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How to Break Up

Published: September 2, 2014

I am as much an expert at breakups as I am at relationships after 25 years of dating. Some endings were loving, among the proudest accomplishments of my life; others sent me to the ER with shingles on my face.

The Magician’s exit was irksome.

Me: Everyone you will ever date deserves a better break up.

Magician: You’re totally right. Please mentor me. I want to not be a jerk some day.

The last act of a love affair is its ending, and she will replay The End like the Zapruder film. As Richard the Lionheart did not say but should have, “When the fall is all there is, it matters.”

So, congratulations! You figured out who is not the woman you want to spend the rest of your life with and you want the rest of your life to begin right now. You are getting out; I get it. Get it right.

Kindness. This is your one job. A good breakup deserves all the kindness of a great relationship. You owe a debt of compassion, generosity, and delicacy. Think of kindness this way: She paid in love and affection over time, and the ending is her pension. If you don’t pay it back, you’re an emotional Republican.

Face to Face. Texts and emails are an infantile way to break up. It took more than 140 characters to fall for each other. You were naked with her in person. Break up with her in person. Do not use the phone, semaphore, handwritten notes, or flowers. You are separating hearts, and surgeons can’t work by Skype.

Stuff. Your sweetie’s stuff is not yours. Her hooded sweatshirts are not the spoils of war. You’re a jerk if you make her ask for her own things back. Unless otherwise instructed, sending belongings through the mail shows you don’t understand the kindness step. Return her stuff to her by yourself, even if you are very busy and important and a coward. Mensch up.

*I have been guilty of mailing stuff back, even gifts, with no note at all. It is a flaming paper bag of emotional poo. I am so sorry, exes.

Freaking out. It happens, it shouldn’t. Meltdowns are indicators that you are dangerous to women and children, doomed to a lifetime of wretchedness. You panicked like a baby in 2 inches of bathwater. Towel off, double back, try again. You have not met your obligation to kindness. Don’t make her ask for an explanation for your demon spew. Don’t move on to your next victim. You have left a body on the battlefield. Breakups follow the Geneva Convention: Tend to the wounded, even your enemies.

Blame. Sometimes she is to blame. If she cheated on you, she is wrong, you’re right. But mostly relationships are nuanced things. A spreadsheet does not belong in a breakup. Dating is a long, emotional job interview. You might have been with the wrong candidate. If it was two weeks or six years, you still can’t blame her for being bad at the job description in your head. Your mother probably wrote it.

Torture. A long, lingering, breakup is needles under her fingernails; it is sleep depravation and waterboarding. You need time and space to think? You’ve canceled five dates in a row but want to maybe try for a sixth? The silent treatment is just so efficient and easy? Stop. Breakups are not Guantanamo.

Treaties. Breaking up can be one-sided, but good endings require bilateral negotiation. The breakups of which I am most proud took joint effort. We revisited each other, even when it meant reliving a hurt. We loved each other as a couple, so we forged a way to care about one another apart. It took time. This is not the same as staying friends — though it might make that possible — it is about crafting a kind and diplomatic exit.

Self-pity. The endings I most resent involved Act III monologues on victimization. Not by me, mind you, by offstage actors. Hitler was mean to your grandparents and your ex was living with someone, not you, and you accidentally knocked up someone who was not me. Martyrdom is a potent test of a twerp.


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