Question 118: How do I break up with someone?

Hi, Captain Awkward,

My current boyfriend and I have been seeing each other since January of this year. To cut to the chase, I don’t know how to break up with him. When we first started dating he was exactly what I was looking for, but as time has gone on I now see him as clingy, a little whiny, and not entirely reliable. He did his best to fix the problems I’ve brought up with the relationship before. Now, after telling him a problem I’ve got, he says his piece on the matter and considers the issue resolved, without giving me a chance to respond to his rant. He also still lives with his parents, which alone I wouldn’t have a problem with, but he’s completely under their thumbs and feels he has to justify and explain where he’s going EVERY time he leaves the house, whether it’s to go to school, work, or play tabletop games with me and a group of friends. He’s only spent the night with me in secret, when his parents were away, and after nine months he STILL hasn’t told his parents we’re dating, even though there was a time we were talking about moving in together, and/or getting married. (Admittedly our “engagement” lasted two days, after which I flipped out and told him I couldn’t make a promise like that. He understood, and we went back to normal.) Part of this I can understand, as he was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness, but at the same time there’s a certain point I feel is disrespectful to both me and his parents, and we’re definitely past that. I was tired of being a “secret girlfriend” months ago, but dropped the issue because he’s scared of being kicked out of his house and religion.

While I don’t want to be “with” him any more, I still deeply care for him as a friend. I think we may make better friends than lovers, but I’m not sure how to tell him this without absolutely destroying him. I was his first “serious” girlfriend, and his first sexual partner. I know there’s probably a lot of psychology to that. On top of living under his parents, right now he’s hovering around his manager’s “strike three,” after which he says he’ll up and quit his current job. He’s been searching for second/other employment for months now, and he hasn’t had any luck. He’s going to community college on his own dime, and both his parents and boss harass him for that, too. He’s said the only “good” thing going for him in his life is “us,” which makes me go “I can’t do this to him right now,” and simultaneously raises a red flag because what the HELL kind of response was that?! He’s not what I need or want any more. I’ve grown up since we’ve been together, but I haven’t seen any growth in him. It was great while it lasted, but I feel like I need a partner on equal emotional footing as me, and not the co-dependent victim he’s become.

I’m not upset about breaking up with him. I’m absolutely torn up that it’s going to hurt him. I asked a friend for advice, and what I got was “It’s going to suck. Just do it.” You might tell me the same thing, but hopefully you can help me … I don’t know, soften the blow? I do love him, just not the same way I did before. I figure it never hurts to ask.

Thanks for your time,

Bleeding Heart, not a Heartbreaker

This is a sucky situation, and your compassion is noted.

Your friend is right.  You have to sit down with your boyfriend and talk to him.

Some things not to say:

It’s not you, it’s me.”

You’ll find someone else!” or “There are plenty of girls who want to be with you” or other patronizing claptrap where you try to put a positive spin on things. Also avoid bad metaphors about having to take the sad pants to Goodwill.

Some things to say:

I care about you a lot, but the romantic relationship is not working for me, and I need to end it. I know this is not good news, but I also know it’s what I need to do.”

He’ll probably say a lot of stuff.  Some of it will be mean, or really pitiful, and all of your kind instincts to jump in and make it better will be on full alert. Resist them.  Guilt and pity are not a reason to stay involved with someone.  It’s not your fault that his life is hard right now, and you don’t have the power to somehow save him from all the badness.  So know that the awkward flailing about is coming, and know that you’ve just got to listen and ride it out.  Don’t put pressure on him to stay friends. You guys can work that out later.  If he brings it up say “Of course we’ll still be friends,” since that is what you want, but also don’t be afraid to ask for some time away.

Keep it short. Explaining “why” is overrated.  It either turns into a “Here is a list of all the reasons I don’t love you anymore” or a hair-splitting argument about why those reasons are not good enough and the person won’t agree to be broken up with until you present an airtight case. “Closure” is overrated.  Rather than getting bogged down in explanations, just say “I’m so sorry, but I’ve really thought about this, and it’s the right decision for me.” Don’t try to sell him on it being the right decision for him, or for both of you. Let him decide that, and save whatever face he can.

You actually help both of you by making it completely about your own needs.  You need to be broken up.  That need overrides all others, and can’t really be argued with.  It lets you acknowledge his sadness and grief without being patronizing.

The Sexy Gay Jesus dedicated this song to me when I was newly broken up, so now I pass it on to you. Sometimes you need a break from the Gom Jabbar.


15 thoughts on “Question 118: How do I break up with someone?

  1. The ¢aptain is right right right. (Not sure about SGJ’s suggestion about the cent sign, though.)

    I do strongly agree with SGJ that you have to not see your ex for awhile. Otherwise your relationship starts to grow back together like an improperly set bone, all lumpy and jagged and ew.

