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How to Break Up in Public Without Causing a Scene

Your relationship might be over, but your dignity deserves a fighting chance.

Image Georgios Kaleadis/Flickr
Georgios Kaleadis/Flickr

It was early December, and Julia was sitting on a bench in New York City’s Tompkins Square Park. Her boyfriend was next to her. They’d been together for around four years, and now they were breaking up.

There were tears. There were awkward silences. There was a lot of emotion. And then, a group of drunk people stumbled past dressed as Santa Claus. Two of the girls slowed down to stare; they’d noticed Julia crying. She stared back.

Ending a relationship in the midst of Santa Con may sound equivalent to hanging out in the inner circle of hell, but for Julia, it was an unexpected bonus: no matter how much drama her breakup created, there were plenty more cringe-worthy situations unfolding all around her. And there was the strong possibility that anyone who witnessed the end of her relationship wouldn’t remember doing so.  

But you can’t always count on a bunch of festively dressed lushes to buffer your breakup. Most of the time, if you sever ties outside the privacy of your apartment, you will be one half of the biggest spectacle in sight.

No matter how bad the breakup gets, though, “you have a basic responsibility to minimize the fallout on strangers,” says Mallory Ortberg, the co-founder of The Toast and the Dear Prudence columnist at Slate. That may be easier said than done, but here are a few things to keep in mind.

Location, location, location

“Sometimes you don’t know a breakup is coming until you are in the middle of it,” Ortberg says. But if you do plan the talk beforehand, it’s on you to make it happen in a place that will minimize the damage for the other personand bystanders.

And try to be courteous to the person you’re dumping. “Meet in a spot that’ll help your partner—somewhere close to their friend’s apartment or their favorite bar,” the relationship counselor Melissa Schneider tells CityLab. Avoid scorching their favorite places by dropping the bomb there, and for god’s sake, “don’t make it so they have to rely on public transportation to get home,” Schneider says.

Pick a location where either person can leave immediately, recommends Schneider. Anyone who may have derived breakup advice from the beginning of Legally Blonde, be warned: restaurants where you have to wait for the bill are not the best call in this situation. Instead, grab coffee to go and take your conversation outside or to a private table within easy reach of the door.

Do damage control

But sometimes, no matter what you do, the wheels come off. Chairs get overturned, glasses shatter, voices reach peak decibel. At that point, you’ve made a scene, and you can bet that everyone around you will be aware of it.

The only thing you can do in this situation, says the Life and Love radio host Dr. Karla Ivankovich, is take responsibility for your actions. “Hold you head up, look directly at the people around you, and say ‘I apologize,’” she says. “Show that you have respect for yourself and the people around you, and that you weren’t intending to be indecent or disruptive.”

And finally, a word to the witnesses

“Everyone’s been through a breakup,” Ivankovich says. Even if you’ve made a scene, “everyone will feel for you going through that in public.”

So the worst thing you could do as a witness, Ortberg says, is to turn someone’s misery into a spectacle. “The biggest violation of the social contract is when someone live tweets a public breakup,” she tells CityLab. Breakups are emotional black holes; no one is at their best during them. If you happen to see people whose relationship is coming to an end, “yeah, they’re going to be acting like jerks, probably,” Ortberg says. Let them. She adds, “this is a time in life when you should give people a fair amount of leeway.”

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