Breakup etiquette: All the answers you need to hear, whether you want to or not

Because "it's over" is the start of a whole other phase…

Because "it's over" is the start of a whole other phase…

(Getty Images)

Whatever the circumstance, ending a relationship comes with a sizeable amount of stressful contemplation and difficult emotions, usually for both parties. While the actual breakup can be a very tricky navigation, not enough people consider what happens post-breakup, until it's too late. Chances are, you're still going to have interactions with your ex, whether it's tying up loose ends or encountering them in new places. So whether you're reveling in your new single status or sadly binging romcoms over ice cream, here's a few things you need to know about how to handle your ex.

What stuff can I ask for back?

A sudden breakup can leave a lot of items caught in the middle (especially if you were living together). Amongst those items, you're going to need to decide what is "yours", what is "theirs" and what is "ours". Items that are "yours" are those that you had prior to this relationship or that are used exclusively by you (like your shoes) - "theirs" items would have the same criteria for them. You can absolutely ask and expect to get "your" items back as long as you are prepared to return "theirs". Items that are "ours" are much trickier - jointly purchased/used items can cause a lot of drama - so it's best to not let your emotions override your practicality. Those items should go to the person who is going to use it the most or best and has the capacity to do so. It would be a shame to take the BBQ out of spite if it's only going to sit in storage.

As for gifts, Judge Judy always rules that gifts do not need to be returned and that stands here with one exception: family heirlooms that were given contingent on the relationship lasting (like your grandmother's wedding ring) should be given back. A lot of people like to force-return a gift to make a statement. As much fun as it is to throw an expensive necklace back at your ex, maybe gift it to a friend or family member who would enjoy it - turning a negative into a positive is always the best option.

As for the timing and the logistics of the returns, making this exchange within the first 1-2 months would be ideal, so you've had some time to confirm the relationship is indeed over and (hopefully) emotions have cooled. When you get into the 3-6 months territory, it becomes a little harder to re-enter someone's life and makes you wonder if you really need those items that badly. If you deem it necessary, the exchange meetup can be a good opportunity for a closure chat, meeting at a neutral location like a coffee shop keeps it relatively friendly. Should you prefer to never see this person's face again, it's best to schedule a pickup/drop off time where your box is already waiting for you on the porch.

Should I block/unfollow/unfriend them on social media? Can I still interact with them on it?

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Social media is like an entire second life with it's own set of rules. For some reason, blocking someone on social media is regarded as a near-blasphemous act, so, if you'd like to reduce what you see of your ex online, it's best to choose another option (like unfollowing, muting or limiting what posts of yours they can see), unless they're that rare breed of ex that is completely block-worthy.

If you choose to keep them around online, it's best to limit your interactions (liking, commenting, etc.), especially in the first few months, to give yourselves some space. If you are going to like a post, it's best to make it a universally congratulatory one (like a graduation or a new job), where there is genuine pride involved.

The worst online post-breakup behaviour is sub-posting: sharing content that is indirectly directed at your ex. Whether it's a complaint post about "some people", an affirmation of how good you're doing now or a nightclub pic if you enjoying your new status, it comes off as both passive-aggressive and childish, helping neither party mature out of this.

Should we coordinate breakup stories?

If it was a particularly volatile or embarrassing breakup that neither of you would wish to share with others, you can both agree on a joint statement to make (although there's no guarantee that your ex will keep it). While there are a few friends you probably want to share the entire story with, the best answer is usually "it just didn't work out". Any friends who press you for more info are prying.

Can I still be friends with their friends?

Interconnected social webs make for some awkward scenarios, but it's important to be candid about the nature of those friendships while you were in the relationship. If you consider your ex's friend to have become your friend (as in, you've regularly spent time with them away from your ex) than that would be a permissible friendship to continue. But if it is someone you only interacted with through your ex, then continuing an active friendship would seem like an odd game of social chess. That doesn't mean your ex's friends become your sworn enemies - casual contact and natural group hangouts are fine - but that solo boundary should be respected.

