science of us

How Nice People Break Up

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No matter how you slice it, breakups are not much fun — someone usually ends up getting hurt. Wouldn’t it be great if ending a relationship with someone could be a little less painful? It turns out that a dose of compassionate love can help ease the pain.

When you think about “love” in romantic relationships, you probably are imagining what researchers refer to as passionate love (read more about passionate love here and here), the intense, desire-filled, longing (and obsession) for the object of your affection. In addition to passion, however, another “type” of love is also important in close relationships: compassionate love. Compassionate love refers to the concern and care people have for the well-being of others, especially when those others are suffering; compassionate love promotes support, understanding, and tenderness. Clearly you can experience compassionate love for a romantic partner, but it can also be directed toward friends, family, and strangers. And when it comes to breakups, you can also direct compassionate love toward a soon to be ex-partner.

In a study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, researchers identified people who had recently initiated a breakup or had been in a relationship that mutually ended. Participants first answered questions about how much compassionate love they experienced for their ex-partner when the relationship was at its best, and also on their compassionate love for strangers and people in general. Participants were then asked about how they broke up with their ex. Specifically, they indicated how much they used the following five strategies:

  1. Withdrawing and avoiding the partner (e.g., ‘‘I avoided contact with my partner as much as possible.’’)
  2. Manipulating the partner (e.g., ‘‘I became unpleasant to my partner in the hopes that s/he would make the first move.’’)
  3. Using an impersonal form of communication (e.g., ‘‘inform my partner of my feelings in an e-mail’’) (read more about breaking up by email/text here)
  4. Using a positive tone (e.g., ‘‘I avoided hurting my partner’s feelings at all costs.’’)
  5. Being open with the partner (e.g., ‘‘I openly expressed to my partner my desire to breakup’’)

Of the five types of breakup communication noted above, the first three are probably the most painful, whereas the last two are generally respectful and sensitive to the partner. Those people who felt more compassionate love for their partners pre-breakup were more likely to be positive and open with their partners during the breakup, and less likely to be avoidant, manipulative, or impersonal in their communications.

The bottom line is that compassion is a good trait to have across many types of relationships, including those that are in the process of ending. The end of a relationship is going to be difficult, but some compassion on your part can help make it less painful for your ex.

This post first appeared on Science of Relationships. Benjamin Le is the co-founder of Science of Relationships, and he’s also an associate professor of psychology at Haverford College. 

How Nice People Break Up