The Break Up Code — Pt. 2

The keys to being less shitty when your friend is devastated

So we’ve established this break up isn’t yours, and you’ve got the three core competencies in your back pocket. Now we’re ready for the real work.

A break-up can go down in any number of ways, from the in-person meltdown to the classic post-it break-up from Sex and The City: I’m sorry. I can’t. Don’t hate me.

When the news first hits it might not be clear which type of break-up has happened to your friend. That’s okay. The details are forthcoming, and you only need to ask one simple question to find out more. Any guesses what that question is?

Here’s a hint: It is NOT “What happened?”

Any other guesses?

The first and most important question you will ask is this, “Are you okay?”

Because no matter what happened, that’s what matters. Your job is not sleuthing out answers about why they broke up, and it is not trying to understand things from the perspective of the now ex. The ex is not your concern. Your one job right now is your friend.

So, you ask, “Are you okay?” Even though probably the answer to that question is no, and probably it will seem like a stupid question. But you ask anyway because it lets your friend know that you are concerned, and it allows them to feel taken care of and heard, and, most importantly, it gives your friend a platform to open up and tell you whatever details they’d like to share.

If you’re in the same city as your friend, the next step is arranging a time to get together. It should be as soon as possible. If you’re crazy busy, do not tell this to your friend. Probably something you are “so busy” doing can be pushed back to make time for your friend. Make the time that you can be free and suggest that time.

If you’re not in the same city as your friend, find the soonest available time to talk to them on the phone. Do not schedule this phone call into a small time block. Make sure you’ve got lots of time available to listen. It’s a bad idea to be in the middle of doing something else and suddenly “have to go”.

This first hangout or conversation will most likely not be fun. It’s not likely to be a non-stop, single-and-loving-it party. Those days may come, but they are not today. Prime yourself by listening to Fiona Apple or Elliott Smith, something so that you can better understand the place your friend may be in.

When the time comes:

It’s finally that time and your friend has arrived to talk, or has called you up. Best-case scenario, it’s the same day that the news broke. Let’s go through the options and quickly cover some need-to-know dos and don’ts.

Your friend tells you they have broken up with someone.

Remember that just because your friend initiated the break-up doesn’t mean it will necessarily be easier. Sometimes being the person who is strong enough to see that a relationship isn’t working out can actually be the harder job.

  • What do you do?
  1. Listen closely to the reasons they provide for the break-up, and log them in your brain.
  2. Validate their feelings, whatever those feelings are (with the exception of murderousness, and other harmful, vengeful actions. We love our friend, but also not murdering people is great.)
  3. Use the reasons they provided to reassure them that they did the right thing. (Be sure to re-word, and provide light insights, so your friend doesn’t feel like they are talking to a parrot.)
  4. Remind them that it’s okay to feel sad/upset/angry even though they made the right choice.
  5. Give them a hug. Unless your friend is made wildly uncomfortable by physical contact, a hug is an incredibly comforting gesture, and can provide a good physical reminder that they’re not alone.
  • What do you say?
  1. “I want to do whatever sounds good to you.” It can sometimes be useful to have some options on hand, so they don’t have to make more difficult decisions.
  2. “I’m sorry.” This is a useful and necessary phrase, but also a tricky one. Be careful how often you apologize, because it can stop feeling useful quickly. Also be careful not to say this in a voice that suggests pity.
  • What DON’T you do?
  1. Talk shit about the ex. It is much too soon. You can validate your friend’s feelings toward the ex, but do not offer your own opinions. (Undoubtedly, you’ve been saving up some opinions about this loser. This won’t be easy, but stay strong.)
  2. Try and get them to have fun, or loosen up, or get drunk. This sort of activity is only acceptable if your friend suggests it. (AND if your friend does suggest it, keep an eye on them, because it’s a fast turnaround, and they are at high risk for an onslaught of drunk tears.)
  • What DON’T you say?
  1. “You’ll be fine.” This is true, but it’s completely useless to hear right now. If your friend was an intelligent and competent human before the break-up, they will still be one now, and as such they probably already know this fact somewhere in their mind. But right now, they are sad and they don’t need you insisting that they’ll be fine.
  2. “[the ex] wasn’t good enough for you anyway!” What did I tell you about shit talking? I said don’t do it. Your friend already did the breaking up. The relationship is already over. What do you stand to gain by saying this? Actually nothing. And what’s worse is that it’s basically a sneaky way of saying, “get over it” — something that is too obvious a ‘don’t’ to even make the list.

