You Need Help: How Do I Break Up With a Casual Someone?

feature image via Molly Adams

Welcome to You Need Help! Where you’ve got a problem and yo, we solve it. Or we at least try.


Q:

I went out a few times with a girl, and we’re not really official. She lives a little far away, so we don’t see each other a lot, and keep in touch via the Internet minimally, and I’m kinda sorta starting to feel like I don’t really like her. Yet I’m not entirely sure how to tell her I don’t want to go out anymore while maintaining a friendship or at least a non-hatred-ship. Any advice?

A:

Hello friend!

First, I want to give you a hell yeah for not taking the ghost’s way out of this. I’m not really sure if ghosting (the act of breaking up with a new or casual someone by simply ceasing all response without any explanation) is a new phenomenon, but it certainly seems to be getting more popular. The number of friends who complain to me about the amount of ghosting out there on the dating scene is staggering, and it feels like the amount is only increasing. I’m not sure this points to a fundamental devaluing of other human beings, or the millennial self-centeredness that seems to obsess many older columnists on the internet or in print. I actually think it’s the opposite—no one wants to hurt another person. No one wants to have an awkward conversation that makes them feel like they’re in high school again. And because we’re not in high school, the ghost’s way out becomes the easy way out. You’re not going to see her in fourth period AP English every day, so some would say, well, why bother having a conversation about this?

On top of all that, in my personal queer community, many (though not all) of us have been raised not to insult or disappoint people, especially in romantic relationships. Many of us were assumed to be heterosexual women, and when you’re a heterosexual woman, flat out saying to a man that you’re no longer interested can be dangerous. Many of us were trained to go about it in that avoidance way, or to otherwise “let him down gently.” While you should always consider if you think you might be in danger by breaking up with anyone, and seek local help accordingly, that doesn’t sound like it’s the case here, so I think you should push back on everything we’ve ever learned about breakups. I think we should start to reframe and change how we think about ending romantic relationships and how we functionally end romantic relationships. Unless health or safety is in question, I’m all for no more ghosting. Because it doesn’t make things better — all it does is make the other person feel disposable. Not watcha want.

Instead, let’s think of the breakup conversation not as an insult, or even a bad thing. When you break up with someone you’re just starting to date or are casually dating in a communicative way, it’s actually a plus. Not a minus. The other person isn’t strung along or wasting time pining or wondering what’s up. Instead, they can better use their time — to heal up and move on if they liked you, to date other people, or to pursue their own interests in hobbies. You’ve just saved you both a ton of time. Breakups are great, but they’re never going to pleasant. Clear, kind breakups are better; they mitigate some of what sucks about them.

You also shouldn’t feel bad about wanting to break up. Remember: any reason is a good reason to not want to be with someone. If you go in remembering that break ups this early in relationships are normal and most of the time aren’t actually anyone’s fault, this gets a whole lot easier to do.

So how do you actually, practically have the talk with this person? Here are some tips to help you design that conversation


Method of Communication is Important

Conventional wisdom says don’t break up via text, but you mentioned you communicate most frequently over the internet and that you don’t live close together. I’m going to expand conventional wisdom to this: when you have a break up talk, have it using the method of communication that feels meaningful to you and her both. For me, this has always been face to face. I will never break off a relationship or friendship without being face to face. But I recognize that it’s not the same way for everyone. Some people prefer to have tough conversations via text or g-chat or phone. But if you go that route, make sure you’re choosing your method of communication not because it comforts only you, but because that method of communication works for BOTH of you. Don’t start a breakup conversation over text if you know that person is a face-to-face person. I mean, you can. Do what you want. But mark my words, it won’t go well. If you choose anything other than face-to-face, think really hard about it: are you choosing it because you think face-to-face will feel awkward for you? Or are you taking into account the ways in which y’all communicate best? If it’s the first, don’t do it! As the dumper, you’ve kinda gotta take the responsibility of making choices that will make it easier for the other person to hear what you’re saying, because you’re prepared and most likely they’re not. That might mean feeling uncomfortable while you speak in person. If it’s the second reason, well. Maybe you are two people who should be G-chatting about this.


Go In With a Script

Regardless of communication method, plan first. Practice saying exactly what it is you want to say. There are several accepted breakup scripts that I hate, and only a few that I like/have used. Here are a few options, good for mixing and matching, and I’d encourage people to put their own in the comments! Not all of these work for everyone, so consider them a jumping-off point.

