How to Break Up With Someone You're Not Actually Dating

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It happens to the best of us. We get busy, we set our sights on someone else, or we simply forget. Whatever the reason (or lack thereof), we find ourselves faced with the unpleasant truth: We've ghosted someone. It's not a proud moment. No one enjoys leaving someone hanging, whether on purpose or not. 

In the world of casual relationships, we often get wrapped up with people we're not officially dating. It's easy to blame our short attention spans on the overwhelming number of fish in the sea—or in this case, dating apps—but there's more to these non-exclusive relationships under the surface. Joanne Davila, Ph.D., author of The Thinking Girl's Guide to the Right Guy, has another theory: We ghost partners because of our own fears and insecurities (and neither trait is particularly appealing or sexy). 

Meet the Expert

Author Joanne Davila, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology at Stony Brook University, a clinical psychologist in private practice, and a world-renowned expert on young women's romantic relationships.

In the interest of becoming more-evolved beings who can communicate like adults, we tapped the relationship expert to give us a how-to guide to breaking up when you've never been official. Do three dates warrant a breakup? What do you say to someone you're trying to let down easily? Let's vow to avoid ghosting—or its ugly cousin, the casual slow fade—once and for all.

Below, read on for Davila's tips on how to break up with someone you're not committed to.

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Consider the Relationship

Is it okay to ghost after one date? Even if you've only met once, it's still important to consider the other person's feelings. How you approach a breakup should correlate to the relationship's length and intensity. It might be acceptable to end things over text message after two dates, but certainly not after two years. "The longer you've been in a relationship, the more you should do it in person," says Davila. "In the same vein, the more intense the feelings, the more you owe it to someone to be clear—if not in person, then certainly with elaboration about what changed. 10 dates may start to approximate a real relationship that requires a legitimate breakup." If you're not feeling any sparks yet, try not to put it off too long. There's no benefit in leading someone on.

Don't Frame It as a Breakup

One concern of breaking things off after a few dates is the fear of seeming presumptuous. You can still have a relationship if you're not dating. How do you know they're actually interested? "It doesn't have to be framed as a breakup," says Davila. "It can be something more like, 'I've enjoyed hanging out with you, but I'm realizing it's not what I want going forward. I don't know if you feel the same way, but I figured I'd let you know so we can both move on.'"

When in doubt, a casual text is better than nothing at all. "The worst that can happen is a bit of embarrassment, which you have to be willing to deal with in the dating world." Even if they're also uninterested, at least you can be the bigger person and approach it honestly. As Michelle Obama would say: "When they go low, we go high."

Avoid Ghosting at All Costs

Before getting into the nitty-gritty of how to break up, it's important to understand the psychology behind why we ghost in the first place. "People are afraid to hurt other people's feelings, to have someone get upset with them (and judge them negatively), or to take responsibility," says Davila. "Sadly, some people out there are just self-centered and cruel—and don't take others into consideration at all. But for your average person, it's fear."

Face Your Fears

When we don't deal with our fears, we don't learn to be appropriately assertive, which is needed for a breakup.

No one likes to be ignored, but why is ghosting someone bad for you, too? "For the ghoster, it's a sign they're avoiding dealing with important feelings and fears," says Davila. "When we don't deal with our fears, we don't learn to be appropriately assertive, which is needed for a breakup. We also don't learn how to treat others with kindness and compassion."

It doesn't fare any better for the other party, either: The ghostee might feel confused or uncertain, deprived of information about the other person or themselves. "It can result in thinking something is wrong with them, and reduce self-esteem. It can [also] result in them losing trust in people." Breaking up isn't easy, but you could damage their trust in future relationships without an explanation. Even after a few dates, you owe it to the other person (and yourself!) to let them know where you stand—good or bad.

Don't Leave It Open-Ended

Whether you're afraid or just uncertain, it's easy to leave an open door—but Davila's advice says otherwise. "It's really important to be very clear. If you don't want to date that person anymore, then it has to be a hard ending. Being vague or open-ended when you don't mean it doesn't do either person any good." You don't want to leave someone in the gray area when they could be pursuing other people.

When in doubt, ask yourself if you're misleading the person. "Don't say maybe things will change if you know they won't," she says. "It's best to be clear about where you stand. If you've done the right thing and the person keeps pursuing, then it's fine to be non-responsive. It might even be better—you don't want to reinforce continued contact."

Be Honest (but Not Too Honest)

People sometimes ask, "Why? What went wrong?" in breakups, but Davila warns against giving too much away. "If there's something concrete that can be said in a constructive way, then say it. For instance, 'I can tell we have different interests; we're already having arguments, and I don't like interacting that way.' But if there isn't any glaring disconnect, it's not worth saying something that will make the other person feel bad."

So what should you actually say? "Just say you're looking for a different type of person. There's nothing wrong with who they are—it's just not a good match for you. This may not feel satisfactory, but in the dating world, the receiver needs to learn to take this and move on. It's really important to be clear that you value the other person, but they're not a good match. Don't be mean, cruel, or devaluing." 

Check-In After the Second Date

All in all, it seems the uncertainty of modern dating causes us to ghost—but can you cut through that ambiguity? Davila says a check-in after two dates can help you both decide what you want. "If one person says no, you stop and move on, no questions asked."

It takes a lot of openness and maturity to navigate this shifting dating universe—but with a little transparency, we'll all be better off.

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