Saying goodbye and officially ending a friendship or relationship requires a leap of faith, a hurtling into the unknown. We must release our grip on someone we know in order to make space for a world of emotions and experiences that we don’t yet know (scary!).
To say goodbye or facilitate an ending doesn’t only require letting go of someone in the present; it can also activate the pain of imagining the future without them. In some cases, it also means hurting the person we’re leaving (and facing the consequences of doing so), or dealing with our own emotional triggers surrounding goodbyes, especially if we have a history of loss in our life.
While there is no way to negate the grief associated with loss, as a psychotherapist and group facilitator, I notice that we often suffer needlessly by trying to avoid confronting it entirely.
Why do we often try to avoid endings or goodbyes?
We don’t like endings in American culture. The United States is a “death-denying” society. We “fight” illness, rather than accept it. We typically receive a few bereavement days when someone important to us dies, and then we’re expected to get back to work and get on with life. Many of my clients come to therapy after a loss and tell me they want to “move on” or “get over” the impact of the loss. And the same often applies to my clients who are dealing with a breakup (which is also a type of loss), even—perhaps especially—one they’ve initiated themselves: They look for ways to avoid acknowledging the ending.
An ending (either a breakup or a death), typically brings up three emotion states: anxiety, grief, and fear.
An ending (either a breakup or a death), typically brings up three emotion states: anxiety, grief, and fear. Because negative emotions are often judged as “bad,” we do everything we can to avoid them. “Why would I want to go toward something that feels bad?” many of my clients ask me. The truth is that feeling these emotions is the thing that allows us to move through them. When we dull negative emotions, we also inhibit our experience of positive emotions.
What’s important to remember here is that all feelings are impermanent; no matter how difficult they are to be with, they will shift simply because that’s what feelings do.
Why it’s important to actually end a relationship you’re no longer invested in
In the case of relationship endings over which we have some choice, not-so-good goodbyes (the ones we try to avoid or are unclear about) leave us in a state of “stable ambiguity,” which relationship expert Esther Perel defines as the state of being “too afraid to be alone, but unwilling to fully engage in intimacy-building.”
In theory, blurred relationship lines may appear to leave room for possibility, but in reality, they tend to keep everyone involved from feeling safe and connected. The blurriness of a situationship, in particular, often creates the sense that we are in a holding room, waiting to see who will make the first move or who will jump ship.
This “openness” doesn’t just hold us back from finding full-body “yes” relationships; it also consumes our energy, thus preventing us from reaching out to whom and what we want, and saying “no” to whom and what we don't want. In this kind of relationship milieu, it’s easy to feel like you and your semi-ex-partner or -friend are in a state of limbo, with neither person feeling truly appreciated.
When we do not face and name endings, we are left flummoxed—we fill the gaps with worst-case scenarios from our imaginations while losing sight of the reality that some things (relationships included) truly do just have beginnings, middles, and ends.
Below, you’ll find four steps to end a relationship gracefully, with respect and integrity, leaving you feeling right with yourself and in the driver’s seat of your life.
How to gracefully end a relationship, whether romantic or platonic
1. Get clarity on how you feel
When we avoid endings—for instance, by not responding to a text request or rescheduling a date several times—we often tell ourselves that it’s because we are “torn,” that we are unsure if that friend or romantic partner is right for us, so it’s best to hold off on ending things in full. But really, we’re typically not so conflicted as we are scared. We are afraid of the unknown, we are afraid of letting go of a future possibility—we are afraid of releasing a bird in hand (that is, a guaranteed if so-so relationship) for the prospect of two in the bush (a potentially very good relationship with someone else).
It can be intimidating to be honest with ourselves about our feelings because we believe that we have to do something immediately with what we find. But first, just give yourself the space to get really clear on how you feel, asking yourself if you have the interest, time, resources, and/or energy to nurture the relationship you claim to be unsure about, and be with what you find without putting pressure on yourself to do something about it.
When you stop to assess a relationship that is no longer nourishing, you may be surprised to find that you actually do know how you feel: After all, you know the difference in taste between a whole piece of pie and a crumb. Once you start to tell yourself the truth, it will then naturally become harder and harder to deny it or do nothing about it.
2. Reframe confrontation as an act of kindness
Many of us grew up in families or communities that taught us that disappointing others is wrong. Additionally, you might carry an oppressed identity, which causes you to have to hide parts of your truth or experiences to stay in positive regard with your oppressors. These strategies might provide immediate protection, but they do not allow you to live freely in yourself long-term.
If you identify as a “people-pleaser” or just a nice person, you may avoid endings because you don’t want to “be mean” or “hurt someone’s feelings.” While this may sound like the right thing to do, it is actually a self-motivated act that prevents you from having to feel what it’s like to be “the bad guy” and does more harm to the other person than telling them the truth would.
While someone might feel hurt or angry about your decision to end a relationship, no matter how gracefully and definitively you do so, they will ultimately have clarity about the information they need to move on with their life and open themselves up to other loving relationship opportunities. True kindness is caring about another person by being upfront and clear with your feelings, even if the act of care doesn’t always generate positive feelings off the bat.
3. Ritualize endings
Many times, endings are rushed. Living in a capitalist culture can make it hard to take our time processing and feeling through endings, because feeling is at odds with doing (and doing is what drives success and profit). But giving yourself the space to acknowledge an ending can help you be open to and appreciate the fullness of an experience, even if it’s soon to be over.
Ask yourself: What is it like to give up someone that used to be important to me? What does it feel like to leap into the unknown? What do I want to honor, if anything, about the past we shared? Are there any photos I want to have printed? Journal entries I want to re-read?
Pausing to take stock of a relationship’s end allows us to give ourselves the good goodbye we deserve and to gain closure without the participation or cooperation of an ex-partner or -friend.
4. Practice “power parting”
Because good goodbyes are uncommon, many of us just don’t have the language to execute them. This is where you may want to utilize the aforementioned relationship expert Esther Perel’s concept of “power parting,” which holds the goal of being clear and stating something that cannot be misinterpreted. It’s a four-step process that includes the below points of communication:
- Thank you for what I’ve experienced with you
- This is what I take with me, from you
- This is what I want you to take with you, from me
- This is what I wish for you moving forward
It can be helpful to write down your versions of these prompts before speaking them aloud to ensure you don’t miss a piece when actually ending things.
While it is undoubtedly difficult to say goodbye, it’s important to remember that being clear and direct with your feelings is an act of kindness to yourself and the other person. It leaves room for each of you to feel and accept the reality of the present and to enter the future of unknown possibilities with a clear head and a fully functioning heart—one that, in both happiness and hurt, lets you know that it is, indeed, doing its job.
- Gire, James. “How Death Imitates Life: Cultural Influences on Conceptions of Death and Dying.” Online Readings in Psychology and Culture, vol. 6,2, (2014). doi.org10.9707/2307-0919.1120.
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