  • I’ve really enjoyed spending time with you, and I think we work really well as friends. I’d like to transition our romantic relationship into a friendship.
  • I’ve really enjoyed hanging out and you’re really wonderful, but you live very far away from me. I’ve re-assesed how important geographical location is in my relationships and, rather than just disappearing, I wanted to end things on good terms.
  • I’m ready to break off our romantic relationship. You haven’t done anything wrong or weird or bad, but I don’t think we have very much in common. I want you to find someone who shares interests and relates to you, because I think that person is out there and they’re gonna be very lucky to meet you.
  • I’d like to break up. And it sucks. There’s no good way to tell someone that. But there are bad ways to do tell someone that, and I think not telling you at all is possibly the worst way. So, knowing that I’d like to break up, how would you like to progress from here?
  • I think we should stop seeing each other romantically. I thought I was ready to dive into dating, but I’m just not feeling dating at all right now.
  • I think we should stop seeing each other. Saying so really sucks, but I don’t think our relationship is super healthy, and I don’t wish an unhealthy relationship on you or me. So let’s toast each other’s future happiness and say goodbye.

Some of these sound really blunt and harsh. Well, yeah. If we’ve been trained to not say exactly what we want, need and mean in breakups, they will sound harsh. I’m arguing that we, as a community, be the change we wish to see in the breakup world and collectively agree that breaking up is sad and harsh and is still the best option when it needs to happen. The name of the game is to be straightforward, but not mean. Also do speak in your own voice. If you’re not as blunt as I am*, do phrase things in a way that feels natural to you. But definitely still plan it ahead of time. Say it over and over again so even if you’re nervous, your body will remember how to get lips around words.

*I’m super blunt. Once I broke things off with someone by saying they seemed really fun, but that I didn’t like the way they were treating me sometimes and I just got out of a relationship where I was getting treated like shit and I didn’t need to date someone who wasn’t excited to be around me. Those might not have been my exact words but, uh. Yeah, that’s pretty much what I said. Best decision ever. We ran into each other years later, updated each other on our lives, and went about our businesses fairly unawkwardly, considering how awkward a situation it is to run into someone you dated in NEW YORK CITY this place should be big enough to avoid that but it’s not.


If You Say Something, Mean It

Friend, I provided a few scripts up there that mention wanting to be friends because you did mention wanting to be friends. But I have to wonder—you say you don’t like the person, and you say that really what’s important is that no one hates each other. I’m not sure you want to be friends with her—being friends means you’ll hang out, you’ll talk to each other, you’ll each dedicate time and space to the other. Friendship is special—it’s never just friends. I hate it when people say that. It’s Friends! with an exclamation point. Friendship is not a levels thing—it’s not a place you are before romance. It is its own wonderful thing. Friendship is meaningful and it is work and it is amazing and rewarding. Are you looking for that with her?

If you are not, DON’T SAY YOU WANT TO BE FRIENDS WITH HER! Avoid jumping to the “let’s be friends!” script just because it’s nicer than the others. Because that’s just as hurtful. It’s another kind of stringing someone along. If you say you want to be friends and then ghost, it’s really no different. So no matter what words you choose, be sure they are honest words. If you say you’re not feeling dating right now, make sure that’s the real reason. If you go with something more accepted (“it’s not you, it’s me!”) make sure it’s actually true. Otherwise it’ll sound hollow, and that’s one of the things that makes breakups suck.


And If You’re Getting Dumped?

Okay asker-friend, this advice isn’t really for you—but other people will read this and they might be thinking, yeah, being okay with being blunt and saying what you mean is fine and all when you’re the dumper. But what about the dumpee!!?? AREN’T YOU CONSIDERING MY FEELINGS, ALI??

First, I’d argue yes, I am. Repeat after me: I do not want to be with a person who does not want to be with me. Say it as many times as necessary to get it into your bones. If a person breaks it off with you, well. They’ve saved you from dedicating parts of your heart, your time and space and energy, to someone who isn’t returning you the favor. Before responding or reacting, take a deep breath and remember that. Be thankful you didn’t spend a year or five with this person.

And then you get to feel as sad or as angry as you feel! Everyone gets to feel sad during a break up, dumper and dumpee alike. But you do have to behave in emotionally responsible ways. Try not to be mean because you feel hurt—that’s the number one rule of the new breakup. Don’t be mean. Be honest.

