On one hand, it makes sense that we say, “I’m sorry” after our friends tell us they’ve broken up. We’re sorry that things didn’t work out, we’re sorry for the loss of that person, we’re sorry because we know that breakups can be emotionally draining for both parties, and we’re sorry because we know that “getting back out there” is hard. (Not to mention a lot of work).
But on the other hand, doesn’t saying, “I’m sorry” sort of fall upon the preconceived notion that we’re all supposed to be in a committed relationship at all times? That marriage (or something along those lines) is the ultimate goal for each of us?
Yes, there are a lot of losses that occur when we uncouple, but what about all the wins?
What about the re-discovering of the part of yourself that you lost in your relationship? The plethora of free time you’ll now have all to yourself? The freedom from having to check in with someone on a Saturday night? The gift to be able to spend the holidays with your family every year for the unforeseeable future?
While there’s nothing wrong with saying “I’m sorry” when you discover that your friend just broke up, here are some suggestions for other go-to lines when you’re confronted with the news of an unhappily ever after.
Saying congrats is essentially the antithesis of saying “I’m sorry,” and to some it may sound a little insensitive or taboo—but hear me out.
Breaking up can be a tough decision to make, even if deep down you know it’s the best decision for you. When you’re making a tough decision, don’t you ever wish there was someone in your corner (or multiple people) assuring you that you’ve made the right choice?
By hearing congrats in response to their breakup news, you sort of give your friend that affirmative validation—without delving into the less helpful (and sometimes hurtful) behavior of saying things like, “I always hated him,” or, “She was a selfish loser anyway.”
Of course, if you find that saying congratulations all by itself is a bit too aggressive, you can always preface it the way an internet friend of mine did when I told him I had ended my last relationship.
He said, “Congratulations. Because if you were happy with the situation, you wouldn’t have ended it.”
That was exactly what I needed to hear.
2. I’m Proud of You.
On its own, “I’m proud of you” may sound a little strange or Drake-like. After all, they’re ending a relationship, not graduating college—but it’s what you say after “I’m proud of you” that will make the difference.
If your friend just got dumped by the girl he was head over heels for, saying something like, “I’m proud of you for following your heart and not being afraid of love,” may feel right.
If your friend is in the process of leaving her overly-controlling and verbally-abusive partner, you could tell her that you’re proud of her for being so strong.
While there isn’t ever really a right decision, it’s always nice to hear that someone is proud of you for following your gut and doing what feels right at the time.
3. How do you feel about it?
The biggest issue with immediately saying, “I’m sorry,” to your friend after hearing the news is that you’re assigning feelings to them rather than actually asking how they feel.
Of course, chances are that regardless of what transpired, there’s definitely a twinge of sadness somewhere—but that still doesn’t make “I’m sorry” the best gut-reaction.
By asking your friend how they feel about it first, not only do you give your friend a chance to do some venting if they need to (and let’s be honest, most of us will take any chance to vent post-breakup), but you also allow them to tell you how they’re feeling so you can make a more educated guess at what to say next.
4. Do you want to talk about what happened?
As I mentioned above, lots of us want to vent after a break-up. We want to be affirmed that we made the right decision, we want to be assured that our ex-partner was being ridiculous, we want to see if anyone has better advice than what we’ve been getting from everyone else.
But, depending on the breakup, sometimes we don’t want to talk about it. Sometimes we need a few days of pretending everything is fine before we can open the flood gates and really do some introspection on the relationship. Sometimes we’re just worried that if we start talking about it, we’ll start tearing up in the Starbucks we’re currently at—and we’d prefer to cry in the comfort of our own home.
Immediately asking your friend if they want to talk about it helps to steer the conversation into the direction they want to go. Maybe they want a listening ear while they list their ex’s transgressions, or maybe they just want to talk about last night’s episode of “The Bachelorette” and chat about men that they’ll never have to encounter in real life.
5. Are you doing okay? Do you need anything?
When our friends disclose news of a failed relationship, many of us naturally dwell on our friend’s now ex-partner and the relationship itself. We ask what happened, who initiated the breakup, if they’re still in contact, etc.
While it’s human nature to try to figure out the whole story, chances are your friend has already rehashed the couple’s final days (or months) to multiple friends and themselves.
Instead of focusing on what’s in the past, it might be helpful as a friend to focus on what’s in the future—or more accurately, what your friend needs right now.
Asking your friend if you can help them at all during this difficult time—even if that’s just in the form of picking them up some chocolate chip cookies—ends up meaning so much more than a trite “I’m sorry.”
And besides, no amount of “I’m sorry’s” will heal your friends broken (or slightly bent) heart—but chocolate chip cookies just might.
At the end of the day, your friend is lucky to have you as part of their support system during this tough time, and it’s okay if you don’t always say the right thing. Sometimes more than anything else, your friend just wants company so that they don’t feel so alone—no words necessary.