I write this with a hat tip to a friend who suggested this subject and its title, but had only examples of horribly Unsafe Ex illustrating what to avoid but not what to practice.
As the highest form of animal life on the planet, we ought to wonder why no species performs worse than we do at ending relationships. In our evolution, have our relationships become too complex for us to handle? Have our pairings evolved (devolved?) beyond our natural capacity to manage them? If so, we ought to do one of two things: improve the quality of our relationships (our general and ordinary preoccupation) or master the fine art of becoming an ex, which is the subject of this post.
Here are ten rules.
1) The pain of ending a relationship will pass. Your eventual regrets about angry and vengeful words and actions against your ex will never pass. If ever there was a time to proceed quietly, it is during a break-up. Think of it spatially. Your relationship is like a large living room full of the furniture, friends, photos and fixtures that are the shared extensions of the two of you. The break-up is a very small den off that living room containing only two chairs and two doors. You both come into the den through the same door but you will exit through different ones. The den is soundproof, but there is nothing to be gained by shouting.
2) If there is a third person involved in the break-up, he/she should wait outside the den. This is a private discussion about something shared by only the two of you. You both used to consider it sacred. Maybe one of you still does. Why trash it? Why let anyone else trample it? In the center of the den between the two chairs is a set of fine china that only the two of you have ever used for eating and drinking. Your (plural) task is to wrap each piece of the set in tissue and carefully box it up for storage. If one of you says "You keep it all. I don't want any of it", he/she is wrong. You will both always be the co-owners of that entire set of memories. You can break every tea cup and plate or you can treat each piece with care, but you can never give it away or sell it, and you will never use any of it with your next partner.
3) Your friends know you have entered the break-up den, sometimes before you know it. Some of them want to be a fly on the wall in that den because, well, like a train wreck....If your friends are impolite enough to offer you any words that go beyond simple expressions of sympathy for your pain and support during a time of difficulty, do not listen to them for they are being rude.
4) I am often puzzled by people who say "I never saw it coming. I had no idea he/she was going to break up with me. I thought everything was swell." Either the surprised party is dumb or the other party is malevolent and deceptive. I don't see any other possibilities and I also wonder if either of those leopards can change his/her spots in subsequent relationships. If you dump someone who never saw it coming, shame on you. If you got dumped by surprise, rather than become bitter about human nature, get a counselor who will help you acquire some skills for selecting a better partner.
5) Practicing Safe Ex means taking responsibility for what happened. Even if you feel wronged by your partner, becoming an ex is not an opportunity to erect a billboard listing your grievances. Your discussions with your almost-ex should begin with "I think I made a mistake by getting into this relationship and I think I am seeing things now that I did not see then, and the things I am seeing will keep us apart and cannot be fixed."
6) Breaking up with your partner on a holiday or while on vacation is clumsy and inconsiderate. New Year's Eve is sufficiently despicable by nature without your adding to its annual dreadfulness. Practicing Safe Ex means scheduling a private session and telling your partner that you want to discuss the end of your relationship when both of you have had time to think about it and time to formulate good words.
7) Is there ever a time when practicing Safe Ex means lying to your partner about your motives for breaking up? I'm not coming up with any examples of justification for lying in this context. Safe Ex honesty may be bloody, but that is the nature of surgery.
8) There are unacceptable actions, but there is no such thing as an unacceptable person. A partner becomes an ex because of his/her unacceptable actions. Practicing Safe Ex means ending a situation in which you are victimized by bad actions without trying to erase your ex, and without trying to obliterate any presence of your ex in your life. The world is very small, no bigger than the closest 7/11, where your bad pennies stay in circulation and often see the lining of your pocket more than once.
9) I always feel slightly uneasy when I hear it said of someone that he/she is "still friends with aaaaaall his/her exes." I imagine a collection of figurines on the mantle representing a string of people who have all discovered the owner of the collection to be a failure as a lover but nice enough as an acquaintance. I don't think this is really a compliment unless the subject is a doormat designed only for dirty feet rather than clean ones. (I might be wrong about this, but I always hesitate to form a positive impression when I hear this said of someone.) Practicing Safe Ex means learning something about yourself by means of the break-up and not repeating the same mistakes endlessly.
10) Practicing Safe Ex means closing the door of the break-up den behind you without telling yourself that the pain was so terrible that you will never love again. There is only one group of people who will never love again: the ones who do not break up and never have to learn to practice Safe Ex.