Ending a relationship with someone you’ve been with for years, or even decades, can present complex emotional and logistical challenges you might not otherwise face with someone you’ve dated for only weeks or months. In long-term partnerships, families, friends, and finances are often entwined, and you might even share a home and children. While unraveling your life from a long-term partner can feel daunting, fear should not be the primary reason you stay together. If you’re ready to end a long-term relationship but don’t know how to go about breaking up, here are some tips that may help.
12 tips for ending a long-term relationship
1. Don’t blindside your partner.
Breakups are often painful no matter what, but they can be especially hard if they seemingly come out of nowhere. For that reason, it’s important to address issues as they come up throughout the relationship so that if a breakup does occur, it doesn’t come as a total surprise. All in all, this conversation should already have been started in some capacity, gradually over the past weeks, months, or even years.
2. Plan what you’ll say — even if it means writing a script.
As you head into what’s likely to be an emotionally charged conversation, have a blueprint handy. This can eliminate some of the nerves, as well as half-baked explanations. Therapist Nancy Fagan says, “Be able to lay out your reasoning for ending the relationship in concrete terms.” “This means clearly acknowledging mutual unhappiness while maintaining boundaries and speaking with respect.” Consider bringing a Cheat Sheet to the discussion so you can refer back to those concrete motivators for parting ways. Let your partner know you’ve prepared notes beforehand because you wish to not only respect their time, but provide clarity.
3. Schedule a time and pick a neutral place to talk.
Putting time on the calendar to talk can help ensure your partner doesn’t feel ambushed or feel the need to be immediately defensive. When choosing a place to talk, avoid “your spot,” or anywhere you’ve felt most comfortable together. Your partner may consider that a safe space. Instead, choose somewhere that feels neutral, like a park neither of you frequent.
Allow ample time to have the conversation so you and your partner can process. If you’re in a long-distance relationship, it’s a good rule of thumb not to schedule a FaceTime on a Monday morning just before work. Consider having the conversation on a Friday, and give them space to grieve over the weekend.
4. Don’t give them false hope.
If you intend to break up with your partner rather than have a trial separation or a break period, it’s important to make that clear. While it might be tempting to waver or sugarcoat your statements in order to shield your partner’s feelings, it will ultimately be better for both parties if you remain clear and resolute in your reasoning for ending the relationship. This will ensure you aren’t giving your partner false hope, or the impression you might reunite in the future. Don’t let them think you might change your mind, as you’ll end up stringing them along.
5. Be prepared for any reaction.
“Your partner could experience a gamut of emotions relative to the stages of grief. Be prepared to see denial, anger, bargaining, or depression,” Fagan says. “Bargaining may come in the form of your partner suggesting counseling. Anger might show up as your partner throws accusations or blame. Acknowledge your partner’s emotions, no matter what they are.
You might expect your partner to ask certain questions depending on the relationship. “Is there someone else?” “Is it the way I parent?” “Does it have to do with our sexual relationship?” No matter what questions you suspect may arise as your partner reckons with the breakup, Fagan suggests anticipating them and preparing answers beforehand.
6. Avoid any ‘big bad clichés.’
“It’s not you, it’s me.” “I love you, but I’m not in love with you.” “I like you too much.” “I’m holding you back.” If you’ve been on the receiving end of this kind of rejection, you know it doesn’t feel great.
“Using these irritating clichés will further upset your partner. They want answers,” Fagan explains. “While you don’t have to give full explanations, you can avoid clichés by plainly taking responsibility for how you played a role in the downfall of your relationship. To do this, make a list of behaviors you are not proud of and use the list when tempted to use a cliché. For instance, ‘I’ve made a lot of mistakes in our relationship. I’ve done things I’m not proud of. I’ve hurt you in ways that I’m ashamed of. I find myself at a point I can’t move past.’”
