Dear Dr. Wes & Samantha: My relationship with my boyfriend isn’t going very well. We fight all the time, and both of us have found ourselves talking to other people, but somehow we end up back together. I want to be friends after we break up. We really love each other, but somehow that doesn’t make it work out. What is your advice?
Wes: If your intent really is to break up, then I have a radical idea for you. Break up. One of the most common problems of couples today isn’t being together. It’s getting apart. I’m not sure how this came about over the last 15 years, but young people have come to believe that couples should just slide gracefully into friendship after they split up, just as you suggest.
To this I ask one simple question. Why? If you and your guy aren’t doing well as a couple, why prolong the agony and try to stay friends? Yes, I know it’s not as easy as I make it sound. But I’ve had this conversation literally 2,000 times in the last 15 years, and it’s not as hard as you think. This is a big world, and there are multitudes of people to get to know. Read on to get Samantha’s tips for breaking up. Here are mine:
• Say good-bye face-to-face. Forget texting back and forth or changing Facebook status as a sign that you’re through. Saying it in person makes it more real, even if you have to do it in public to be certain it goes OK. Occasionally these things can actually get dangerous. Go to lunch in a public place. Once you’re there, eat, get it said, set the rules of disengagement and leave. No long goodbye kisses or anything else. Nothing good can come of that.
• Run like the wind. Agree to end all contact for at least 90 days. If you are lab partners or doing a class project together, beg the teacher to let you split off. I don’t recommend changing class schedules mid-semester, but do what you can to avoid each other next semester. Less pain and more gain.
• Return all the “stuff” immediately via your mutual friends — shirts, rings, puppies, concert tickets, everything that belongs to the other person. Don’t argue about any of it. If your boyfriend gave it to you and he wants it back, make it happen. Nobody is going to care in 10 years if you have an old boyfriend’s letter jacket or ring. Except maybe your husband.
• In 2009 and beyond, breakup means DELETE. Purge each other from your phone and Facebook. Or you can program your phone to say “don’t answer” when his number rings, a handy reminder in our high-tech age. Some folks prefer entering something less flattering, but that’s up to you. Get your friends on message. If your ex approaches them to relay something to you, have them politely explain that you’ve moved on, and ask them not to tell you about it.
• Finally, enlist family and social support, even a counselor if the going gets rough. It may seem surprising that teen and young adult breakups are now fodder for therapy, but its one of the most common problems we see today. Remember, every relationship is a learning experience, and so is breaking up. Work hard on both.
Samantha: Time to stop floating through your tumultuous relationship and letting the waves of romantic conflict break on you. Jump ship. Don’t be mean or point out his flaws. Don’t feel like you need to list the reasons why you want to break up. It’s OK to say it’s just not working.
• Many people stay in relationships that are just “OK” because they’re afraid to leave someone they’ve grown accustomed to, forgetting they are choosing to miss out on exciting new relationships. I’m not saying you should jump into anything right away. On the contrary, you should both take time for yourselves. Try to avoid dating for at least a month and, ideally, two.
• As Wes notes, when the wounds are fresh and you’re both vulnerable, you could easily slip back into your usual habits, so avoid contact. Even worse, if you continue to process the breakup together, you could get into an argument that prevents you from ever being friends again. You can be friendly and cordial if you happen to run into each other, but avoid calling, texting or hanging out alone. If you’re tempted to sip from the stalker cup, force yourself to just say “no.” Don’t do something like read his Facebook page, learn he’s planning to go to a restaurant, and, then, just “happen” to show up there.
• The who-gets-custody-of-the-friends issue can also be tricky. Avoid drama by only inviting a few of your common friends to hang out. Don’t arrange everyone-but-the-ex plans. If you end up having no choice but to hang out in a big group, say “hi,” but don’t spend the evening with him. Focus on your other friends.
• Don’t bash him in public. When you get really frustrated, sit down and write him a letter about everything that’s angering you. Vent all your mean, hurtful thoughts and feelings and then DO NOT SEND the letter.
• Remind yourself of what it feels like to be independent from this person. Learn something new that you never had time to try before. Refresh your relationship with friends and family. Become a better version of yourself. The busier you are, the less vulnerable you’ll be to snap back to your ho-hum relationship.
• By becoming a better, stronger, more confident version of yourself, you’re in a much better position to have a healthy friendship with your ex. Your efforts to remain friends still may not succeed, but even so, you’ll be a better you.
Next week: Our annual New Year’s resolutions for teens and parents.
— Dr. Wes Crenshaw is a board-certified family psychologist and director of the Family Therapy Institute Midwest. Samantha Schwartz is a senior at Lawrence High School. Opinions and advice given here are not meant as a substitute for psychological evaluation or therapy services. Send your questions about adolescent issues (limited to 200 words) to email@example.com. All correspondence is strictly confidential.