How should I act if I run into their family?

In a close, long-term relationship, your ex's family often becomes an extension of your own and that can be especially difficult when a relationship dissolves. It's not either of your family's faults that you broke up (except for certain horrific situations), so they shouldn't have to bear the brunt of any animosity. Be as warm and friendly to them as you would normally and you should expect the same in return. Even if you're not particularly thrilled with that relative, showing them your courtesy is a great sign that you're willing to be a bigger person. Any deliberate contact should be agreed upon by you and your ex.

How do we deal with social commitments we made before we broke up?

Let's say you've already RSVP'd a friend's wedding before you broke up. Handling that is now the responsibility of whichever one of you is closest to the couple. If that's you, you should contact the couple and give them a heads up (so you don't have the awkwardness of seeing your ex's name plate at the table). While you shouldn't just go solo (and unfairly stick the couple with the bill for your ex's food), you should check with the couple and see if there was anyone else they wanted to invite. If not, it's up to you to find a date, which doesn't have to be a shotgun romantic partner either - your friend who's always up for dancing is perfect.

If it's a more casual affair, like the birthday party of a truly mutual friend…

How should I act if I run into my ex?

The laws of the universe dictate that, eventually, you will run into your ex. Whether it's at a party or on the sidewalk, your conduct should be the same. Is it an awkward situation? Absolutely, but treating it like an awkward situation will only make it more awkward. If you see them, take the initiative and say hello. Does this mean you have to talk to them and catch up on anything you've missed? No (although if you both want to, you certainly can). What it says is that you're not intimidated by the situation and are at least mature enough to politely acknowledge their presence.

Similar to sub-posting, don't try to make them jealous or spread hostility, though it's entirely permissible to show off your breakup body.

What if I run into their new partner?

Say hello (for the same reasons mentioned above) but THAT'S IT. Further interaction with your ex's new partner (even if it's genuinely positive) is a huge boundary crosser. If you saw your ex talking to your new partner, you know you'd be super suspicious, so stick to the hello.

Can I reach out for help/favours I used to rely on them for?

Many partners end up handling certain departments of their partner's life (one handles everything car-related, the other solves computer problems, etc.), but this is an easy agreement to abuse post-breakup. Make sure the request is legitimately something they specifically can take care of (doesn't count if you're too lazy to mow the lawn) and if it's within the first month of breaking up. Anything beyond that time is really just a failure to move on and learn how to do things on your end. Also, be prepared that the help you're asking for might not be all you get - another interaction is a very easy way for old wounds to be re-opened - so make sure you're in a decent enough place socially with your ex before asking.

What if I really want to be friends, can I text them?

Wanting to be friends with your ex is not inherently bad, but you have to ask yourself what does a friendship with you actually entail? Do you want to see them for coffee every few months or do you want to go on weekend road trips? It's important to ensure that this level of friendship is not more intense that your usual friends, or else it's just a covert attempt to renew your relationship. Regardless of what level of friendship you're after, both of you need time and space to regroup yourselves. So if you want to be friends with your ex, wait 3 months and ask yourself again before actually making contact.

I sad/drunk-texted last night, what do I do now?

Yeah, you messed up. Don't worry, it's happened to all of us and, while it's not your finest hour, it's not the end of the world. I repeat, it is NOT the end of the world. If your ex is a mature individual, they would have either texted back a polite request to stop this or replied nothing at all. If that's the case, you can either send a short apology the morning after or also text nothing and hope the incident fades away. If you're ex is as immature as you are and they respond to your first text in kind, opening up an entire regrettable conversation, it's up to you to end it curtly when you come to your senses - repeatedly condoning this behaviour will do nothing but stall your evolution out of this relationship. Should you be on the receiving end of a late night text, as great as it would be to screenshot it as ultimate proof they still want you, they do still want you, but please, take the high road.

Because in short, no matter what the specific situation is, always strive to be a better person. A better relationship is on its way.