How to break up

Daniel Nash and Janine Jellars are here to talk you through it

Words: Modupe Oloruntoba | Illustrations: Sinomonde Ngwane 

If you’ve still got love on the brain, join the club... a metaphorical hangover from the heady month of February tends to do that. We think about what love means, how we want it shown to us, and how we show it to others, hopefully in a more meaningful way than a last-minute teddy bear purchase. Not that I’d ever attempt to police what expressions and tokens you should find valuable – it's just that I've started thinking about love in a broader sense, including the idea that it can be expressed through a breakup.

Is the end of a relationship the end of love, or can it be an honest – but painful – expression of it?

We enlisted two people well-known for their wise words on relationships (and even the endings thereof) and asked for their thoughts on the motivations and mechanics of romantic splits. 

Editor, writer and Frank podcast co-producer Janine Jellars is a not-so-newlywed whose warm tone and sharp wit have been helping young people navigate life since her days as editor-in-chief of the local edition of Seventeen. As if she weren’t already #Goals, she’s also interviewed Rihanna and Michelle Obama.

Marketer and Cosmopolitan's ‘Agony Uncle’ Daniel Nash has been shelling out advice via his 'Ask Him Anything' column on everything from flirty gym instructors to awkward conversations about sex, long enough to know what he’s talking about. 

The two gave us some good advice that we hope you won’t have to use anytime soon – but that you should probably read anyway, just in case. Join the conversation in the comments below with your own tips, tricks, and tales from Splitsville.

On bad breakups: Don’t drag it out

JJ: I have had some awful ones, and not so awful ones. An ex and I once broke up over email. Then there was one where I actually thought I was dating someone, but discovered he was engaged to someone else, which obviously called for a breakup. I was once caught in one of those dramatic relationships that was basically a two-year cycle of make ups and breakups. It was emotionally exhausting.

DN: I’ve had one after eight years – that was pretty hectic. I’ve had a very public breakup, which wasn’t fun at all. But I think my worst one was when I moved from Jo'burg to Cape Town and we tried long distance and the breakup was just agonisingly long: we were together, we weren’t, we were together, we weren’t… in terms of a bad breakup that was pretty horrible.

On ‘good’ breakups: They exist, but only where there’s common ground

JJ: I think there is such a thing as a good breakup. When you both realise this isn’t working for you and you’re mature enough to just be honest about your feelings. I’ve had one of those. We weren’t technically a couple, but we both came to the conclusion that it was healthier for us to walk away from whatever this ‘thing’ was, as we were in two completely different places, emotionally. It’s important to acknowledge when you can’t meet each others’ romantic expectations.

DN: I’ve never really had a good one… unless it’s something that you want to get out of, I suppose that’s good in the end. I think there are good breakups when there are two people who bring the worst out of each other and they know they should end it. But when you’re doing it it’s never fun, even when it’s completely one-sided.

On the not-quite-a-relationship-but-definitely-a-situationship breakup: Know where you’re at.

JJ: I’m a big believer in putting yourself and your feelings first. This is selfish, but I’m not advocating being an asshole. Be sensitive to the other person’s feelings, but always put your interests first. If you feel you need to walk away, do it. If you feel like you need something more or something different, express that. Life is long, and you’re only blocking your own blessings by staying in a situationship that doesn’t suit you.

DN: In some ways it makes the break up so much easier because you weren't ever really a ‘thing'. You’re in this weird sort of undefined relationship which can sometimes be worse and probably leads to a breakup every now and then. Or the ‘non-breakup' where you don't know what the hell’s going on. So sometimes you can be like, oh whatever… and other times it can be pretty damn hard because you feel like there could have been something there. I think defining it is so much better. It just leaves less grey areas – that’s where people get hurt.

The How: Rip off the band aid

JJ: Don’t look for the easy way out! When there are emotions involved, there will always be pain, whether it’s you or the other person, someone is going to be unhappy about this break up. Accept that some measure of pain is part of the process, but that too shall pass. I believe in honesty at all times. I don’t believe in ghosting – even if you’re only in a ‘situationship’, or chatting to the person online or via text. A simple, ‘hey, whatever this is, it isn’t really working out for me and I think we have different expectations’ is sometimes all you require to provide the situation with some closure and move on.

DN: Organise a chat. I think people can always read into it; they’re like, ‘hey, what should we do?’ and you say ‘let’s just start at home and then we’ll see...’ Or you get the 'We need to talk.' I try and get into it as quickly as possible because I hate it… just try and be as honest as possible; I think if you’re really honest you can be less hurtful. I think when you try to talk too much or say too much you start saying some pretty weird things. Those are my biggest regrets, how I broke up with some people. With one I was away and it was email – I regret that all the time and I learned from it a lot. Also people getting caught cheating or out in public with somebody else – no. Face to face – no email, no text, no phone call.

The Where: In person and in a safe space.

JJ: Break up with someone wherever you feel safest, emotionally and physically. If you legitimately feel safer doing it over the phone, via text or via email (and you’re not just doing it to avoid the other person), then go ahead and do that. Maybe I’m old school, but barring emotional and physical safety concerns, I still think breakups are a face-to-face communication.

DN: I always have this joke about JC’s bar just up the road; it’s the break up bar because it’s really terrible… I thought about all my serious breakups and it’s always been on my couch. So at home. I don’t know why people ever want to do it in public, some people think it’s better – no way, it’s the worst. Cars are terrible, there’s always fighting… at home is always the best.

The When: ASAP

JJ: Sooner is always better than later. Don’t drag it out, don’t ghost, don’t be an asshole.

DN: When I was younger I used to put it off and put it off again until eventually someone does something and you sort of have to break up. That’s when it gets nasty… Once you’ve decided to do it, the quicker you do it, the sooner you do it, the better.

The Why: Because if your heart’s not in it, you’re both better off

JJ: Walk away from anything that no longer serves you. Once you start seriously thinking about breaking up with someone, you should probably do it. When you feel like everything is uphill in the relationship, when you’re no longer emotionally invested in it, when you know that you don’t love the other person – set them free to find someone who can honour them. It’s tempting to hold on, think to wait it out and think your feelings will change, but if you’re not feeling the other person anymore, nothing will change that. Some people try to sabotage the relationship, play games, cheat, ghost or treat the other person with some sort of disrespect, thinking they’ll ‘get the hint’ and initiate the break up. That’s incredibly cowardly behaviour. It’s best to just make a clean break.

DN: Being super honest with yourself is the first thing. There’s a lot of stuff that comes with relationships where I think people feel guilty or guilted into staying… but if you’re not happy with something or you recognise something in one relationship that you know didn’t work in others and you sort of deny it for a bit? As soon as someone does that one thing or you feel like you’ve started doing that one thing that you always do and you know where it’s going, that’s a definitive point. The sooner you recognise that and the quicker you can act on it the better, instead of letting it get weird.

A footnote on the breakup aftermath: Disengage.

DN: I’ve had a pretty bad experience with bashing before… I don’t really do that. I find it really hard to be horrible about someone that I’ve shared a lot with. I try and keep it as quiet as possible and I do have quite a strict no contact rule - chatting afterwards and seeing how people are doing just leads to seeing each other again. A comms break is sometimes a little brutal, but it’s better. I hate wondering if they’re going to message or respond… just like you need to define the relationship, you need to define the breakup. Especially with everything online, it’s so easy to start subversive tweets or updates on Facebook, talking smack… stay off that stuff as well. Don’t go to the places you used to go to together and say you don’t care if you see them - there are a lot of other places to go.

Quotes have been edited and condensed for clarity.