Your friend tells you someone has broken up with them.

Oof. Maybe they knew this was coming and maybe they didn’t, but we all know there are few things that hurt worse than being rejected by someone we care about.

  • What do you do?
  1. Listen so you can hear the whole story. Find out what sparked it, what was said, and how bad the damage is. Prepare for the worst, and hope for the best.
  2. Pay attention to what your friend’s body language and tone suggest about what needs to happen next. They might not be up for talking about it all day, and the best move may be distraction for a while. Observation is key.
  3. Hug them. Again, a hug goes a long way, and particularly when we’re feeling rejected or lonely, it’s important to feel physically comforted.
  4. Be willing to do nothing with them for as long as they want. Maybe they’ll want to watch every season of a new TV show, maybe they’ll want to listen to angsty music and cry. Maybe they’ll want to punch some pillows or eat a vat of ice cream. Maybe they just want to talk it out. Guess what? Whatever they want to do is now what you want to do too. Never make it seem like it’s a burden on you. It shouldn’t be. You’re being a good friend.
  • What do you say?
  1. “How do you feel?” Another seemingly obvious question, but one that leaves the door open for your friend to say just about anything they need to. They can ask you questions, they can spill their guts, they can say they don’t want to talk about it. And you have said ABSOLUTELY NOTHING ABOUT YOUR OWN FEELINGS. Good work, you.
  2. “What are you thinking about?” This is a good one if they go silent for a VERY long time. But be careful! You don’t want to overuse it. Don’t bust this out every time there is a pause of lull in the conversation. Learn how to read your friend. You can tell when they’re thinking about something and when they’re just feeling overwhelmed and sad. And whatever you do, don’t push the issue. If they want to tell you something they will. If you ask and they say “nothing”, just say “okay.” Never insist that you know they’re thinking about something. Of course they’re thinking about something, but it may well be none of your business.
  • What DON’T you do?
  1. Try to analyze why their ex would have broken up with them. Remember, who is your friend here? That’s correct, it’s not the ex. So, forget about the ex. They don’t matter. Why they did it is irrelevant, because now it’s done. Your job is to help your friend, not to solve the case.
  2. Act in any way that connotes pity. The last thing your friend needs upon being dumped is to feel like their confidant is feeling sorry for them.
  • What DON’T you say?
  1. “[the ex] is going to realize what a mistake they made and come crawling back.” While I understand that this may feel like a nice thing to say, it is actually remarkably useless. Why would you say this? It gives your friend hope for a future that may not happen. It suggests that the ex is actually a good fit for them. It begins to sound like you’re advising your friend to wait for the day when the ex returns with their tail between their legs.
  2. “You’re going to find someone so much better than them.” This one is probably true. They probably will. But do you know what they likely don’t care about in these first few hours/days since they had their heart broken? Meeting someone better. All this does is rush the healing process, and insist that by finding someone else your friend will get over this hurt. Relationships are not (or, at least, they shouldn’t be) Band-Aids. A person who is sad for the loss of a relationship should not try to get over it by finding another relationship. It’s not healthy, and it won’t end well.
  3. “Now you’re single and you get to live your life!” I’m so bored by how insensitive this is. When you’ve just been dumped, you’re not feeling at your most attractive, and effervescent. Saying this is just a reminder that now your friend has to try and date again. And this is not comforting. It is just exhausting.

Your friend tells you they need to break up with someone.

Even though they’re coming to you pre-breakup, this is just an extra step before you’re in one of the circumstances above. Great! This just means more opportunities for you to be helpful and supportive. You’re a great friend.