    1. Hey, I wa$ going through some thing$. Don’t judge!

      Love your image of the improperly set bone. I’ve limped around on some of those – it’s not good.

  2. I don’t have much to say other than ‘best of luck’ to the LW, but that video is awesome. I wish all the chicks in regular music videos looked like that.

  3. Thank you, Captain. That was just the advice I was looking for, and I appreciate it. Now to talk around all the nerves, yeah?

    1. Yeah!

      I would do it at a place where you can talk privately and that you can also leave when it’s over. If you do it at your place, then you’re also in the position of having to say “Um…okay…can you go home now?” at the end. Whereas if you’re at his place or somewhere else, you can exit the situation when you need to.

  4. Secret relationship because of his parents???

    If you gotta give him a reason, give him that reason. I can see where he’s in a tough position because he lives at home and is so very much under their thumb, but dude not ok. And it’s really not something he should feel comfortable doing to the next girl who comes along, either.

    1. Agreed that is the best of the reasons! But then be prepared for him to say “I’ll tell them! I’m sorry!” and then you have to say “Thanks! But it’s too late!”

  5. Totally agree about not giving a reason for breaking up with someone. Like, if the reason doesn’t seem good enough to the person you’re breaking up with, does that mean you have to stay? No, it doesn’t, so you don’t need to explain yourself. And I totally agree that you don’t want to get into the “I promise I’ll change just give me a chance!” “No, it too late, sorry,” conversation, because that can turn into a guilt trip and you might end up being convinced to stay just a little longer, which means you end up miserable for a little longer. Making it all about yourself is excellent advice, since it shows him that it’s completely out of his control.

    1. You don’t have to be mysterious about the reason if you have a very clearcut reason. The LW in question 117 could say “Hey, I’m not cool with you having sex with other people without telling me (unless I ask about it and pull the info out of you). So I am breaking up.” The reason could be “I joined the Peace Corps and am leaving for 2 years, sorry, bye.”

      But if you don’t have a Reason-reason, and it’s just a lot of little stuff, or just a feeling of “I don’t want to do this anymore”, relieve yourself from the pressure of having to make an airtight argument and take it all on yourself. “I don’t feel that way anymore.” “I want to leave.”

      Wanting to leave is enough reason to leave.

  6. if there is one thing that i’ve learned over the years? it’s that over-explanation will never fix the “why” and will only make things worse. rip the bandage off. let the wound air out, and it will heal faster.

  7. ““Closure” is overrated.”

    I believe it’s not really closure that’s overrated, but the way people use the word. It’s like how people have come to use the word “humble” to mean “proud” because people don’t like to admit when they’re proud.

    Closure is great when it’s, you know, closure. Scattering grandma’s ashes gives you closure. Making endless scrapbooks about her doesn’t. It might still be what you need to do, emotionally, to care for yourself after grandma’s gone. But it isn’t closure.

    In relationships closure comes from breaking up cleanly as the Cap’n describes, not hashing out endlessly decisions and revisions, etc.

  8. I actually think it is more dangerous and hurtful in the long run to try and “soften the blow.” You may think you are being nice, but many people will read your kindness as “she doesn’t REALLY mean it,” and you can give him hope that way. Hope he doesn’t benefit from, because he is not going to get you back, and if he DOES get you back, you’re not into it and you’re all over it for guilt reasons.

    …which brings me to manipulation. You see, he is manipulating you into staying with him. That thing he does, where he tells you about all the awful things in his life and- and- but YOU are the only thing keeping him going? That may make you feel needed but it is really making you feel like you aren’t allowed to leave him. You have been together for less than a year- that is way too much pressure to put on you!

    If you try to explain, be vague, be sweet and soften the blow, he will use that leverage of you not wanting to hurt him to his advantage. You need to be direct, blunt and uncompromising. Take him to a neutral place (a coffee shop you hate and never want to go to again, for example), make your best poker face, dump his ass like you’re Exxon breaking up with Mobil (it’s not personal, it’s business!) and then LEAVE. Don’t let him ask you questions, don’t let him manipulate you further. Leave. And then remove his number from your phone so you can’t call him, change his ringtone to something distinctive so you recognize when he is calling you, and do not talk to him until you don’t care about hurting his feelings and can treat him as a neutral party.

  9. I could have used this in 2010! I was in SUCH a similar situation, and when I finally broke up with the guy my mother felt bad for him and made me feel even more guilty. Stuff like encouraging me to walk to school with him, reminding me about his kinda-lame family situation…
    So we got back together and when we broke up for GOOD it was very very messy.
    He even posted a photo of me on /b/ saying that I had taken his virginity…

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