Ending a long-term relationship, even if you know it's the right call, is really hard. How do you do it?

A lot of the advice on your blog for dealing with unhealthy or just 'stuck' relationships is a breakup, because of incompatibility. But it's so hard to break up with someone you've been in a long term relationship with, regardless of the situation. What can you do to make that easier?

I totally get you, letter writer. Ending a long term relationship is super difficult, and often the massive amounts of “relationship inertia” keep people from making the right call. Here are some tips I’ve found over years of dating & advice-giving:

Have grace for the past. A lot of people feel like ending a long-term relationship would mean “wasting” or “throwing away” all the years they spent with that person. Or, it feels like admitting that you made a years-long mistake. People are very susceptible to the sunk cost fallacy and feel like they would be betraying their past self by “giving up” on a relationship that they were previously invested in. But that’s the wrong way to think about it, and it needs a re-framing.

The reason you got together, and the happy times you spent together, are not negated or erased by a breakup needing to happen. Past-you made the right call based on the information that past-you had. It was a good relationship then; but things have changed and it’s no longer a good relationship now. Act based on the present, knowing that it can’t change or damage the past. Try to let go of feelings of shame or regret - those are paralyzing, and right now you need action.

Diamonds vs. hot coals. Imagine you’re standing in front of a table, and you’re holding a hot coal. It’s burning your hand, and you should probably let go of it. But there’s nothing on the table to replace it with. If you drop the coal, you’ll be left with nothing to hold. You’re afraid - the certainty of having something, even if it’s painful, seems better than having nothing. What if the table stays empty forever? Will you regret dropping the coal? Probably not - it’s hurting you. Having nothing is actually better than having something painful! Our culture likes to tell us that an empty hand is the worst possible thing, and that unless there’s a brilliant diamond on the table, you should cling to the hot coal.

Don’t stand there and sear your fingers off while waiting for a diamond. I know that the certainty of “at least I have a relationship, even if it’s not perfect” can feel better and more security of not having any relationship - but that’s another fallacy, called loss aversion, and it’s keeping you stuck. It’s not “have something vs have nothing,” it’s “keep getting burned vs start healing.” (And when a diamond does come along, you want to be free to grab it - not treating it as an escape or an alternative, or then dropping it too because your hand is still too burned up.)

60/40 is good enough. Often, people think that a relationship has to be 100% bad before they’re justified in leaving. I’ve seen lots of people - myself included - sabotage relationships, purposefully cultivate toxicity, or spin warped narratives about ‘abuse’ so that things are black and white enough to justify leaving. Your partner doesn’t need to be an irredeemable villain; you don’t need to wait until they do something that would horrify an imaginary audience into supporting you. There is no Breakup Judge to whom you need to present your case before you can leave.

If you’re not happy, that’s enough. If it’s 60/40 bad/good, or even 51/49, you can leave. There can be just one reason that ends an otherwise lovely relationship. Don’t talk yourself down because they’re “a good person” or you “care about each other” - if you want to go, go. It can be bittersweet or confusing; don’t get stuck thinking that all breakups have to be the result of unforgivable sins, or require one person to be a victim and the other to be a brute.

Ask for help. It seems silly, but a huge reason that people stay in long-term relationships is because there’s a lot of logistical nonsense that feels overwhelming and not worth it to deal with. If you live together, sometimes just the stress of moving and having to break a lease and figure out who has to buy a new sofa can be enough of a consideration to keep someone stuck. In this situation, it’s okay to be lazy, needy, or take shortcuts. If it’s remotely financially feasible, hire movers - even if that feels like a huge splurge or isn’t something you’d otherwise do. Ask your support network for help. If there are big, painful things to do - calling the landlord, going to IKEA, finding a new place to live - have someone do it with you, or even for you. Hire a lawyer or an accountant to deal with lease or financial stuff. See a therapist, even if just temporarily. Deputize a friend to let everyone know that you and your long-term partner have broken up so you don’t have to field the same reaction over and over. Whatever it is that you’re dreading, see if you can use some money or social support to make it a bit easier.

Take a longer-term view of “painful=bad.” This is going to be a bit counter-intuitive, since you asked how to make it easier, and part of the answer is stop trying to make it easier. The breakup is going to suck. A lot. But that doesn’t mean it’s not the right call. We evolved from much smaller, simpler creatures that usually could trust that if something felt bad, it was dangerous. Touch a hot fire, yank paw back. Eat rotten tasting berry, spit it out. But that immediate “pain=danger” impulse in our brains doesn’t always serve us. Sometimes, you gotta grit your teeth, put your head down, and get through a shitty situation so you can come out the other side.

It’s like living indefinitely with some kind of health issue, or having a one-time surgery to deal with it. Yes, the surgery and recovery will be painful and scary and difficult; probably, in the short-term, much worse than the day to day background pain of the health issue. But once it’s over, it’s over. Things will get worse before they get better, but you gotta focus on the “better” part. Don’t avoid a temporary increase in unpleasantness if it means an overall better situation once you get through it. It’s gonna suck. Let it suck. Do what you can to take care of yourself, just like you would after a rough surgery, and look ahead to a better future.