tips from a san francisco couples therapist how to have a good breakup

Tips From A San Francisco Couples Therapist: 9 Ways To Have A Good Breakup

What’s a good breakup?

People enjoy making fun of Gwyneth Paltrow for using the term “conscious uncoupling.” How about we just call it a “good breakup?”

In a good breakup, two people stop being a couple in the least destructive way possible. They show kindness and respect to each other. At the end of the breakup, both people know they did the best they could.

Why would you want a “good breakup”?

You might want to part amicably for a few reasons. If you share children with your soon-to-be-ex, you’ve got a huge motivation to make your break up non-destructive. You’ll be co-parents forever. Many exes without kids stay in each other’s lives too. Maybe you work together, can’t afford to move apart right away, or share a tight group of friends. Maybe you intend to be close friends after the breakup. Maybe you just care about your soon-to-be-ex and want to exit the relationship in a decent way.

Can every breakup be a good breakup?


If your soon-to-be-ex is calling you names or harming your body, or if you’re hurting them in those ways, you need to prioritize getting the hell out of dodge.*

How do you pull off a good breakup? I’ll give you 9 ways.

Insist on being kind. But not necessarily nice.

Kind is different from nice.

Kindness is about being ethical, looking out for the other person’s well being, and holding on to your values even during stressful moments.

Nice is about being liked and looking good to other people. It’s about keeping things pleasant. Forget nice during a breakup.

To stick the dismount of a good breakup, you must insist on being kind even when you’re angry, resentful and hurt. You may need to say things that hurt your partner, but refrain from purposefully hurting them through name-calling, blaming, criticism, or smashing the windows out their car.

Many people tend to focus on the behavior of their soon-to-be-ex. It’s easy to notice what they’re doing wrong. Focus on your own behavior instead.

Don’t use your heartache as an excuse to be unkind. You might feel like unkind behavior is justified because of the way your soon-to-be-ex has treated you. Choose your own behavior based on your values, not based on their behavior. Use your own moral compass.

We never said a good breakup would be easy.

Decide if you’re really ready to break up.

Staying together takes commitment, but breaking up does too. Decide whether you are ready to break up. If not, try couples counseling.

(not just any couples counseling. Please try couples counseling with an experienced couples therapist who uses a proven method. Pretty please. )

If you’re not ready to break up, don’t do it yet. Avoid the cycle of breaking up and then getting back together several times. Breaking up over and over again causes a lot of heartache and emotional distress.

Feel the hell out of your feelings.

Here are some parameters for your emotional health: you’re allowed to “wallow,” or in other words feel all your painful feelings for at least a month. Let yourself be really sad. If anyone tries to get you to stop being sad within the first month of the breakup, just tell them no thank you. It is indeed time for sweatpants/comfort food/movies/naps. It is time to vent and cry with people you trust.

Grieving is a natural process during the end of a meaningful relationship. Your body and brain have become dependent on your sweetie, and now you’re going through withdrawal. That doesn’t mean you’re co-dependent. It just means that your ability to form human attachments is intact.

Humans are wired for attachment to other humans. We tend to be at our healthiest when we have very close and interdependent relationships with a small number people. When one of those primary people leaves your life or becomes drastically less close to you, your body and brain go through withdrawal. Far from being a sign of weakness, that’s just a sign that you’re a healthy human.

While you’re going through that withdrawal, allow yourself to cry, scream, shake and do what you need to. You’ve got sadness, hurt, anger, resentment, and many other emotions to move through. When you try to stop feeling some of your feelings, it becomes hard to move through them. It also becomes hard to feel other feelings, like perhaps joy.

Don’t expect as much from yourself for the next month or two. Identify what absolutely has to happen and forgive yourself for letting the rest go. Cancel things. Lots of things. If you were in an accident, let’s say you broke your leg, you’d probably allow yourself to cancel things. Let yourself do that now.

Don’t insist on getting “closure” from your soon-to-be-ex.

It’s OK to try for closure. Try to have the conversations that will give you both the answers you need about why this is happening and why your relationship can’t or shouldn’t be salvaged. While you’re in a conversation trying to find closure, have an exit strategy and don’t allow it to spiral out of control. Take care of yourself, stay hydrated, take breaks, and breathe. Don’t insist on staying up until 5 in the morning until you’ve got your questions answered.