  • What do you do?
  1. Listen. Get the facts, understand why they want to break-up and what concerns they have about it. They likely are having concerns about it, and that’s why they’ve come to you first, instead of just breaking it off and being done with it.
  2. Ask questions. Always ask questions to get them explaining themselves more. One of the best ways to learn how to do something is by explaining it to someone else.
  • What do you say?
  1. “I’m here to support you however you need.” Lay the groundwork for after the breakup. Just because your friend is going in knowingly doesn’t mean there won’t be fall out. Make sure they understand that you’ll be around whenever and however they need you.
  2. Only if it seems appropriate, provide some hypotheticals. A great example of this is, “What will you do if they promise to change?” People facing a break-up will often begin to make promises or attempt to forge compromises they have dismissed in the past.
  • What DON’T you do?
  1. Tell them it’s a bad idea. If they want to break up with someone, no matter how much you like or respect their significant other, your job is to support your friend. If you think it’s truly a mistake, ask more questions so you can understand where they’re coming from. But never assume you know better what’s good for their relationship than they do. How could you? You’re not in it.
  2. Offer specific advice of what to say. They are probably going to ask for it. But remember how this isn’t your break up? That means the phrasing shouldn’t be yours either.
  • What DON’T you say?
  1. “FINALLY!” Don’t be a useless friend. Everything about this is wrong. It tells your friend that you’ve been judging them throughout their relationship (maybe you have, but there’s no need to get into that now). Not to mention that any concerns or hesitations your friend may be having are now totally invalidated, because you can’t believe it’s taken them this long.

Your friend tells you they think they’re on the verge of being broken up with.

This one is tricky. Your friend may be right about this and they may be wrong. It’s possible that they should be on the verge of a break up but maybe they won’t be. For more on that outcome, check out Loser 911: Diagnosis and Treatment. But for now, here are the tips for getting them through this near break-up.

  • What do you do?
  1. Listen. Get the whole story. This is a case where, depending on the situation, you may or may not be on the verge of an actual break up. So your job is to listen closely, and let your friend tell you what’s up.
  • What do you say?
  1. “Whatever happens, I’m here for you.” Make sure they know you’re available to them, no matter what the outcome is.
  2. “It sounds like you need to talk to them.” Never answer a question of what you think is going to happen. What is the point? You don’t know any better than your friend, and ultimately they will have to talk to their significant other if they want answers. While this may not be the most popular response, it is the honest one, and the only one that’s going to get them an accurate answer.
  • What DON’T you do?
  1. Speculate about what is going to happen. You can do this on your own time, but you don’t need your friend to be audience to it. There’s no point because you don’t know anything more than your friend knows. This isn’t your relationship, and you have no idea what it’s like, so why would you be able to predict the future?
  2. Advise them to break up with their significant other first. No one should break up with someone out of fear of being dumped. Having a conversation is 100% easier. A relationship should be ended because a person really doesn’t want to be in it anymore. A break up will not feel better just because you were the one who broke it off. Especially not if you didn’t actually want to.
  • What DON’T you say?
  1. “You’re just being paranoid.” While it’s possible that your friend is being paranoid, telling them so is not helpful. It’s just judgmental and dismissive. Two things you should avoid being at all costs.
  2. “If [the significant other] breaks up with you, [the significant other] is an idiot.” Ah yes, it sounds really good. It sounds really supportive and good. But there’s a snag. Because your friend cares a lot about this person, and so of course they don’t think their significant other is an idiot. Which means this might give them hope that the break-up won’t happen. Alternately, this could feel dismissive because it suggests that the very fear of a pending break-up is stupid. And finally, it fails to address any of the details that your friend has provided you or to acknowledge the complexity of relationships. Basically, this response only makes you seem like an idiot.

Of course, you’re welcome to re-word and add on to any of the phrasing above. Three basic checkpoints to go over when coming up with a new phrase:

  1. Does it blatantly support your friend?
  2. Could it be misinterpreted in any way that defends the ex?
  3. Does it dredge up your own shit?

If the answers to either 2 or 3 are yes, re-word and try again. This will get easier the more you do it.

The good news is, this shit isn’t actually that hard. Time and again it will come back to those core competencies we covered in Part 1. Without doing much more than simply being around and being willing to listen, you can be exactly the support your friend needs. Congratulations. You’re being a better friend!


Nicky Davis is a blogger, playwright, and novelist, working and living in Los Angeles. To read more of her work, visit her at www.theconversationalite.com. To get a look inside her brain and life, follow her on Twitter @NickySDavis, or on Instagram at nickydavis13.