The survey of 16-24 year olds found 48% said breakups negatively affected their mental health. Although the majority (90%) of participants said the best way to end a relationship is face to face, in reality the temptation to hide behind a screen is too much: four in 10 (41%) have been dumped by text, one third (33%) on social media and more than a quarter (28%) have been a victim of ghosting.
Of the 1,000 young adults surveyed, 38% were sent hurtful private messages, 27% were harassed with frequent contact online, 23% had hurtful comments posted or shared about them online and 14% had nude photos or videos shared publicly by ex-partner.
The research also suggests young people find knowing how to break up with someone can be difficult; more than six in 10 (62%) of young people who have been in a relationship have wanted to end it, but not felt able to.
In light of the research, commissioned by relationships charity statusonline.org, leading experts from organisations including Relate and Tavistock Relationships have launched a guide to better breakups, which aims to minimise hurtful and humiliating behaviours from all parties.
1. Look for the tell-tale signs that it’s over.
Some conflict in a relationship is normal but if you’re arguing more often than not, something may need to change. Consider the causes of the conflict – it may be that they’re actually external pressures such as stress from work.
If you can’t be yourself with your partner or don’t trust them to be there for you, it may be also be time to call it a day. If you don’t feel safe or if they are abusive, call the police or contact an organisation such as Relate who can connect you with the right support.
Cheating doesn’t always signify the end. Relate counsellor Dee Holmes says: “If your partner has cheated this is often a sign that there are issues in your relationship which need addressing. If you’re both willing to work at your relationship and have the right support, it’s possible to rebuild trust.”
2. Choose your moment to bring up the subject.
Let your partner know in advance that you want to talk to avoid it being a shock. Be honest, direct, but considerate and kind. Choose a time to talk when you’re both sober, calm and away from distractions and try to avoid blame or loaded language.
You might start the conversation by saying “I’ve noticed we don’t seem to be getting on as well and think we need to work out what to do about it.” or “I am not happy”, or “I am not feeling good about the way we are.”
Relationship expert for statusonline.org Sarah Abell suggests: “Think about how you would want to be told if someone broke up with you.”
3. Let them down gently.
Saying “it’s not you, it’s me” risks sounding clichéd or insincere but what is behind this commonly used phrase is how you feel. Talking about yourself can avoid sounding critical - so rather than saying “I don’t like you now I’ve got to know you properly” you could say “I’m not feeling enough of a connection between us”.
Couples therapist Kate Thomson from Tavistock Relationships says: “Your partner is unlikely to be in the same place emotionally as you. It may take them some time to catch up. Try to confront difficulties as they occur rather than store them up and finally cause them to explode with frustration or anger. If you can understand and talk about your more vulnerable emotions, it may well make the break-up less stormy.”
4. Talk face to face.
There may be situations where you have to end a relationship by text, email, or instant message, for example, if you haven’t known them for long, they don’t live nearby or you’re escaping an abusive relationship.
However texts and messages can often be misunderstood and interpreted wrongly. Face to face and in private is usually best.
Abell says: “The golden rule is treat people like you would want to be treated. Be kind and courageous and don’t hide behind a screen.”
5. Protect yourself from bitterness and online recriminations.
Think very carefully before sharing intimate photos or details with another person and don’t do it if you feel under pressure. ‘Revenge porn’ is a criminal offence, so if an ex shares sexual or intimate photos of you with others, contact the police. If somebody posts something bitter on social media or humiliates you publicly, avoid retaliating publicly. If you do choose to talk to them about it, take the conversation offline.
Be aware that posts showing you ‘having fun’ may create more unhappiness for your ex. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have fun, but it’s worth being aware of the impact social media posts could have.
Thomson adds: “Break up in a way that both of you acknowledge the part you had to play in the relationship and how it ended, sharing the loss. That will hopefully eliminate the need for ‘revenge’ acts [and] the idea that one party was more wronged.”
6. Tread carefully if you want to stay friends.
Giving each other some space and time to heal at first may make it possible to remain friends in the long-run. Be honest about new relationships and remember to be kind to and about each other.
Ask yourself, do you need to stay friends? Think about the pros and cons to maintaining contact. It might make you feel less guilty but actually isn’t helpful to them. Look after yourself - take positive steps like talking to any mutual friends and ask them not to take sides. Accept this is a process that you have to go through and that it will help you to learn about yourself.
Holmes says: “Try to be calm, reasonable and don’t ‘sweat the small stuff’. If breaking up means splitting belongings, ask yourself if it’s really worth an argument over who keeps a pair of sunglasses.”