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What to Say (and What Not to Say) to Someone Who’s Breaking Up

We absolutely loved this thoughtful but also tongue-in-cheek Crowdsource NY Times piece (“What to Say and What Not To Say To Someone Who’s Grieving.”) Having been on the receiving end of a lot of empathy over the past few years (passing of both of my parents), I appreciate that it can be really hard for even the most well-intentioned folks to engage in discussions about loss. We aren’t trained to talk about emotional pain, and if we haven’t experienced it ourselves, we may be inadvertently clumsy in our attempts to demonstrate care.

In many situations, a breakup can conjure similar feelings of loss - of one’s sense of self, identity, and community, as well as the termination of future plans or aspirations.


So what can you say to someone going through a breakup or separation? Of course there is no "One-size-fits-all" as no two relationships or breakups are the same, not to mention your own relationship with the affected party may have its own nuance. But taking a cue from our friends at the Times, "May the following pointers be your guide, brought to you by people who’ve been on the receiving end."

We can do better :)

Rule 1: Avoid Disparaging The Ex

It can be easy to launch into a "What a jerk - we never liked them anyway!" (insert your preferred explicative) as a friend seeing another pal going through a rough uncoupling. However, tread lightly. What may seem like supportive bashing may be internalized as a personal failing ("You guys never told me how much you didn't like them! What else are you keeping from me?" or "Wow, I'm embarrassed I was with a monster for so long."), or may create friendship rifts if there are reconciliations with said ex.

Instead focus on listening and asking them questions. What are they feeling? What do they need help with? Join them for a distracting activity - a night out, a yoga class, a movie, and make the priority be their self-care, not exacting vengeance.

Rule 2: Same Goes for "You Really Dodged A Bullet"

"At least you didn't marry them/have kids with them/move in together" may seem like a supportive sentiment, but may not sit well with someone worrying whether they may ever find a partner with compatible life goals. "At least" has a surprising way of minimizing what follows, however well-intentioned.

Rule 3: Ask Before You Set Up

Not everyone emerging from a breakup wants to meet your third cousin for a drink. Or your single coworker. Or your Mom's friend's son. Everyone has a different timeline for when and if they want to get back out there. And sometimes they'd prefer to test the waters with a complete stranger versus someone who might have some continued connection with them if it doesn't gel. Match with permission only. And respect their process. Not everyone wants to be partnered up and in fact, may want some breathing room to embrace their new life.

What You Can Do: Engage and Don't Ignore

Audience dependent, but I'm a big fan of the activity invitation (not to be misconstrued as a pity gesture hopefully). Meals, movies, events - getting out and feeling active. When going through a breakup, you may effectively be eliminating your main activity partner, so reestablishing your zest and your routines with a good friend can be therapeutic. Frequent check-ins seem obvious but can be quite helpful. All this to say, Don't treat their breakup like the elephant in the room. It is a significant life transition that they are dealing with, and while it will get better, it may feel pretty crummy to keep it to themselves.