Dear Wendy
Dear Wendy

What to Say (and What NOT say) to Someone After a Broken Engagement

This article is from guest contributor, “Avery,” whose recent letter asking for advice prompted her to write the following.

Out of the blue, my ex-fiancé started to have doubts about our engagement, and he eventually ended it. The people in my life had a variety of reactions during and after the breakup – the comforting, the unhelpful, and the downright insensitive. Some of the comments I heard were like salt in the wound, and some helped me feel better. If you know someone going through the devastation of a broken engagement, here are a few suggestions for what to say and what not to say.

Top Three Things to Say To Someone After a Broken Engagement

1. I’m sorry.

These are such simple words that swiftly convey sympathy and compassion. They don’t attempt to be anything more than what they are, and even better, they’re easy to remember when tragedy strikes.

2. That’s a terrible thing to happen.

Because it is! A broken engagement is awful, horrible, tragic, and devastating. Just saying the obvious, minus the analysis, lets me know you feel compassion for me. It means you acknowledge that there’s a broken relationship and all the hopes and dreams that came with it are gone. That common ground can be a strong foundation for comfort and support.

3. What can I do?

This question was incredibly helpful in a way I never realized. You’d be surprised at some of the things that needed to be done that I just didn’t have the strength to do. I had a lot of people offer to listen, hang out, cancel stuff, visit, go on a trip, pack, etc. Bonus points to the friend of mine who said, “We can hang out, and you don’t have to talk about it. I won’t ask any questions.”

Top Three Things NOT to Say To Someone After a Broken Engagement

1. You’re so lucky.

A lot people told me I was “fortunate” to have this happen before the wedding as opposed to after. But, of course, I would have preferred to have no breakup at all. Canceling wedding bookings, seeing nonrefundable money go down the drain, suffering through the humiliation of telling people, etc. did not make me feel “lucky” at all.

2. I know how you feel.

I had a friend say this to me as she was literally planning her wedding. She’d never had a broken engagement before, but she swore she knew what it would feel like. Unless you’ve been through a broken engagement, then don’t ever say this. You really don’t know what it’s like and you just come off as condescending.

3. Can I have [borrowed item] back now?

There’s a time and a place for everything, and this is not it. If it’s really that important to you to get your beaded handbag back that the bride was going to carry down the aisle, then spend a little extra time with her first, and work your request kindly into conversation (after you express sympathy, ask what you can do to help).

28 comments… add one
  • avatar

    Guy Friday October 24, 2012, 12:26 pm

    I’m surprised by #2 on the list of “good things to say.” I haven’t had this happen, so I’m not drawing from experience or anything (and we’ve established pretty clearly in that list that I shouldn’t try to empathize 🙂 ), but I would think that I’d be pretty annoyed if someone said that to me in that situation. I’d be thinking “It’s a terrible thing? Really? I mean, I figured it was all sunshine and flowers! I’m glad you were here to correct me and remind me what a shitty thing my fiancee did to me! What would I have done without you?”

    Again, I don’t know. Maybe just saying that out loud helps the jiltee remember that other people agree with her perspective? Maybe there’s power to it I don’t fully understand? I’m just spitballing here.

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      jlyfsh October 24, 2012, 12:28 pm

      i think it kind of goes along with the i’m sorry. like, i’m sorry this awful thing happened to you. rather than trying to go over with her why it happened she appreciated people just saying they knew it had to be awful and were sorry. at least that’s what i took from it…

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      • avatar

        RubyRed25 October 24, 2012, 2:00 pm

        This.

        Sometimes you just need someone to say, “You’re right, it sucks and you have every right to be pissed.”

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      GatorGirl October 24, 2012, 12:51 pm

      I agree. I think if someone said to me “that’s a really horrible thing” I’d be like “No shit Sherlock…thanks for clueing me in that I’m in a pretty shitastic situation. I had no idea!”

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    • avatar

      Lindsay October 24, 2012, 2:06 pm

      I wouldn’t think that saying something is terrible or awful is super helpful, but I’d like to think that it isn’t offensive. I don’t think anyone who says it thinks that they’re informing you of something you didn’t already know. It’s just them expressing their reaction. But maybe I’m just biased because that’s what I say, and I’d be pretty hurt if my friend got super sarcastic back to me about it.

