For Kathleen*, 34, a witty blonde with an advanced degree, dating on Tinder, Bumble, and Hinge has led to a few “special snowflakes.” There was the first date who took her bat-watching in 90-degree heat. And the guy who got weepy on date two: “He told me he had a tattoo of his dead dog on his chest,” she groans, “and that the dog was wearing a leisure suit.”
Both guys followed up with a “great time last night!” text. Kathleen ghosted Bat Man but struggled with how to break it off with Suit Dog Guy. Even though they’d only met twice, they’d been messaging and emailing for weeks. “I feel like I’m constantly having to break up with guys who aren’t even my boyfriend,” she says. “Do you ghost? Do you text good-bye? The struggle is real.”
Welcome to the Wild West of digital dumping. Yes, dating apps mean more swipes, more dates, and more options, but they can also mean more breakups. Women now have to master the art of rejecting Tinder matches, three-date wonders, and friends with benefits. Laurie Davis Edwards, founder of online-dating coaching company eFlirt, says clients commonly ask, “‘What do I do about this guy, and this guy, and this circumstance, and that one?'”
The etiquette on when to text and when to — gasp — pick up the phone and end things is “nerve-racking and awkward,” says Hannah, 22, who has been on Match, Plenty of Fish, and Tinder. “I can avoid confrontations and hide behind a text message.” Once upon a time, Berger dumping Carrie via Post-it — “I’m sorry. I can’t. Don’t hate me” — seemed bleak. That was before ghosting. Now, “unless you’ve had ‘the talk’ and decided you’re official, it’s become socially acceptable not to owe people anything,” says Tia, 23. She agrees ghosting is lame and rude, but has done it herself a few times when things were in the very early stages.
Women are more likely to initiate breakups, according to a 2015 study in the journal Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences. But many men don’t process being dumped as quickly as women do, according to Craig Eric Morris, PhD, the study’s coauthor and an anthropology research associate at the State University of New York at Binghamton. Morris says that when asked if there was anything they wanted to share about their breakups, hundreds of men said they still have not recovered from a breakup a year or more afterward — or had never recovered. Not one woman out of thousands said she’d never recovered. “Men seem to hear they’re being broken up with, but they don’t completely believe it,” he says. (Many women Morris has studied think through and mourn a breakup before moving on, while men tend to dive into the rebound phase and don’t truly process being dumped until much later.) All this considered, “it’s hard finding the words to tell them that they aren’t for you,” Hannah says.
But it doesn’t have to be. Participants in a 2010 study at Illinois State University rated face-to-face breakups — in which the dumper explains the reasons openly and with a positive spin (i.e., thanking them for your time together) — as the most compassionate, compared with avoiding the person or ending things by text message or email. The lesson: Observe the golden rule and “break up with someone as you’d want to be broken up with,” says Jamye Waxman, author of How to Break Up With Anyone.
When in doubt, try the cocktail-party test: If you ran into the person at a party in a few months, how would you feel? If the sight of them would trigger a shame spiral, consider a more humane approach, suggests Tara Fields, PhD, a licensed marriage and family therapist and author of The Love Fix. “Breakups are an opportunity to build your emotional muscle,” she says. Look at them like practice: “Even when you find the one, there are going to be difficult, uncomfortable moments.” In the meantime, here’s what to say to master the art of the breakup — any breakup.
WHEN YOU’VE BEEN TEXTING, BUT YOU’VE DECIDED YOU’RE NOT INTERESTED IN MEETING IRL
If you’ve never breathed the same air, many experts agree you don’t owe him anything and can let the chain die. But Waxman recommends sending a short good-bye text: “It was good chatting with you, but I have too much going on to meet up in person. Good luck!” Lee, 29, says he has “mad respect” for girls who end it this way: “At least that way you get some closure and aren’t left guessing.”
WHEN YOU’VE GONE ON 1 DATE AND REALIZED YOU DON’T WANT A SECOND
A text is still an acceptable exit strategy, “unless you realize it on the night of the date and have the eggs to say it to their face,” Waxman says. Make it brief. Kathleen’s go-to: “I think you’re awesome, but I didn’t feel a spark.” It’s the perfect rejection, according to Edwards. “Nobody can argue that, and I love using the word ‘spark,'” Edwards adds. “It’s more lighthearted than ‘chemistry.'”
Some people might still consider pulling a Houdini after a meh first date, but it’s not the best call in our ever-connected world. Even if the person might seem like a perfect stranger, “he could be the brother of the CEO who determines whether you get that job,” says Fields.
WHEN YOU’VE GONE OUT A FEW TIMES, BUT IT’S NOT WORKING
Yes, the phone is terrifying — isn’t that what Seamless and Snapchat are for? But after three or more dates, you know each other enough to warrant a phone convo in which he can ask questions, talk it out, and get the closure he might need for a clean break. Whether you call or default to email, use the strategy Edwards calls the, ahem, “shit sandwich,” starting and ending with a positive: “It’s been great spending time with you, but unfortunately, I’m not seeing a future for us. I really wish you all the best. You’re such a [cool/smart/thoughtful] guy.”
If you’re bouncing to focus on someone else, be honest: “I had such a fun time with you, but it’s getting more serious with someone else and I feel like I need to give that a real shot.” Edwards says men tend to respect her female clients for this strategy because it shows they’re girlfriend material. Many get a response back saying, “No worries. If it doesn’t work out, let me know.” Leaving the door open is never the worst…
WHEN YOU MIGHT STILL WANT TO BE FWBS
Don’t be shy about it: “You’re really hot and I love hanging out, but I’m not looking for anything more serious right now. Netflix and chill?” There’s no shame in the FWB game — as long you’re both on board and the boundaries are clear. “If we met on Tinder, I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s all she wanted,” says Gregory, 21. It’s best to suggest an FWB scenario sooner in the relationship rather than later. “The longer you continue to date, the more emotionally invested you both could become,” Edwards says.
WHEN YOU WANT TO BE ACTUAL FRIENDS
So you don’t want to see him (or his dog-in-leisure-suit tat) in your bed, but you’re down to nerd out with him at trivia night? “I respect you, and I want to be honest with you. The romantic feelings aren’t there for me, but I’d love for us to stay friends.” Warning: Only throw out the friend request when you mean it, not just to soften the blow. “You don’t ever want to give anyone false hope,” Fields says. Accept the fact that he might not agree. As Morris says, “Some people can handle staying friends. For others, it’s torture.”
WHAT IF HE FREAKS OUT?
It’s never OK for guys to turn hostile after a breakup, says Ruth Glenn, executive director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. That includes repeatedly contacting you, or showing up at your home, work, or school. If the other person sends you threatening or harassing messages post-breakup, block him, take screenshots in case you need proof later, and report him to the dating app or site (if you met on one). If you’re worried for your safety, call the police, and share the person’s name with a friend or family member too. Above all, Glenn says, “trust your instincts.”