Relationships aren't always black and white. Sometimes it's necessary to break things off with someone with whom you're not officially an item. Whether you've gone on a few dates but sparks just aren't flying or you have a "friends with benefits" arrangement, it can be tough to know how to break up when you're not even really together.
INSIDER consulted with psychologists, counselors, and relationship experts to find out how to end a relationship with someone when you're not an actual couple.
1. Have the talk as soon as you know you don't want to continue seeing the person
When you decide that you no longer want to continue seeing or sleeping with someone, you owe it to them to break the news as soon as you can.
"Once you know things aren't going to work with this other person, don't string them along and wait and see who pops up in your Tinder feed to determine if you're going to return his or her text," licensed psychotherapist and life coach Tess Brigham told INSIDER.
As soon as you feel certain that the relationship doesn't have a future, make a plan to tell the other person how you feel.
2. If possible, try to meet face to face
If your relationship has been short-lived or very casual, arranging an in-person breakup can feel daunting or even excessive. However, meeting face to face is usually the most respectful and caring way to end any sort of romantic connection.
"We lose so much when we rely on texts for significant communication. We misread the intent behind written words and we fill in gaps, often with inaccurate stories. Even if the couple hasn't actually been a 'couple' in terms of formally dating, if you're spending time together or having sex, changing that situation is significant enough to benefit from an actual conversation," licensed professional counselor Shelley A. Senterfitt , JD, MS, told INSIDER.
Though it's not always possible to meet in person due to geographical or time constraints, try to make an effort to avoid ending the relationship via text or email.
3. Choose an appropriate time and place for the conversation
When it comes to making a breakup as easy as possible, timing goes a long way. Be sure to schedule your chat for a time when the other person will be as relaxed and clear-headed as possible.
"Try to tell them at a time that isn't high stakes, such as on a typical weekend day instead of ten minutes before an exam," clinical sexologist and relationship therapist Laurel Steinberg , Ph.D., told INSIDER.
Brigham added that you should also avoid broaching the subject when the other person is buried in work or just waking up in the morning.
If you're worried that meeting up with the other person might lead to falling into bed together, you should try and discuss things in a neutral, public place.
"Make plans that are outside of a setting that's likely to lead to a hookup. For example, go to the mall or for a walk instead of watching a movie inside your apartment," suggested Steinberg.
4. Be as honest and kind as possible
Just because your casual fling hasn't bloomed into a serious relationship doesn't mean that the other person doesn't deserve a serious and honest explanation for your change of heart.
"Be as honest as you can without harming the other person. If the current arrangement no longer works for you because you're too busy with other commitments, you've started dating someone else, or you've just decided you want more 'me' time, simply say so," Senterfitt advised.
There is one exception to this rule. Senterfitt noted that if the feedback you might give the other person has to do with something they cannot easily change about themselves and would be hurtful, you shouldn't mention it.
For example, if you're simply not attracted to the person's body or have an issue with their family, it's almost always best to keep that information to yourself. In that case, a white lie might be the kinder course of action.
Most of the time, it's a good idea to simply state the reason you're no longer interested in seeing the other person using kind but unambiguous language. Identify your unmet needs, e.g. freedom, a committed relationship, time to yourself, etc., and then communicate those reasons to the other person.
"If you stop for a moment and dig deep into why this relationship isn't going to work, there is likely a kind, honest and compassionate reason. That's what you want to express to the other person," offered Brigham.
5. Lead with "I" statements and mention the positives
A great way to make sure you don't leave the other person feeling at fault for the breakup is by using "I statements." This is a way of shifting the spotlight from your partner's possible shortcomings to your own needs and experience.
"Consider the difference between 'I've been feeling super overwhelmed and exhausted at work when we keep having these late night hook-ups' versus 'You're taking up too much of my time and keeping me up too late.' It's harder to argue with the first statement since it is the speaker's personal experience," explained Senterfitt.
"'I' statements keep the focus on the speaker rather than pointing the finger at the other person and are less likely to lead to defensive responses," she added.
It's also a good idea to start the conversation by mentioning what you've enjoyed about spending time with the other person. This is the perfect time to bring up their stellar sense of humor, infectious positivity, or even how much you've enjoyed the physical side of the relationship.
