How can I break up without hurting my boyfriend's feelings and ending our friendship?

hermitsunited
asks:
I've been dating my boyfriend for almost a year now. We were good friends before we started dating. He's one of my closest friends, but I no longer feel attracted to him and don't think we should date anymore. I don't think he feels the same way - I think he really likes me a lot and I feel really bad about ending our relationship even though I think it's the right thing to do since I don't feel the same way about it him anymore. He's the first person I've ever dated and I'm nervous about breaking up with him. Do you have any advice for how to break up with someone as compassionately as possible and preserve the friendship?
Mo Ranyart replies:

Breakups are rarely any fun, for either party involved. It can be hard to figure out a way to end a romantic relationship without causing too much pain or awkwardness, especially when you still really care about the person you're breaking up with. Since it sounds like you're pretty sure that this relationship isn't working out for you anymore, it's good that you're thinking about the best way to go about ending it; time spent planning now will save some stress and heartbreak in the future. There's no way you can control your boyfriend's feelings or reactions here, and it's likely that he will be upset by the breakup if he wasn't expecting it or feeling the same way about the relationship. If you can come to that conversation with good intentions, and then give him the space to process his feelings, I think that's the best you can do to try to minimize that negative reaction.

It can be tempting to put off a breakup because you don't want to hurt someone you still care about, or because you want to wait until you figure out how to do it perfectly, but while that might side-step conflict in the short term, it's likely to make the breakup messier and more painful when it inevitably does happen. It's not fair to either of you to let the relationship continue for long once you're sure you want to end it. Having to fake emotions you're not feeling will be a drain on you, and it's likely that your boyfriend will pick up on the fact that something's wrong, even if he isn't sure what, as time goes on. Staying in a relationship you're not feeling great about can make sense if you're just starting to have doubts or are working through significant problems with a partner, but continuing to date someone you're sure you don't want to date any more is generally a recipe for problems sooner or later.

There's no perfect time for a breakup, and as I said above it's not a great idea to keep postponing this conversation once you know you need to have it, but it is usually best if you can avoid breaking up right before a big exam or on another day, like a birthday or holiday, that's already emotionally charged. If you're able to do it in person, that's generally a kinder and more respectful way to do it than through a phone call or text message. It's also a good idea to break up in a place you can easily leave when the conversation's over to give him privacy, so avoid doing it at your house or at a place you've traveled to in the same car. Depending on where you both live, what your transportation circumstances are, and how often you can see each other, you may have to make compromises here, but that's the best-case scenario.

For some people, nervousness or a desire to soften the blow can result in a lot of extra apologies, explanations, and reassurances that are unlikely to be helpful in the moment, and might actually make it less clear that a breakup is what's happening. If you can keep things brief and to the point, that's probably for the best, and it might be good to spend a little bit of time planning out what you want to say beforehand so you're less likely to be tongue-tied in the moment. I think it's best to stick to something short and simple about how your feelings have changed and that while you still care about him you no longer want to be in a dating relationship. Adjust this as you need to, of course, but the fact that you need to break up is more important than the specific details of why that's what you want.

One thing that can happen during breakups is that the person being broken up with wants to spend a lot of time hashing out the exact reason why the other person isn't interested in continuing the relationship, either in the moment or in the days or weeks just after the breakup happens. I don't know whether your boyfriend will do this or not, but since it sounds like he's feeling really positively about the relationship at the moment, the breakup might feel sudden to him, and he may have a lot of questions about what went wrong. This is an understandable impulse, but it's not usually a productive one. It can be hard to pin down the reasons why a relationship stops feeling right, and hearing "I'm just not attracted to you anymore" doesn't give him any helpful information and will, most likely, just make him feel worse. Laying out reasons like "you do x thing that bothers me" or "we don't share an interest in y issue I feel passionately about" can give the other person an opening to say "I'll stop doing what you don't like! I'll learn to love what you love!" as an effort to keep the relationship going. But since you've written in asking how to break up, not how to talk about conflicts in a relationship, I don't think those are going to be productive lines of discussion and will just derail the conversation. In addition, a breakup isn't a debate, it's a decision one person has already made. If he does push for explanations, I think it's best to deflect with statements like "I'm not feeling the same way about you that I used to" or "you mean a lot to me but I've realized I'd rather be close friends than romantic partners."

After you have the breakup conversation, it's important to give him a lot of space. Your daily lives may put you in contact with each other through shared classes or an overlapping friends group, and that's fine, but it's a good idea to take a break from initiating direct contact or one-on-one hangouts for a while, most likely for several months to start with, so you can both adjust to the shift in your relationship. It is absolutely possible for people to stay good friends after a breakup, especially if they had a strong friendship before dating, but it will generally take some time before you can transition to that point. I think a helpful way to figure out if it's been long enough is: when you talk, are you re-hashing the relationship or the breakup? If so, it's probably a good idea to give it a bit more time. It might be awkward for a while, but most good friends can get through that awkwardness and establish a friendship once again. It might not feel the same as it did before you dated, but friendships tend to go through transitions over time even if there's no dating period.

Lastly, it's important to remember that while breakups are often tough for the person being broken up with, they're not always a breeze for the person doing the breaking up, either. Particularly if you still care about the other person - and it sounds like you do - it can be difficult to see them unhappy, and adjusting to being single again can take a while, even when you know breaking up is the right thing to do. Give yourself some time to feel whatever you might feel: it could be relief, happiness, sadness, all of the above or something else entirely, but whatever it is, it's okay. Change, even when it's ultimately positive, takes some getting used to. If you don't already have some self-care strategies that you know work for you, this is a really good time to develop some. Journaling, connecting with friends, or taking on new projects or activities could all be great ways to take care of yourself right now.

Here are some articles on our site for further reading; I hope you'll find them helpful.

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