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  • avatar

    ktfran October 24, 2012, 12:34 pm

    I feel these rules can be applied to a lot of life situations in general. A lot of times, I’m not sure what to say, and your three are perfect. Thanks for that!

    When I called off my engagement, I was sad. It was the right decision, but it still left me a little depleted. A week after I called it off, my cousin was getting married. She and I lived in different states than the rest of our family and we were all traveling to her for the wedding. It was the first time I had seen my mom since I broke it off. I will never forget her insensitivity to my situation. We were sitting around and I was asking who all from our family was attending. She listed them then I asked if some of my single cousins were bringing dates. They were of course, so it just made me a little sad. I said as much, my mom looked at me and said “well, your sister never has dates to these family things and she is fine.”

    I’m not sure how a girl who had never really dated is comparable to someone who just called off a wedding. Sure, it was my decision and the right decision, but it bothered me that my mom didn’t show empathize. The decision I made was still hard. Apparently, I still hold a little grudge towards my mom because out of everyone, her not being supportive hurt the most.

    I guess I’m trying to reiterate what Avery very nicely stated. Listen and show a little compassion. It goes a long way in helping people heal their heart.

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    • avatar

      Temperance October 24, 2012, 1:52 pm

      My mother is similarly jerky (although I’ve never been in a situation like yours!), and it blows! I’m so sorry.

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      • avatar

        Lindsay October 24, 2012, 4:40 pm

        Mine too! I was going through a rough patch with a boyfriend once, and when I told my mom I thought things were looking up, she was like, “Well, I think you guys are doomed.” Thanks, Mom.

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    *HmC* October 24, 2012, 1:04 pm

    I don’t like it when people say “I know how you feel”, even if they’ve been through a similar, or even the same, experience. You’re not me, you have not lived my life, even if we went through the same experience, you don’t really truly know how I feel. At most, you know how you felt going through it, which isn’t the same thing.

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      kerrycontrary October 24, 2012, 1:20 pm

      I usually say “I can only imagine how you are feeling right now” and that gets a pretty good response.

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      Eagle Eye October 24, 2012, 1:36 pm

      I guess I would treat this similarly to a death – and if I have had an experience that is similar in any way, I would (very succinctly – 2 sentences or less) share it as a means of showing my acknowledgement of their pain and perhaps also recognizing its depth.

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      • avatar

        bubbacats October 25, 2012, 9:40 am

        Just listen to your friend. It is not the time to share your story, even if it is only two sentences.

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    • TaraMonster

      TaraMonster October 24, 2012, 2:53 pm

      I cannot agree with this more. Most people have been amazing and supportive over the past two months as I sort through the end of my relationship of nearly 8 years. But there have been a lot of people who have compared their breakups to mine, or the issues that arose in their past relationships to mine. And I feel like a dick for getting upset bc I’m sure what they experienced was painful.

      But I’ve heard about a dozen different stories where someone’s two year relationship in which they never talked about marriage and didn’t live together was “the same” as what I’m going through. It’s really not the same as losing your partner, your best friend, your home, sense of normalcy, and a fuckload of money all while nursing a broken heart and trying to figure out what your life will be like now. Literally the only people who seem to understand are people who have been divorced.

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      • avatar

        anonymous October 24, 2012, 7:19 pm

        I can’t believe I’ve missed you’re dealing with this right now. I’m so sorry to hear it. I love reading your comments on DW, and really appreciate your perspectives on things. Best wishes.

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      • avatar

        LolaBeans October 24, 2012, 9:48 pm

        sometimes people empathize by sharing a similar experience that they had. whether it was as painful as what you are going through or not, they are still attempting to make you feel better and trying to show that your feelings are understood.

