Auntie Suvanna: Breaking up, the Buddhist way

The Break-Up Movie poster

Dear Auntie,

I only recently decided to become a Buddhist, so I’m still trying to work out how best to apply it to some situations in my life. I was especially wondering if there is a good way to break up with someone in a Buddhist manner. I am currently in a relationship that just isn’t working out, but I can’t think of what to say to end it without causing a negative situation. I really don’t want the person to be hurt, or for there to be bad feelings between us. Break ups most often do seem to end that way, but I was hoping that by taking a new approach this time, in keeping with the Buddhist tradition, it could work out better for both of us. Do you have any advice for me? Thank you very much!

Concerned Beginner

Dear Concerned Beginner,

Your question is not an easy one. You might as well have asked, What is the best way to separate someone from what they desire?

Traditional Buddhism has had little to say about relationships. Part of the reason is that Buddhist texts were preserved by celibate monks who spent their days memorizing suttas and doing formal practices such as Recollecting the Loathsomeness of the Body. So you probably wouldn’t want romantic advice from these people (or perhaps Auntie underestimates them?)

At any rate, Buddhist practice generally focuses on the cultivation of impartial love, friendliness and awareness. How can you apply this in your situation? What might it mean to break up with someone “in a Buddhist manner”? Might it mean, for example, leaving in the middle of the night while they’re asleep? That’s what the future Buddha did before his awakening. This really pisses people off. Turns out, this story is apocryphal; the Buddha probably was never even married. Ha Ha!

Considering the celibates and the accounts of the deadbeat Buddha-dad, not to mention the various Buddhist abominations to good taste (at least in titles) such as ‘If the Buddha Dated,’ we don’t have much to go on here. Perhaps Auntie may be excused in turning now to a non-Buddhist source, such as Richard Nixon, for guidance.

Here’s what he said at the White House after he resigned:

Always remember others may hate you, but those who hate you don’t win unless you hate them. And then you destroy yourself.

Not that your former girlfriend or boyfriend will necessarily hate you, but they might. And even though you seem pretty mellow at the moment, you could start hating him/her later. (And all this in response to the person we gazed at with doe’s eyes perhaps only days before — tragic!) And even though of course in many ways he was an unethical person, take the good advice from Tricky Dick and try not to get swept away by aversion. Set an intention for yourself to speak in a way that you can be proud of later – or at least in a way you will not regret.

Beyond this it’s hard to make specific suggestions about how to approach this without knowing the particular personalities. [Dear readers, when you ask for Auntie’s advice PLEASE give her more detail!] Moving into the future, examine your mistakes as much as possible and resolve not to repeat them or, at worst, resolve to bring more awareness to them next time around. Try not to base choices in your life on what is essentially a pheromone fog. This will reduce suffering for all.

Auntie Suvanna

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9 Comments. Leave new

  • Ive recently decided to become a dinosaur, how do I get these internets out of my teeth?

  • Howard Alexander
    March 28, 2009 4:18 am

    Hi Concerned beginner,

    There may not be much specifically we can gain from the suttas or other Buddhist text on relationships, particularly the breaking up of a relationship. However, as someone who has recently been on the recieving end of a breakup I can only say (and this is my personal opinion or conclusion) that the buddhist thought has given me great insight into the suffering of loss and the nature of attachment and aversion. My break up became ugly. I became ugly. I said nasty things I have seriously regretted ever since. Regardless of how much you might want to break up with someone I guarentee you have feelings for them at some level, born out by your need to handle this in the best possible way. The advise to examine your mistakes and not repeat them is extremely important I believe. I think you have to distinguish between hurt you bring upon your partner and hurt they will bring upon themselves inevitably. At difficult times even when you’re the supposed bad guy I think it’s hard to remain equanimous. I failed miserably but have definately learnt a lot. I guess my only practical advise is perhaps before you say anything practise loving-kindness meditation for yourself and for them – if what you say comes from a place of love you will still feel bad after you’ve said what you have to say but you may not have so much self-reprisal afterwards. If it’s just not working have you discussed this with them? That’s another subject altogether i guess but maybe it’s important you understand in yourself what it is that you feel doesn’t work first. Hope that’s not too patronising and helps in some way.

    With Metta


  • Auntie Suvanna
    March 29, 2009 12:45 pm

    Thank you for your thoughts Howard – there is much wisdom in them, the hard-earned and very useful kind
    that can only arise when we make painful mistakes and learn from them. Thank you.
    xo Auntie

  • Dear Concerned Beginner,

    Have you perhaps kept all thoughts positive, or at least been aware
    of those which haven’t been?

