Call It Off: A Very Subjective Primer on Breaking Up with Someone You’re Casually Dating

Breaking up is awful and stupid no matter the nature of your relationship; there’s no right way to do it, really, because it feels terrible no matter what. (Weirdly, there are wrong ways to do it though, which seems unfair.) We’re more familiar, though, with the narratives around ending long-term relationships or more formally recognized partnerships and what that looks like. How are you supposed to end things with somebody you’re seeing casually or have more of, idk, “a thing” with? Well, no one really has that figured out, but here are some ideas for how to break things off with the person you’re seeing casually based on the nature and length of your relationship.

One to Three Dates

This is perhaps a controversial opinion but hear me out: nine times out of ten, you can just stop texting them. This is not the same thing as ghosting! Ghosting is when you deliberately ignore someone who is actively trying to get in touch with you. What is not ghosting and is totally fine is when you’ve seen someone a few times and had a fine time, just totally fine, and you text them to say you got home safe and had a nice time and say something vague about doing something later, and then just… neither of you follow up on that. Or at all, ever, and then three weeks have passed and you realize neither of you ever texted again, and you know what, that’s fine. 2018 has been a living hell and there are a lot of things competing for our attention and energy at all times; if it’s clear that both you and the other person are not quite hitting the mark for each other in that regard, you can just let it go, no harm no foul. In that context, it actually feels pretty mean to essentially reach out and say “Hey I know we haven’t talked in a couple weeks, I just wanted to let you know officially and explicitly I thought about it and decided I’m not into you.” No need, you know?

On the other hand, if you and the other person are not on the same page and they do very much want to see you again, you should tell them kindly but directly where you’re at. Some variation on “Great to hear from you! I’ve been thinking about it and I think we’d be better off as friends” is fine. If you genuinely want to be friends and continue hanging out, you can try to keep making plans, saying “I’d love to go to that! Is it ok if we go as friends?” You do not need to give an extended explanation for this or write a long paragraph about their many positive attributes; if you want you can add something along the lines of not feeling chemistry or thinking you work better platonically, and you’re good to go. This is a super not big deal that you should not stress about really at all!

Several Weeks-ish

This is somebody who you like enough that you’ve seen them consistently for a while now, however often consistently is for you, and the momentum is such that it is assumed you will continue seeing each other unless one of you says something. Given that that is the situation, you do in fact have to say something. However, time for another perhaps controversial opinion: I think it is ok to do that over text! You do not have an obligation to make this perfectly nice person spend bus fare or whatever to go across town just to awkwardly tell them you don’t want to keep seeing them and then have them decide whether they’re going to just turn right back around and head home or stay and finish their coffee and try to make small talk or whatever. That would suck! They put on pants for this? Texting also allows them to play it cool and keep whatever their reaction is private, saving the effort and potential embarrassment of having to be like “cool yeah definitely! I was thinking the same thing!!!” in public or to your face. You can definitely offer the opportunity to call or meet up and discuss this when you text them; clearly I am not the kind of person who thinks that is a desirable option, but other people do, and maybe you’re dating one of them.

I think it’s totally fine to text (or use whatever your primary mode of communication with them has been) and let them know that you’ve been thinking about it and you don’t think you should keep seeing each other romantically for [*reason stated directly but kindly*], and potentially asking if they want to be friends instead. Two things: despite the temptation to aggressively “it’s not you it’s me” the reason, try not to lean on that too hard! Saying something like “I realized I shouldn’t be dating right now” when you don’t mean it will backfire; the world is small and the gay world is even smaller and they are absolutely going to find out that you’re still on Tinder matching with their roommate or when you hook up with their coworker in two weeks. Also, maybe think twice about defaulting to “let’s be friends” if you don’t actually mean it, even though it can feel like nails on a chalkboard not to say; dating someone for this period of time is long enough that someone would be within their rights to think you really mean that and will be extra hurt if you friend-ghost them after. I stand by my conviction that anyone who thinks you want to be ‘friends’ after like one date is just fooling themselves, and that’s not on you.

Several Months

Okay, this you do need to have a conversation about in person, an intentional face-to-face discussion, the whole nine yards. Even if you weren’t exclusive or serious or ever intending to become either of those things, this person deserves a breakup. This person has probably left hair ties at your place! Even if it was by accident! You have to decide on a time and place, ideally their place or a public spot or anywhere but your apartment, where you can leave at your own pace rather than waiting for the other person to leave, which hopefully won’t be a big deal but always good to have the option. As the breaker-upper, it is your responsibility to have a clear statement of breaking up that cannot be misinterpreted — if you think having to tell someone to their face you don’t wanna date them is bad, you will really not like rephrasing that sentiment in three subsequent conversations because you were too vague the first time and made it sound like you just wanted to see each other less frequently. Something like “I think we should stop seeing each other” or “I don’t think this is right for me” or “I’d like to be friends rather than dating” works.

It’s also on you to be prepared to respond to questions and dialogue about that decision to a certain extent (things like “but why” and “but you said you would come to my sister’s graduation,” not things like “why am I destined to die alone,” you aren’t obligated to try to work with that one), and ideally have some sense of what you would like next. Do you actually want to be friends? Do you not? Do you want to be friendly when you run into each other? Do you want to stop talking? It would be cool of you not to make the other person guess. These things are not super fun, but neither is being broken up with. Also critical to this plan is not having sex with the person you are about to break up with. Your chances of going through with a breakup in a post-coital headspace are much lower, and it leaves the other person feeling used and like you didn’t want to date them but did want to have sex one more time before they became aware of that, which is a fair way to feel because that’s what you did. So don’t do that!