"Share with them the qualities you see in them and why you enjoyed spending time together… appreciate the other human being for their qualities. Share yourself with vulnerability and honesty, and move on," family and couples counselor Morella Devost told INSIDER.
6. Don't fib about wanting to remain friends
It can be tempting to try and cushion the blow of rejection with a promise to stay in touch as friends. But if you don't actually intend to follow through with a platonic relationship or don't trust yourself not to try and reinitiate a romantic connection, don't suggest a friendship.
"If you decide that you don't want to be friends, don't lie and say that you do. People do this to make themselves feel better by letting the other person down easier, but it ends up creating mixed messages," licensed marriage and family therapist Dr. Caroline Madden told INSIDER.
Instead of starting a friendship you have no intention of maintaining, Madden suggested letting the other person know that though you do care about them, you need time to process your feelings or just don't think a platonic relationship would be possible.
7. Try not to send mixed signals after the breakup
Once you come to a decision about remaining in contact or not, stick to it. Don't create confusion and doubt by reaching out after you both decide to cut ties.
"Once you've made the phone call or sent the text, let it be over. Don't torture them by breaking things off and then texting a couple of days later to 'check-in' or 'see if they want to grab a drink - as friends,'" cautioned Brigham.
Though it can be hard to stop contacting someone with whom you may have had a fun connection, it's important to consider that sliding back and forth between silence and contact can fuel uncertainty and prolong the pain of the rejected party.
8. In some cases, it's best to just break contact completely
Sometimes, it can just be impossible for two people to downshift a romantic relationship to a platonic one. In this case, the best option might simply be to end all contact.
"Make it a clean break. Moving from dating someone to a 'friend zone' can be incredibly difficult, and the boundaries of the budding friendship are already blurred," licensed mental health counselor Erin Parisi told INSIDER.
If you don't think you or the other person can handle a friendship, the healthiest way forward may be to just part ways for good.
9. Continuing to hook up is a recipe for hurt feelings and ambiguity
Turning a casual dating relationship into a no-strings-attached sexual arrangement might sound like a fun and easy way to avoid a difficult breakup talk. However, you should consider the ramifications before moving from one kind of undefined relationship to another.
"It's not a clean break if you continue to hook up with someone you were dating. Moving from a non-official relationship to a friends-with-benefits situation doesn't have clearer boundaries, it may even have less clear boundaries," warned Parisi.
10. Disconnect on social media to help both of you move on
Even though you may not have ever been "Facebook official," chances are that you and the other person are somehow connected on social media. After you part ways, that connection can lead to awkwardness and hurt feelings.
"To make your non-relationship breakup official, cut ties on social media. It's typically easier not to be seeing posts and photos from someone when you're trying to move on. Not willing to cut ties altogether? At least unfollow them so their stuff doesn't come up in your feed," said Parisi.
11. Understand that the other person may not have considered the relationship to be casual
Unfortunately, it's impossible to know how someone else really feels until they tell you. There's always the chance that what you considered a casual fling was taken more seriously by the other person.
"Even though you might not have viewed this as a 'real relationship' your soon-to-be ex might have. It is better to err on the side of treating this more seriously and having your hookup partner act like it is no big deal than treating it casually and hurting their feelings," said Madden.
It's always better to assume the other person might be hurt by the breakup and approach the subject with care rather than risk being cruel by implying you were never as invested in the relationship as your partner.
12. Above all else, don't ghost
If you don't run in the same social or work circles, simply dropping all communication with your former partner might seem like an alluring alternative to an uncomfortable conversation. But don't do it.
"Everyone has been ghosted, so think about how painful it was when you were ghosted by someone you really liked and how much you would have appreciated a friendly text or phone call to give you a sense of closure, or at least let you know they weren't abducted by aliens. Put yourself in their shoes and do what's kind versus what's easier," advised Brigham.
The amount of pain and doubt you may cause the other person by ghosting them far outweighs the small amount of awkwardness that a breakup chat entails. After you say whatever needs to be said in order to bring the relationship to a close, you can walk away knowing that you acted with maturity and respect.