Breakups are miserable. No one likes going through them, and no one likes putting their (ex-) partners through them. The idea of initiating a breakup is often threatening, even to people who are pretty certain that their relationship needs to end. This discomfort can sometimes lead people to use "soft" or indirect breakup strategies, like hinting to their partner that the relationship has run its course, or asking someone else to inform the partner of the breakup instead.
Samantha Joel is an Assistant Professor in the Psychology Department at the University of Utah. Her research examines how people make decisions about their romantic relationships. For example, what sort of factors do people take into consideration when they try to decide whether to pursue a potential date, invest in a new relationship, or break up with a romantic partner? By studying how people navigate these relationship turning points, Samantha hopes to uncover useful decision strategies that will ultimately lead to happier, healthier relationships.
Editor: Nadeem Noor
The use of such strategies only adds insult to injury for the rejected partner, who would have preferred that someone was more honest and direct with them. A painful breakup can thus be made even worse by the way it took place. (Who could forget the episode of Sex and the City when Carrie’s boyfriend Berger enrages her by breaking up via a post-it note?)
In a paper published in 2012, Collins and Gillath1 highlight seven general strategies that people use to break up with a romantic partner, which range from direct and honest to, well, less so …
1. The open confrontation strategy is the most straightforward approach. A person openly communicates their desire to end the relationship, as well as their true reasons why.
2. The positive tone/self-blame strategy seeks to officially end the relationship while doing minimal damage to the friendship. This is the classic “it’s not you, it’s me” approach. Although direct, this approach is not entirely honest, as it often involves taking complete blame, concealing the true motives for breaking up (e.g., flaws in the partner), and generally trying to soften the blow and avoid hard feelings.
3. The de-escalation strategy essentially entails slowly back away from a relationship. Rather than ending things cleanly and directly, a person using this strategy will procrastinate, waiting for the “right time” or for things to improve. When the time has come to end things, they may blame the breakup on external reasons or insist that it is only temporary.
4. The avoidance/withdrawal strategy is like de-escalation, but colder. A person will signal their lack of interest in the relationship by avoiding their partner, making excuses not to get together, no longer asking or providing favors, and withholding affection and intimacy.
5. The cost escalation strategy involves trying to get the partner to end the relationship. An individual will pick fights, be disagreeable or demanding, and generally make things miserable until the partner decides that it’s time for them to go their separate ways.
6. The manipulation strategy involves sending indirect hints about wanting to break up. For example, people will sometimes communicate their desire to break up to shared social connections in hopes that the message will get back to their partner.
7. Finally, distant/mediated communication involves breaking up through indirect means, such as email or social media—or a post-it note, as the case may be.
Not surprisingly, Collins and Gillath found that people most prefer to be broken up with directly, with approaches like the open confrontation strategy. In contrast, people tend to experience more distress when they are broken up with indirectly, with approaches like the avoidance/withdrawal or manipulation strategies.
Who is particularly likely to employ these various breakup strategies? The researchers found that the type of strategy people used depended in part on their attachment style. Attachment styles represent a person’s model of relating to close others, including romantic partners. Securely attached individuals easily trust other people, which generally allows them to be honest and open with their feelings in a relationship. Anxiously attached individuals, on the other hand, tend to feel unsure of their partner’s love and worry about being rejected or abandoned. Finally, avoidantly attached individuals are uncomfortable with intimacy and closeness, and often downplay the importance of relationships and push partners away. (Read more about attachment styles here.)
Collins and Gillath found that anxiously attached individuals were most likely to use the positive tone/self-blame and de-escalation approaches—strategies that help maintain the relationship with the ex-partner and that might leave the door open to get back together in the future. In contrast, avoidantly attached individuals were more likely to be indirect, with approaches like avoidance/withdrawal. Overall, feeling secure helps people to break up with their partners more directly and honestly, which ultimately proves to be more compassionate for the soon-to-be ex.