances are you won’t be together in the long run.

2. But what about breaking up effectively? How do you do it and does it matter how long you’ve been dating?

The length of your relationship will certainly impact how you break up with a partner, but your attachment style may play more of a role. Research suggests there is a range of approaches to ending a relationship and they’ve identified seven specific strategies:

Avoidance/Withdrawal: Pulling back from the relationship emotionally, physically or practically.

Positive tone/Self-blame: Working to protect your partner’s feelings and accepting responsibility for the relationship’s shortcomings.

Open Confrontation: Straightforward communication: “I want to break up.”

Cost Escalation: Being unpleasant and starting fights. Responding to conflict with “Let’s just break up!”.

Manipulation: Involving other people; asking friends to intervene and share your feelings on your behalf.

Mediated communication: Digital world option (e.g. ghosting); avoiding them.

De-escalation: Procrastinating until the “time is right”.

Regardless of how long you’ve been dating, “open confrontation” along with “positive tone/self-blame” tends to cause the least amount of distress.

3. How do you put these approaches into action?

  • Talk face-to-face (even if you’ve only been together for a few months).
  • Convey your appreciation for your partner and the relationship.
  • Avoid blaming them for the breakup.
  • Be clear that you’re breaking up. Don’t leave space for ambiguity or false hope.
  • Make an attempt not to hurt your partner’s feelings; accept responsibility for your role in the relationship’s dissolution.

4. And after you break up? What should you do next if you’re the one who initiated?

  • Regardless of your role in the breakup, you need to take care of yourself both physically and emotionally. Neuroscience-based research reveals that the pain associated with heartache resembles physical pain in terms of brain activity, because your biological rhythms become regulated by your partner in long-term relationships. Your sleep, exercise, diet and even blood pressure can be affected, so take extra care to eat well, make time for self-care, sleep and exercise.
  • And if you initiated, you need to back off. Give your partner to space even if they don’t seem to want it. You can’t break up effectively if you’re still performing all the support roles you performed while you were together.

5. And if you’re the one who received the news?

  • Go ahead and think about your breakup. Talk about it. Be sad. Research shows that leaning into those tough feelings and experiences may help you to move on more effectively.
  • And break up with them on social media. If you’re not ready to unfriend or unfollow, hide their updates for a week and see if you can make it last longer.
  • Rest assured that this is, in fact, a good thing. Research shows that people report positive outcomes from breakups: learning about self, personal growth, and experiences of being more goal-oriented.