7. If you’re married, don’t threaten divorce.
If things become heated, avoid rash claims or statements, particularly threatening divorce. This type of ultimatum could send your partner into a defensive spiral, and make a logical, productive discussion impossible. “It’s best to start the conversation about divorce by saying something like, ‘Neither one of us has been happy in our relationship for a long time,’” Fagan suggests. “From there, speak about yourself and your feelings by using the word, “I. ‘I would like to talk about possible solutions to our mutual unhappiness.’ The second you use ‘you,’ your partner is likely to start the blame game. And, when you threaten divorce, it shows that you have not seriously thought through the details.”
If you are intending to divorce your spouse, avoid using the “D” word until you have a plan that includes how you’ll handle a shared home or shared children, and are both ready to go through with it.
8. Reserve big questions for a later time.
Not everything can or should be covered in one breakup conversation. This can be especially true if you share children or have bought a house together, for example. If you share children, questions about the kids’ wellbeing, how you will co-parent, how time will be divided, are issues that should be handled when emotions are not running high. Figuring out the logistics will likely require several follow-up conversations that shouldn’t be lumped into one breakup talk. Set up another time if you’re feeling too raw or vulnerable to go through the particulars.
Assure your partner that you will come to the co-parenting issue with them in the near-future, but for now, you’d just like to stay focused on the conversation at hand and why you feel things should end. Similarly, if you share bank accounts, own a home together, live together in a rented space, etc., assure your partner that you will sit down with them at a later time to work out the details of how that split or move will look in the near future.
9. Include your partner in plans to move forward, if you can.
Going forward, you and your partner may have different needs in order to gain closure. Ending a relationship that’s spanned decades will look different than ending a three-year relationship. Depending on a variety of factors like these, partners may want multiple follow-up conversations to tie up loose ends. Other couples may decide going “no contact” for a time feels right to them. Be patient with your partner’s needs on communication, but don’t forget to set appropriate boundaries when expressing what kinds of subsequent conversations you’d like to have or not have. With honesty and compromise, you can come to a fair agreement on how to move forward without excluding your partner entirely from major decisions.
10. Decide what you’ll do in the immediate aftermath.
It can be scary to walk into a conversation in a committed partnership, and out of it newly single for the first time in a long time. As such, give yourself some peace of mind by making a game plan for the rest of the day following the breakup. Audrey Hope, celebrity relationship expert, suggests meeting up with loved ones, scheduling time with a therapist, throwing out any immediate reminders of that person (ie. taking off a sentimental piece of jewelry), and cleansing your phone of any triggering social channels right away.
11. Lean on your community
“Once this conversation has been had, it’s important to turn towards your support as you cope and set boundaries with communication with your ex-partner,” Matthew Brace, LMFT tells O.school It’s common for long-term partners to continue to lean on each other as they adjust to a new normal that no longer includes each other. According to Brace, “This will only add confusion and create more hurt if there is no desire from one partner to improve the relationship.” As opposed to turning to your ex-partner, turn to close friends or family when you need a little support.
12. Be gentle with yourself.
“Usually, symptoms of grief and loss are associated with the passing of a loved one, but it is important to recognize how those same symptoms apply to the ending of a relationship,” Brace comments.
You were with this partner for a long time, and as such invested time and care into the union. Expect yourself to grieve, and try not to rush the process. “One of the most important things to remember is that there were many positive experiences throughout the relationship and expressing appreciation for those times shared is crucial,” Brace says. Create space to honor how much this person meant to you through that chapter of your life, and move forward by focusing on activities that bolster self-care.
The bottom line
There’s no denying that untangling yourself from a long-term partner is hard work. When someone has been a part of our lives for a long time, it can be difficult to imagine day-to-day life without them. This is only amplified when you share friends, a lease, or even kids. But if you feel your partner no longer shares your goals and values, or no longer fits into your life in a healthy way, initiating a breakup can sometimes be for the best. If you think it’s possible to work through the issues, however, consider seeking a couples therapist to help mediate conversations on how to move forward.