This is a fine, fine needle to thread. Suggesting that you can avoid hurting someone you care about during a breakup is like suggesting that a limb can be amputated without the patient ever noticing.
But while you can’t spare someone pain that comes from a breakup, you can minimize that pain. Here are some general dos and don’ts:
• Break up with someone within a week of finalizing your decision. To delay the breakup is to let them suffer through Dark Premonitions and anxiety as you buy yourself time to get over it. If you know you need to do it, then do it. It will never suck less than it does today.
• Be direct, but don’t give reasons unless it is something super concrete that might help them in their next relationship. If it’s this vague fog of “It’s just not right” then stick to that, rather than getting into the ugly “I hate the way you chew” weeds. If it’s “you drink and drive,” well, then say that.
• Say it in a way that doesn’t allow room for argument, or begging. “I want to break up, and I’m sure about this decision. I’m sorry.” Being really direct here may seem the cruelest, but cutting off any wrenching But if/What if/Maybe then/etc. paths, you are doing this person a service.
• Break up in a public-public place. I think somewhere like a park (one that isn’t this person’s favorite park in the world) is good: you can have a quiet conversation, then go your own ways. I’m of the mind that breaking up in someone’s apartment can introduce long-term bad associations. By doing it elsewhere, the break-upee doesn’t have to think “Oh. This is the couch I got dumped on,” every time she or he wants to sit down in the living room.
• Don’t use weasel words. Don’t talk (right now) about being friends. Don’t allow yourself to be talked out of something you know you need to do. Don’t allow someone to languish in a terrible heartbreak holding pattern, constantly circling you and awaiting clearance to return to the relationship.
• Don’t call/text him or her, for at least a month or so. This complicates their healing process. Just let them be, for now. You’ve done enough for them, and besides, they need to rely on friends and family. You can no longer be a source of comfort for them, because right now, you are the one who has introduced the discomfort.
Any I’m missing?