Ending a Situationship

Although I do not believe situationships actually fall under the category of “casual dating” — they don’t really fall under any dating category, which is why they’re situationships — I am including this section because I know you beautiful idiots are ten times more likely to be in one of these than a normal, uncomplicated casual dating scenario. Breaking up a situationship is harder because you haven’t had a real conversation about the fact that it’s even happening, so having a real conversation about stopping it from happening is a complicated catch-22. If you want things in a situationship to change, really in any respect, you have two options. You can have a direct discussion about it, or you can just start acting different and see if the other person takes the hint and follows suit, which is fucked up but is also probably how you got into this situationship in the first place. Following that logic, you can either have a whole conversation — making some gesture toward acknowledging your weird situationship and explaining that you need the dynamic to change — or you can just stop calling them every night, or picking out their outfits for them, or having sex after you help her pick out her boyfriend’s Christmas present, or whatever weird emotionally complicated shit you were doing. Both options are uncomfortable! Good luck with that, truly, we’re all rooting for you.

Rachel is Autostraddle's Managing Editor and the editor who presides over news & politics coverage. Originally from Boston, MA, Rachel now lives in the Midwest. Topics dear to her heart include bisexuality, The X-Files and tacos. Her favorite Ciara video is probably "Ride," but if you're only going to watch one, she recommends "Like A Boy." You can follow her on twitter and instagram.

Rachel has written 1085 articles for us.

15 Comments

  1. Rachel, normally you’re so on top of things, but this advice is two days too late! JK, this is great advice, as always. Is it casual if you’ve only been seeing each other for <1 month, but have already exchanged "I love you"s? Don't worry, I did it in person.

    • “You have to decide on a time and place, ideally their place or a public spot or anywhere but your apartment, where you can leave at your own pace rather than waiting for the other person to leave, which hopefully won’t be a big deal but always good to have the option.”

      ^^^ I wish I had had this foresight about five years ago when the other person locked herself in my bathroom, refused to leave, and texted our mutual friends that I “wouldn’t let her leave.” YOWZA.

      I’m also super guilty of “let’s be friends” and then we’re not ever friends but I’m also an introvert who married an extreme introvert and we don’t hang out with friends so I’m gonna cite that.

      All of this is spot on.

  2. All of this is so on the nose, A+ advice giving Rachel – we all needed this badly. My personal favorite piece of said advice:

    “Also, maybe think twice about defaulting to ‘let’s be friends’ if you don’t actually mean it.”

    Dear sweet jesus this drives me crazier than probably anything else, and I can see it coming from a mile away every fucking time now. I swear, some people think “being friends” means liking each other’s posts on Instagram but never speaking or hanging out…That’s not friendship, that’s someone you nod and smile at on the street, or *maybe* make momentary small talk with should you find yourselves on the same subway platform. A digital neighbor, if you will. NOT FRIENDSHIP!!

    • THIS IS A FAIR POINT and I considered this but I think at that point, regardless of the context of ridiculous accelerated gay emotional timeline, the rules of ‘serious relationship’ breakups apply, which is that there aren’t really any rules you just have to be honest and do your best and deal with the aftermath. And if that comes at the end of a three-week relationship where you got matching tattoos and said I love you, then that’s that I guess! Open to discussion on this topic, though.

  3. This is wonderful! I agree you can deft text break up more frequently than people tell you you can!! Let people process their emotions privately and respond at their leisure / after three other friends have proof read the response!

  4. I appreciate this! Having been in both positions, it’s validating to hear someone else say that mutual falling off of communication isn’t ghosting. And it’s also validating to know that others think a few months warrants an actual break up…definitely not still bitter or anything.

  5. Excellent advice, and I love the term “situationship”. Been there, lots.

    Also, people talk about ghosting – or not maintaining contact – like it’s some new thing. Nope, we all had plenty of times back in the day of having a shag or two and then bumping into each other months later and awkwardly saying “hi, nice to see you, catch you later”. Actually, maybe it is more tricky now because we do have each other’s numbers and text a lot more.

    And I TOTALLY agree with not making up reasons like “I’m just not ready for a relationship right now” when you’re never going to be ready for a relationship with THEM. Totally make it clean and say, “I don’t think there’s really a future for us, sorry”. And the other scripts that Rachel suggests. Trying to let someone down “nicely” has gotten me into more drama and angst than just doing the direct thing (I detest confrontation, but in the end, a lot more confrontation happens when you’re prevaricating).

    Don’t get it into when someone says “But whyyyy?” unless you’ve been in an actual relationship and there was behaviour that you mentioned you found challenging, and now you finally can’t take it any more. Maybe mention that X and Y became deal-breakers, and that’s why it’s ending, but don’t rehash any arguments. I’d even be cautious about bothering with that kind of explanation if you’d made it clear in the past that you found X and Y unacceptable and they still did it. Also, for actual relationships, there don’t have to be deal-breakers per se. Not having the same feelings for someone is sufficient – “my feelings have changed over time” is a perfectly good reason.

    For your (semi-)casual shags, there’s no point getting into it, like “I was desperate when we got together, the sex is average and I can’t stand the way you eat with your mouth open.” Just saying, “Sorry, it’s run its course for me” is enough. (To be clear, I don’t think of “sorry” as an apology for your choosing to end things – just an acknowledgement that you might be hurting their feelings.)

  6. I’m all for this post except for the first point…Here to chime in on behalf of human decency. It’s always better to say something to someone if you spent any time with them. Even after my worst dates ever I’ve always sent a message thanking the person for their time and wishing them well. You know, the kind right thing to do. A simple “Thanks for hanging out and I wish you the best” goes a long way

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