Sometimes closure has to come from within. Your soon-to-be-ex might not know why they can’t make it work, or they might not choose to tell you. If they are not able to explain things to the point that they make sense to you, stop asking. Start giving yourself closure.

Take a little time apart.

This isn’t a rule, just a guideline. If you or your soon-to-be-ex are experiencing heartache, time apart allows you to begin grieving the relationship. Maybe you’ll be in each other’s daily lives in the future. Maybe you’ll be best friends. Almost all couples need some time apart before embarking on a new phase of friendship.

What if you have kids together, are housemates, or work together?

If you can’t take time apart, you need to get creative about how to set up boundaries for a while. Talk about these boundaries in terms of healing and taking care of yourselves. This time apart isn’t a punishment.

Lean on the other close people in your life.

In order to heal that loss, you need to lean MORE on your other close people. Those would be your friends and family, or if you’re poly, it might also be other partners. Some of your people will know how to be with you and near you while allowing you to be sad. Those are the ideal people to spend time with. If any of your close people are open to instructions, tell them to let you be sad for at least a month and listen when you need to talk. Tell them that just hanging out with you will be more helpful than coming up with words of wisdom.

Don’t force your friends to choose between you and your soon-to-be-ex. Try to trust and believe that it will work itself out. Some people will stay friends with both of you, and others will naturally end up staying more connected to just one of you. When you try to control that process, you make it more painful for you and for your friends.

Look out for depression.

If you’ve been grieving and feeling sad for over a month and your mood isn’t starting to lift at least at certain moments, consider whether you might be suffering from depression. If you’ve struggled with depression before, you’re more susceptible to having this breakup trigger another episode of depression. Look out for these signs: Sleep disturbance (too much or too little), lack of energy, not having your usual appetite, not getting pleasure from the things you usually enjoy, feelings of hopelessness, thoughts of suicide. If those things are happening, you might need some extra support. Therapy can help a great deal.

Tell your friends, especially if you’ve been depressed before, to look out for those signs persisting and not improving beyond a month or two.

Divide your stuff while calm.

Maybe you’ll need help from an attorney or two, especially if you’re legally married, but there’s a lot you can figure out yourself. Borrow some strategy from mediators here.

Get grounded by yourself, away from your soon-to-be-ex, and decide what you care most about keeping. Think through everything. Money, music, books, furniture, artwork, photos, kitchen gadgets. If you’ve been sharing a household for many years, there’s a lot to sort through. Think this through before you meet so you’re less likely to fall into being reactive.

When you meet, do like conflict resolution mediators do. Each person expresses their feelings, talks about what is most important to them, and then listens to the other party do the same. They avoid a winner takes all, zero sum mentality. They assume that the optimal solution might not be immediately obvious. Each person is willing to advocate for themselves and also give and take. Each person agrees that not resolving the issue is more harmful than finding a less than perfect solution.

Sleep with someone else. Or don’t.

There’s not a right answer to this.

One study tells us that forming an attachment with a new partner can lessen your anxiety and help you recover from the pain of a breakup**. When you know that you’re not going to be alone forever and that there are other potential partners out there for you, it can help your body and brain calm down.

Check in with your body and your emotions to figure out when you’re up for dating or sex with another partner. Sex can be a great part of your self-care and healing, or it can leave you feeling lousy if you’re not ready.

If this good breakup idea doesn’t appeal to you, here are 7 ways to make sure you have an awful breakup:

  • Take every opportunity to hurt your soon-to-be-ex so they can feel at least as much pain as you do.
  • Break up and get back together several times.
  • Cut off any painful feelings. Use alcohol, drugs or any tool you can to do this.
  • Force your ex to explain why this is happening for hours at a time, preferably instead of sleeping.
  • Isolate yourself or spend time with people you don’t know well.
  • Force all your friends to choose between you.
  • Try to get everything in the dividing of assets.

Is it time to get help from an experienced couples therapist? Call us at (415) 534-4051 or schedule a free and confidential phone consultation with one of us now.

*We’re not saying that every relationship that has gone over to that side is beyond saving. Sometimes very escalated relationships can and do turn around. Talk to an experienced couples counselor to find out whether couples therapy might help in your situation. That’s a different conversation.

**Spielmann, S. S., MacDonald, G., & Wilson, A. E. (2009). On the rebound: Focusing on someone new helps anxiously attached individuals let go of ex-partners. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35,1382-1394.