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The Beginner's Guide to Breaking Up

The zen master in me wants to put on a soothing voice and say that everything happens for a reason, that we learn from our pasts, and that pain can be a teacher. But let's talk instead about the ways of doing it with class; ways that make it hurt less and leave the door open to friendship. Maybe not right away, but eventually.
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Now that we're all caught up on how to date people, let's chat about how to un-date people. The etiquette of the breakup is one of those things that people will comment on, but never really unpack. "Never on the phone" is said with the solemn tones of one incanting a rite against loneliness; "always in person." As someone who once left a voicemail saying, "Um, hi, it's me! I don't think we should see each other any more!" there's clearly some wiggle room on the so-called rules.

Like most urban, mid-20s folks, I'm a dedicated Savage Love reader, and he often has a lot to say about breakups. As the writer behind "DTMFA", Savage understands that, for most relationships, the endgame is all part of the package. We almost never enter into a relationship with the intention of ending it -- most of us want to move forward with our lives, and that often takes the form of dating/cohabitation/marriage/kids. But hello, I'm not married to my first boyfriend, and chances are, neither are you. In a world where Facebook relationship statuses have serious emotional weight, we can follow our exes on Twitter, and more people are willing to consider an open marriage, some new relationship continents have been discovered. Time to map them.

I'm going to pause for a moment and say: breakups suck. I've never met anyone who really enjoys sitting down to have the "I no longer want to know you" talk. Like everyone, I've been dumped, and hard, and thinking about that guy still makes me feel upset. One of my friends threw a celebratory DTMFA brunch when she finally broke it off with her former fella. Other people take to their beds, hit the bars, or take the geographical cure and move out of town. Breakups leave you feeling lonely, rejected, angry, guilty, relieved, sad and just plain old weird. This is normal. Bad feelings are okay.

The zen master in me wants to put on a soothing voice and say that everything happens for a reason, that we learn from our pasts, and that pain can be a teacher. But we all know that those words can incite rage in the most blissed-out person, so I'll skip the post-breakup pep talk. Let's talk instead about the ways of doing it with class; ways that make it hurt less and leave the door open to friendship. Maybe not right away, but eventually.

Rule #1: Always do it on neutral territory. I got Big Dumped in my kitchen, which sucked. I would have been embarrassed if I had started sobbing on the Starbucks patio, but at least I wouldn't have gone downstairs the next morning and been like, "Here are my eggs, my Cheerios, the place I was emotionally eviscerated... I'm not hungry anymore." I'm not saying that you have to end it on a busy streetcorner with a busker providing the soundtrack. Go somewhere you've never been, and will likely never go again. Do not break up with anyone in a bedroom.

Rule #2: Cliches are your friend. It's not you, it's me. I need space. I'm going to figure myself out. That said, only use cliches that actually apply. If you don't want to be friends, don't say, "Maybe someday we can be friends." Don't say, "Maybe someday we can get back together" if you already have your eye on someone else. Know that the person you're breaking up with will likely examine everything you say with a microscope, so don't say anything you don't mean, even if you're saying it in the tritest way possible.

Rule #3: Be nice! If you're breaking up with someone, you're already rejecting them pretty hard. One of my exes, mid-dump, told me I "wasn't inspiring," a comment that drove me batty for years. It was unnecessary! Moreover, it was designed to hurt, and in a breakup scenario, that's uncalled for. So BE NICE. Don't be that guy. Be complimentary. "You're going to be fine," you'll say, "you're so smart and pretty and fashionable and well-read that guys will be falling down to date you. But I need to find myself? And so, um, we should see other people."

Rule #4: But be honest. If there's someone else, or if there's going to be someone else, give your new ex a heads-up. You may want to choose different words than "there's someone else" or "I have the hots for Terrence from work," but the sentiment remains the same. If at all possible, try to make sure your romances are more like pearls on a string than Venn diagrams, but if that ship has sailed, be courteous. Facebook pictures will show up of the two of you smooching, and your ex may not be a fan of finding out via the Internet that you've been groping new people.

Rule #5: Be respectful. This is the biggest one, maybe the only real one. It obviously applies during the relationship, but the post-breakup temptation to be spiteful and malicious can be overwhelming. If you're the dumped party (table for one -- zing!), you're entitled to your Lost Summer: the six weeks following a major breakup when you drink too much, smoke too much, make out with some regrettable people, and call your ex at 5 a.m. after a bender just to be a jerk. But that's it: 45 days of breakup-induced craziness, and then you have to come back to reality. Oh, sure, you'll likely look like a hot mess when you do, but that's fine. It's expected! Then hit the gym, pour all the leftover wine down the drain, and evaluate: is your former partner going to be a friend? An enemy? A blip on the radar?

If you're the dumper (sidebar: the phrase 'dump' is so scatologically evocative that the language of being "mid-dump" or "post-dump" is really icky), you have to grin and bear it. If they want to talk, let 'em. If they don't want to see you, that's just fine. You, Mister or Miss Relationship-Ender, are not allowed to touch them (not even hugs), tell them about your sex life (if there is one), or allow them to buy you things. The friendship status is up to the person you just split with. Understand that, even if the relationship was over before the breakup, there's a boatload of pain, anger, and confusion being lobbed in your direction. Check in after their Lost Summer. You're also entitled to the phrase "I never want to see you again." Be prepared to go through waves of friendship and distance before you find a workable resting place.

The trick about breakups is the long view. There's no-one I've dated that I think about wistfully and say, "You know, we really had something there." Two of my exes are married or engaged, which is great: they found their Big Love, and it wasn't me. Breaking up was a necessary step to getting them there. One of my exes, shortly after we split, became an insufferable hipster, someone I would pay money not to hang out with. But I'm rid of him, which is fab, and with someone I really dig. They suck, they hurt, they make you drink too much and shake your fist at happy couples on the street, but in the end, breakups are like ipecac for the soul: they get rid of what's not good for you, in the most painful way possible.