    For example, have you imaged in your mind your friend’s ready acceptance of your announcement, many times over, tapping into, or rather ‘sending out’ such intentional energy?

    Or have you pictured your friend responding with great difficulty and yourself, in turn, reacting in your own difficult ways?

    I was on the receiving end of my break-up, and didn’t have a clue it was coming. Each day I was married, my husband treated me with great respect and kindness, just as he did the first day we met. Later I learned he wasn’t fulfilled. I began to pray the moment he said our relationship was over. Within ten seconds, a huge, warming calm came over me. My mind did not question him or his statement. I had no need to ask ‘why’ or ‘what’s wrong.’ Then it seemed as though I was out of my body, feeling what it was like to be him, making the announcement. I felt his fear and believed I could do something to console it. I got up from the table, walked around to his side, put my arms around him and said, “I love you so so very much…I know that I must set you free.”
    This was probably not what he had rehearsed and it may have caught him by surprise. But it was the beginning to our new beginnings.

    So, there are two things here, whether one is the messenger or the receiver of the message: the power of positive intent…….and, the power of love…………….


  • My partner of 11 years has recently told me he thinks he loves an x.we have both recently come to Buddhism(9 months ago)! I’m hurting so bad and aNt to accept it but I can’t . I’m ok when we talk , I manage to hold it together but I wake in the night full of dread hoping he will change his mind. I feel torn between doing the right thing and not grasping or begging and pleading how do I get through this with out losing my dignity. PleAse help.mandy

  • At all times in our lives there is the challenge to take good care of ourselves–or at least not cause ourselves more trouble! This is particularly true at times of suffering. How do we do this when our heart aches? This is when it is the most challenging–and the most important.

    Sometimes taking care of ourselves means it’s time to ask tough questions, like, “Have I put the responsibility for my happiness into someone else’s hands?” Your situation is a reminder that you are primarily responsible for your own happiness. Will you decide to respond to your partner in a way that will cause you more heartache? Or will you decide to respond with clarity and kindness? Maybe it’s time, also, to take stock of what you want. From this clear space you may discover that, you don’t want a partner who doesn’t want to be with you. Do you?

    Taking care of yourself means working to build the conditions that cause you to be deeply in touch with yourself, in touch with your stillness and your pain. Do all the things you know that make you feel good and honor who you are—meditate, take a walk, call a friend, take a long bath, go to a concert, write, take that class you’ve been wanting to take… Then it may be easier for you to see your own worth and dignity and use them as your guide.

    With introspection comes clarity, and this might be clearing your path toward exactly where you need to go. Though it doesn’t seem like it now, this situation could be a gift, an invitation for you to use the challenge of the suffering of life to develop compassion and insight. As Rumi advised:

    Even if…a crowd of sorrows,
    violently sweep your house
    empty of its furniture,
    still treat each guest honorably.
    He may be clearing you out for some new delight.

    Auntie Suvanna wishes you well on your journey.

  • i recently found out that my boyfriend of three years has been cheating on me. i am so heartbroken, but i am trying to be full of peace and forgiveness at the same time. he told me that he loves me and wants to spend the rest of hid life making it up to me. he immediately found a therapist that specializes in codependent relationships and went he next day because he knows he has an issue of that with this other person. he knows his on/off relationship with her is unhealthy and wants to stop. i really want to believe him and have him back in my life, but i am struggling with trust issues and dont know how best to handle it. please advise.

  • J Sumitta Hudson
    June 16, 2010 10:52 pm

    There is a lot of Buddhist teaching to offer those ending a relationship. The suttas themselves are tools to develop the skill and mindfulness to live life. So while a sutta or Buddhist practice may not directly say, “if you break up with Johnny, you should …” the entire scope of Buddhist practice should be creating an individual with the skill to weather those kinds of storms.

    I write a fair bit on relationships and divorce on my blog from a Buddhist perspective.

  • My girlfriend lives 600 km away from my hometown and it looks as if this will stay like that for quite long. I love her, but also feel as if I live half a life, being emotionally lonely. We both can not move according to our current job situation. Recently, I met a wounderful woman who lives in my city and we both are very attracted to each other, but I rejected her because I can not and don’t want to cheat on my girlfriend. Anyhow, I have to think about that woman a lot and that makes me feel guilty. I meditated on this issue but don’t seem to find the ‘right’ way to deal with this. I am really stuck here, any help would be much appreciated!


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