Being in a relationship is rarely easy, especially in college. You’re juggling a lot — classes, work, friends, returning to school after a pandemic — and adding a significant other into the mix can make things feel hectic sometimes. It can be even more difficult if you feel like your partner is unsupportive, isn’t committed to the relationship, or isn’t treating you with respect all the time.
If you feel like your relationship is unfulfilling and you find yourself wanting to end things, navigating how to take action can be daunting. If you’re considering breaking up with your partner, especially during back-to-school season when lots of things are changing, here’s how to navigate it the respectful way, according to relationship experts.
Ask yourself why you want to break up
Is there something specific your SO did that made you feel unhappy? Are you experiencing a big life change? Do you feel like it’s difficult to devote time and energy toward your relationship now that you’re heading back to college? Sometimes, locking down the reason you want to break up can help inform what you’re going to do next.
“Breaking up with a partner is a big decision, and one that takes careful thought and insight,” says Katie Ziskind, LMFT, a licensed marriage and family therapist and the owner of Wisdom Within Counseling in Niantic, Connecticut. She tells Her Campus, “When you get a feeling that you want to break up with someone, there’s usually a strong emotion beneath this decision such as fear, worry, or self-protection. A lot of times, looking at these emotions [can] help you understand the reason behind the breakup.”
If you’re stressed out and don’t feel like you can handle the responsibility of a relationship right now, consider asking your partner about taking a break instead of ending things completely. However, if the issue is serious, like your partner treating you poorly, or of course, if there are any signs of abuse, it can be a clear signal that it’s time to end the relationship for good.
Write about what you’re feeling
When considering whether to end a relationship, you’ll probably experience a broad range of confusing, conflicting emotions. Often, journaling about your thoughts and emotions (and sometimes, the reasoning behind them) can help you better understand exactly what’s bothering you.
Whether you’re feeling confused, sad, upset, overwhelmed, or all of the above, consider keeping track of how often you experience these emotions and the situation in which they occur. If you think that some thoughts and feelings are more persistent than others, make note of that, too. If you can pinpoint the exact cause of these emotions, it will be easier for you to find a way to resolve these feelings – either on your own, with your partner, or with a trusted professional.
reflect on your needs
If you’re struggling to free-write about your experiences and want to try a more action-focused tool, Rich Heller, MSW, CPC, a marriage therapist and divorce coach, says to grab a piece of paper and list the “pros” and “cons” of your partnership. “This is a really simple tool for clarifying what might be missing for you,” Heller tells Her Campus. “If there are more ‘pluses’ or ‘minuses’ on one side, it’s not necessarily true that you should stay in the relationship, or vice versa. However, sometimes the evidence is overwhelming on one side over the other.”
Heller also recommends making a list of your “needs” in a relationship and noticing if they are related to any of the “cons” you listed. For example, if you listed the “con” that your partner doesn’t spend enough time with you, it could be that your “need” is feeling cared for in the relationship. If you feel sad that your SO doesn’t get you gifts for your anniversary, it could be that tokens of appreciation really matter to you.
“The next question to ask yourself is, do you feel safe talking about your needs with your partner?” says Heller. “If the answer is ‘no,’ chances are, you shouldn’t be in the relationship. If the answer is ‘yes,’ you now have some great focal points for evolving your partnership.”
Consider “the big picture”
Stress from unrelated situations, like school, arguments with friends, or family drama, can wear you out and cause you to withdraw from other parts in your life, including your relationship. Take some time to analyze everything going on in your life and determine if your frustrations in your relationship are actually stemming from the relationship itself, or if they could be a result of other stressors.
Rebecca Leslie, PsyD, a licensed psychologist based in Decatur, Georgia, says that visualization can help you determine the next step to take. “Visualize what life will look like after breaking up with your partner,” Dr. Leslie tells Her Campus. “If you’re going back to college, think about what school will look like with and without your partner, and notice how you feel when you think of these two different situations.”
Reagan Harvill, a senior at Washington College, agrees that visualizing the big picture of your life can be helpful if you’re considering ending a relationship. “Picture your life in the next five, ten years,” Reagan tells Her Campus. “Is your SO still in the picture?” If your answer isn’t an absolute “yes,” it may be a sign to take a step back from the relationship and focus on yourself.
