A Word on Mental Health

Life Beyond Therapy: But I Don’t Want to Hurt You

By Michael Kimmel

I wasn’t sure that this was the best title for this column. My alternative choice was: “It’s Never a Good Time to Leave”. From these two titles, you can probably guess what this column is about: How do you know when to end a relationship – be it a friendship or romance – and what do you do with the pain that ending it may inflict on someone else?

Unless you’re a sadist, and if you are, you can skip this column altogether, you don’t want to purposely hurt people. When a relationship is over, you’d like to end it as kindly, gently and respectfully as possible. That sounds great, but the reality is usually that the other person is going to feel sadness, anger and hurt. This keeps a lot of us in relationships that aren’t good for us. Guilt keeps us stuck there: we want out but can’t figure out a good way to get there. As a psychotherapist, I can’t tell you how many clients have said: “I really want to end it with [name of person], but I don’t want to hurt them.”

We all want to be the good guys, not the bad guys. We want to be nice women, not mean ones. We want to be loving people, not cruel ones. But, then, we’re stuck. And not just in sexual/romantic relationships, how do you get rid of a friend that you’ve outgrown? How do you say “no” to people you no longer like but who keep texting you?

Are you sitting down? Good, because you may not like what I’m going to say. In most cases, you can’t end relationships without the other person getting hurt.  They’re gonna hurt. No matter how enlightened you are and how gently you say, “It’s over”, they will feel pain. 

Alas, none of us gets to always be the good guy/girl/person…eventually, we all have to hurt people just by being ourselves. It sucks, doesn’t it? Well, let’s talk about how we can take care of ourselves and not be so afraid of being “the mean one”?

Guilt keeps a lot of us in unrewarding friendships and half-dead romances. Guilt is the feeling that we’ve done something wrong and that we should feel bad about it. But, if you’ve ended a relationship respectfully and kindly, you’ve done nothing wrong and guilt isn’t something you need to take on.

If you’re finding it hard to end a relationship, consider these suggestions: 

  • Be honest, respectful and kind. 
  • If the roles were reversed, how would you like someone to end a relationship with you? Be that person.
  • Don’t be surprised if you feel guilty, but work with your guilt so it doesn’t hold you back from doing what’s right for you.
  • Give the other person time to adjust. You’ve had plenty of time to think about ending the relationship, this may be a surprise/shock for them.
  • Be firm and consistent. If they try to manipulate or guilt-trip you, don’t give in. When in doubt, use the Broken Record approach: Repeat one phrase over-and-over until they stop giving you a hard time. Example: “I hear you, but I still want to end our friendship” or “I’m sorry you’re upset, but I still want to end our relationship”. 
  • Get support from others: the person you’re ending it with may call you names or accuse you of mean things, don’t let your self-esteem crash because theirs is. Remind that yourself: “I’m a good person. I don’t want to hurt anyone, but I want to end this relationship and I’m doing it the best I can.” 

It’s admirable to not want to hurt other people, but life usually doesn’t let us get away with that. By taking care of yourself, other people may not like what you say or do and react with anger or sadness. Don’t let guilt keep you from doing the right thing: speak your truth kindly and respectfully and you’ll end up hurting other people as little as humanly possible.