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      • avatar

        jlyfsh October 24, 2012, 10:03 pm

        i’ve been thinking of you tara and sending lots of positive vibes your way. hope you and your cat have found a new place and are doing ok 🙂

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  • avatar

    bostonpupgal October 24, 2012, 1:15 pm

    As someone who also called off a wedding, I can tell you that you should absolutely 100% listen to the list of things not to say. By far the most common thing that people said to me when I told them was, “You’re so lucky it happened now and not after the wedding”. Hearing that made me immediately shut down and stop sharing any more feelings or information with that person. It is just such an incredibly insensitive thing to say, even though it comes from a well meaning place. It completely dismisses the pain and devastation that you are going through. What are you supposed to do when someone says that to you? Agree with them that the most devastating and emotionally crippling thing to ever happen to you was “lucky”?

    My close friends and family treated it almost like a death, and that was actually very helpful. Knowing that I could acknowledge my total devastation and loss with them helped me process those feelings and let them go.

    I’m now just 2 weeks away from my wedding to my amazing fiance, whom I met about 2 years after my broken engagement, and I can honestly say calling off my first wedding was the best thing that ever happened to me. But I’m the only one who should be able to voice that particular opinion

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  • avatar

    Steeze October 24, 2012, 2:08 pm

    i dunno, it seems to me, in a sad situation, im just happy someone shows up. i wouldnt be particular about what they say to me. i think its pretty immature to get pissed off at someone whos just trying to comfort you… it just seems bratty to me. theyre just saying what they think they would like to hear if they were in a similar situation. do you really think theyre trying to hurt you more?!

    i would be grateful that a person is trying to comfort me and i would just ask them if they want to eat their feelings with me by baking something.

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      anonymous October 24, 2012, 7:22 pm

      That makes complete sense. The showing up is an expression of caring.

      At the same time, people can say the stupidest things, and they really can hurt, even if they’re meant well. Example — on the death of a child, sick for a while: “At least he/she isn’t suffering any more.” It’s absolutely true (and is well meaning) — but it’s NOT what a parent would want to hear in this situation. (hypothetical example! I haven’t lived this, but I have friends who have)

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  • avatar

    Miss Dee October 24, 2012, 3:12 pm

    This brings back memories. I was out of town on business, and my then-fiance’ moved out of our home, and told all of our friends and relatives that we had broken up. I didn’t know anything until I walked into the house and saw half of the furniture gone…. At first my friends were supportive, and I slowly healed from the heartbreak and betrayal. But once I was out with a “close” friend, and she saw how much fun I was having while we were out, and she asked “so – when was the last time you talked to Matthew (ex-fiance)? (not his real name…). It felt like someone took the wind out of my sails, and I could tell from the smug look on her face – that’s exactly what she wanted. I asked her why would I talk to him? She then gave another flippant answer. I stopped associating with her after that.

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    • avatar

      anonymous October 24, 2012, 7:23 pm

      Wow. Why would anyone do that? You did the right thing by getting her out of your life.

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      • avatar

        Miss Dee October 25, 2012, 4:58 pm

        Thanks!

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  • bittergaymark

    bittergaymark October 25, 2012, 3:39 am

    Eh, some get so pissy and self absorbed in their time of crisis… People are REALLY only trying to say the right thing. How dare they not manage to mutter precisely whatever it is you feel you need to hear? Frankly, suggestion # 2 left me baffled as it strikes me as both hilariously banal and obvious. As other’s have said, I’d snap at that one to be sure… I can hear me now saying… “Really? Ya’ think?!”

    Look, If you’re THIS freaking fragile you were hardly ready to be married anyway in my opinion… Moreover, if you’re going to get dumped — it IS far better to have that happen before the wedding rather than immediately after. If you can’t see that, well, may I kindly suggest you go take a course in basic logic….

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    • avatar

      Wendy (not Wendy) October 25, 2012, 11:30 am

      Yeah. I said something similar on the first post that I’m sure was irritating to the OP. Broken engagements have got to suck, but I don’t see how they can suck as much as a divorce. But they carry this tragic cache, for some reason, that divorces don’t. A “jilted bride” gets sympathy; someone whose marriage is ending hopefully gets a lot of sympathy, but also gets a shit-ton of judgment about “two sides to every story” and “takes two to tango” and “couldn’t make it work”.