Now because you’re going into a breakup conversation unprepared, you get to say things like, “my first instinct is to respond with x, but I need a few minutes to process what I’m hearing.” You get to ask for time to process, for things to be repeated if you didn’t quite get them the first time. You get to say, “this is making me angry but I don’t want to be mean to you, so I’m going to walk around the block until I can say what I mean without being mean.” These are all ways you can respond to getting dumped. But through it all, keep the most important thing in mind: you do not want to be with a person who does not want to be with you.


Alrighty, asker-friend. You can do this. Take stock of what you want out of this breakup, make your script and do the thing. And as for everyone else, let’s breakup better, breakup kindly, and breakup when we need to. Cheers to breakups!

Staff Writer for Autostraddle, Part-time Faculty at The New School (teaching digital storytelling), Managing Editor for Scholar & Feminist Online at Barnard Center for Research On Women. Follow me on Twitter @AEOsworth or on Instagram, also @AEOsworth.

A.E. has written 542 articles for us.

23 Comments

  1. Thank you for this! I have a hangout soon that is only a hangout for me but maybe feels like a date for the other person and I’m semi-stressing about that so this was very nice to read. I am a shy person and I definitely have a communication style based on hinting and giving vibes, but I live in a country full of very blunt people who say exactly what they mean, so this has been very helpful! I will try to take your advice to really mean my words. Wish me luck!

  2. When my ex-girlfriend recently broke up with me and went on about “being friends some day” and “continuing to be important in each other’s lives” i had to take a couple weeks and really break down to her what friendship meant to me and expressed my uncertainty at her being able to do that because a lot the qualities I look for in friendship are things that she felt unable to provide in our relationship which is what made us not work as partners.

    She listened. And asked how she can work on those things. I think it felt like a lot of pressure to be able to provide emotional space for a partner that she realized was maybe not “meant to be” but she wants to work on being able to do that for her friends. I think that conversation is very necessary.

    I think the “how much and what kind of space are we going to take up in each other’s lives” and being super honest and authentic is v v v important post break up.

    • I really respect the two of you for being able to have this kind of conversation.

      I’m another person who needs infinitesimally clear communication, and I’m learning to still love that about myself even when relationships I otherwise feel so much joy in, break down, because this level of communication is too much, and we’re incongruent in our emotional needs and communication styles. It’s heartbreaking, and so difficult to do in the end, but it’s so necessary for being kind to my heart.

    • My ex went on about the same but I just ignored it because she didn’t want to be my friend when we were together and I don’t like the way she conducts her friendships anyway. If the thing you’re most excited about in the breakup is that you don’t have to pretend to like their friends any more, you probably don’t want to be their friend.

  3. this is solid advice and is great! thank you!

    one of my ex girlfriends broke up with me in a way that actually brought us closer together as friends because she put in the work to be emotionally sensitive in a way that she couldn’t be while we were together. in retrospect i think this is a pretty common gay lady thing to happen but it’s still amazing!

  4. I’m not sure if it’s just me, but I’ve been ghosted more by queer folks than by cishet women. Like I’d have queer ladies tell my one thing, but then a week later slowly ghost me(starts off with one word replies then nothing). On the other hand straight woman have been a bit more honest(even if it was via other people).

    • I think some queer folk are cowards because of the fear of being stuck in a “small world” together. So they put it off and put it off and then it’s gone on a long time and they think it’s too late and they’ve defaulted to ghosting.

      Also, some of us are very damaged from a lifetime of grinding oppression and have crappy social skills as a result.

      I have found that cishet people are sometimes more self-confident, not only with a greater sense of entitlement, but also a greater sense of freedom. They sometimes feel they have less to lose and think they can just move on to the next person or community, so it’s less scary for them to be blunt.

      Obviously this is a gross generalization and I don’t mean to say it’s true for everyone. I personally have counted cowards in all demographics. But IF you are having more ghostiness from queers, I would hazard a guess that this is why. Some of us are on our last nerve and traumatized out of being direct and even sometimes knowing what the hell we want.

      I tend to be blunt and up front, but it has never failed to astound me how scary it is for so many other people to do.

      In addition to the advice from Ali, remember that whatever another person does, it says something about who they are. What YOU do says something about who YOU are. It can be hard to not take on the other person’s behavior and internalize it as a reflection on yourself. It’s good to consider if you are personally eliciting a pattern of responses, but not to always assume it’s personal to you when often it isn’t.