Of course, if you’re still feeling unsure whether or not to break up with your SO, then you may want to hold off on making this big decision until things in your life are feeling more settled.
Talk to someone you trust
It can be hard to make serious decisions about the future of your relationship when overwhelming emotions are clouding your judgment. Talk to someone you trust, like a friend, therapist or counselor, or even your RA, who can give you a fresh perspective on the situation and the potential choices you have.
If possible, talk to someone who doesn’t know your SO personally so they can offer an objective viewpoint. Giving a voice to your frustrations and talking them out with an unbiased third party can help clear your mind so you can make a rational decision about whether or not you want to end your relationship.
challenge fear-based thinking
Dr. Leslie reminds college students that fear and anxiety can hinder the breakup process, it can help to examine any long-held beliefs you have about relationships that may be holding you back. She tells Her Campus, “If you know breaking up is the right choice for you, but fear or anxiety seem to be getting in the way, see if you can challenge some of your thoughts. If you have the thought, ‘I’ll never find someone else!’ ask yourself things like, ‘do I have any evidence for this?’ Is it really true that you will never find someone else?”
Often, fear and anxiety can hinder your intuition, so be sure to check in with your thoughts, or consult a friend or professional who can give you perspective.
Think about what your partner wants
Take a moment to reflect on your relationship, and ask yourself if your partner is truly committed to it. When you’re with them, are they focused on being in the moment with you, or do they allow themselves to become easily distracted by other things? Do they commit to plans for the future, or are they constantly coming up with excuses as to why they can’t make or deliver on any serious promises? If they’re choosing not to make you a priority, it may be a sign that they aren’t interested or ready to have a serious relationship.
Alexis Bogen, a grad student at the University of Central Florida, says it’s important to ask yourself if your partner is truly being supportive. “Are they helping accomplish your goals and dreams?” Alex says. After all, you can’t expect your partner to focus on you 24/7, but they should be supportive and attentive when with you. If they aren’t focused on your dreams in addition to theirs, it may be time to pursue those dreams on your own.
Talk to your partner
If you are truly unhappy in the relationship, one of the best things you can do to resolve an issue is just talk directly with your partner. This type of conversation can be difficult, but if your partner cares about you, they will appreciate you opening up to them and chances are, they’ll want to work with you to try and find a solution that is best for both of you.
“If you’re not happy in your relationship, can you specifically communicate your needs and what’s causing unhappiness to your partner?” Dr. Leslie says. “A lot of times, we think others know what we want and need, but specifically communicating it is so important.”
Depending on how the conversation goes, it may mean that you stay together and work through your problems as a team, or that you take a break from the relationship so you can focus on yourselves. Openly acknowledging your unhappiness in your relationship and taking steps to address your concerns will help you decide whether or not you should ultimately end your relationship. Also, it’s possible they may be going through something they haven’t spoken to you about yet, so always keep the lines of communication open.
When considering a breakup, there’s a lot to think about. It can be confusing and overwhelming, and you may find yourself going back and forth on your decision several times. “Reasons for breaking up may be different for each person,” says Ziskind. “Understanding the emotion behind the breakup can help you gain mental clarity and feel confident in your decision.”
acknowledge the hurt
Collette Gee, a dating and relationship specialist and author, says that ending a relationship can be difficult, and reminds college students that it’s okay to acknowledge the hurt. “A breakup is a loss, and losses hurt,” she tells Her Campus. “Whether you’re initiating the breakup or on the receiving side, acknowledge your right to go through a grieving process.”
Lisa S. Larsen, PsyD, says that while breakups are challenging, you can choose to leave the door open for future friendship if it feels right. Dr. Larsen tells Her Campus, “If you believe that the relationship is basically healthy, leave room for friendship or possible reconciliation. It’s [also] a good idea to give each other some space and time before attempting to be friends or acquaintances.”
If you’re heading back to school this semester and you’re considering ending things with your SO, be sure to take the time you need to fully process your feelings, and channel these expert-approved tips. Don’t forget to take a deep breath, and know that relationships are rarely easy — it’s all about finding the outcome that feels right for you. And if you need help, there’s always support out there.
Reagan Harvill, Washington College
Alexis Bogen, University of Central Florida