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  • KKZ

    KKZ October 25, 2012, 10:42 am

    I’m one of those silver-lining-type of people, so while I’ve never been through this and can’t be 100% certain, it seems likely to me that *I* would be the one saying ‘I’m lucky we made the decision to split up before the wedding and not after.”

    Is it the word “lucky” that’s really rubbing people wrong? Would it have the same offensive effect if it was rephrased to, “It’s a good thing this happened before the wedding and not after.”? or, “At least this happened now and not after.” ? Same sentiment, different words.

    And to those who would respond sarcastically/harshly if someone said “That’s horrible!” – Good grief, they’re not trying to *inform you* of something; as someone said above, it’s just a reaction. Do you get similarly pissed off if someone says “That’s so funny!” to a situation/story/joke? Sure, they could just laugh instead of stating the obvious – but then what am I supposed to do if a friend breaks off an engagement, burst into tears?

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  • avatar

    convexed October 25, 2012, 7:09 pm

    Here’s the thing: when someone says “That’s horrible!” in response to your bad news, they are not trying to point out to you for the first time that a broken engagement is horrible for you. What they are doing by saying that is letting you know that THEY acknowledge the event as horrible—that they will respond to it as a horrible event, rather than minimizing it or calling you a whiner or saying it’s not a big deal. By saying “That is an awful thing to happen” they are letting you know they will be on your side and have solidarity with you on the horribleness of it, instead of being one of those voices that tries to tell you it’s ‘lucky’ this happened before the wedding.
    And honestly, I do see how a person might feel annoyed hearing ‘That’s awful’. But if you don’t want to hear that, you can say, ‘Thanks for realizing how awful this is for me. I’m kind of tired of hearing that though, because it just brings me down. I’m glad to have you on my side; let’s talk about something else/here’s what I need/etc.”
    I really believe that a little graciousness towards the well-meaning misfires of others helps ensure that in a future crisis you will be able to find someone to show up and give a damn. If I said, ‘boy that sucks’ to a friend and they rolled their eyes and said ‘GOD. SHUT UP I ALREADY KNOW THAT’ I would not be inclined to stick around to be their shoulder to cry on.
    Be glad if someone believes your awful experience was awful. It may be obvious to you, but nobody should be surprised how hard it can be to find some empathy in the world. It can be nice to hear someone say the obvious out loud instead of trying to talk you down from the way you feel.

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  • avatar

    NC73 October 29, 2012, 11:57 am

    Re #3 in what not to say – ugh. This definitely applies to situations beyond broken engagements. In 2005, I had tickets to go to a concert with two friends on a Saturday night in Toronto. Then, the Tuesday or Wednesday before the concert, a friend from my hometown passed away, leading to me taking an unexpected trip home for the rest of the week. When I called one of the girls I was supposed to go to the concert with to explain how and why I wouldn’t be able to make it anymore, her immediate response was “oh shit, but you have the tickets, if you’re leaving today how can we get them?” It was brutally insensitive, to say the least. Pro tip, people: don’t do that.

    (For the record, I did have a plan for getting the tickets to them and that was one of the reasons I was calling her. And she ended up apologizing and owning up to her own insensitivity without any prodding from me, to her partial credit. She admitted she often reacts poorly to bad news and felt really badly about it. But still. How hard is it to just say you’re fucking sorry when someone tells you their friend is dead? It’s not rocket science, people.)

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  • avatar

    lizzie February 3, 2013, 6:30 am

    ya my man just broke it off with me… he left without a word while I was gone… then his mother whome I have on facebook said he was mentally ill like depression /bipolar… so it gave me hope that he just needed help or meds or whatnot…. I called missing persons they traced him and he talked to me said he didnt know why he left and hes sorry and theres to much expectation from society and the people that were doing our pre marriage counsling and the landlord who loved his help around the house….well finally I called missing again and eventually the officer got through and he had told the officer that he didnt want this relationship…. well I dont give a rats ass who the f* you are you leave a note or better yet tell her in person… I suppose with his mental illnes it wasnt working out and he didnt have the balls to say it to my face…

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