      I have never been “done wrong” by someone who didn’t do the same exact thing to a lot of other people. I might have chosen to be involved with those people because I didn’t know better, but I didn’t cause them to do what they did, either.

  5. “Be the change we wish to see in the breakup world.”
    Yes with high fives and exclamation points!! Hard conversations are well, hard — especially if you come from a background, as I do, where I was constantly told ‘if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.’
    This adage leave us silent and voiceless. Sometimes you have to say things that aren’t nice for your own sake. ‘You aren’t the person I want to be with’ is NOT nice, but it is a necessary statement if it’s true.

    Thanks for this article and I hope it helps end the phenomenon of ghosting, which is frankly, a shitty thing to do to someone.

    • Being taught to not say anything un-nice is something I reflect on often. At times I conflate telling someone the truth that they’re not going to enjoy hearing with not being nice. Telling someone an uncomfortable truth such as, “You aren’t the person I want to be with,” can actually be a nice thing (or the most respectful, responsible, “adult” thing) in the long run as opposed to allowing them to believe something else. As you said, trying to comply with others’ expectations about being nice often leads to being silent when you need to say something.

    • Very true! Friend communication is so important! In the last year I’ve had about 5 friends (like 1-3 yr friendships) just progressively ghost on me. I’ve made several attempts to communicate with them but the conversations were never one friend talking to another, it was me trying to talk to them like I always had and getting small talk answers like we had just met and were strangers. I haven’t had the energy or will power to confront any of them because their ghosting is pretty clear and their communication (lack of) is just hurtful.

  6. As someone who frequently finds myself having to break things off with women I’ve gone out with 2-or-3 times, I am bookmarking this article for future use. THANK YOU. I am literally terrible at doing this, and I’ve definitely ghosted a few people and I feel really bad about it. Hopefully this will same me a lot of awkwardness in the future.

  7. Also, this might be controversial, but I just want to put it out there – I am ALL FOR being broken up with via text.

    Example:

    The last time someone broke up with me was in January. We’d been seeing each other for a little over two months – so not really casual anymore, but pre-“where is this going” conversation. We’d gone out the past Sunday, but she’d been busy at work all week. Friday she texted to say she had a work thing that night and couldn’t get together (and she already knew I was busy Saturday night) so she suggested Sunday brunch. I said yes, and we went, and I thought it was really nice. But then as we were walking home (she lived a block away) she started the break-up talk. And I kind of couldn’t believe I’d just spent $30 on brunch when she was just gonna break up with me! Like, I would have MUCH rather her have just broken things off via text on Friday night instead of going to brunch on Sunday and breaking things off face to face immediately after! It was really weird to think I’d been sitting across the table from her for the last two hours, while she’d been thinking about breaking up with me as soon as the meal was over.

    • Please, please, please do not break up with people via text if you’ve gone on more than 5 dates. I understand what you’re saying & your dumper screwed up – not because she didn’t just text you but because she should have done it during brunch. I agree it’s totally weird to sit through an entire meal with a pre-meditated break-up talk coming. Maybe she wasn’t totally sure and needed the brunch time to get sure or to muster up the courage. But seriously, getting dumped via text when you’ve been dating someone for 2 or more months really really sucks. It’s super rude, especially if, as discussed in the post, you do live in the same city & see each other/talk on the phone regularly.

      Sadly, the ghosting thing is not a millennial phenomenon. Cowards know no age. 🙁

  8. ugh I’m in a very similar situation. I’m dating a girl who is really lovely, but things moved very fast (slept together on second date that kind of thing) and now we’ve been dating only about three weeks. I just feel like sexually we aren’t very compatible. Is it better to give things more of a chance and just write it off to being new to eachother and awkward?

    • If you think it might be about awkwardness of being new together I think it’s worth talking about it. You can even frame it exactly how you framed it on the forum: You think she’s lovely, but you’re not sure the two of you are sexually compatible. You want to figure out if that’s really true, or just due to being new together before deciding whether to end it or keep trying.

      The conversation that follows will let you know if she feels the same way, and whether there’s a reasonable basis to keep trying or end it.

  9. All very good advice and I wish more people were brave enough to actually do these things. A person I dated actually tried to ghost me when I was IN THE ROOM. More accurately, IN THE BED. Not the worst, but, definitely the weirdest way (and dumbest strategy) I have ever been dumped.

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