When she was 19, Jazz*, now 21, spent about six months struggling to break up with her boyfriend. The first time she tried, he threatened to kill himself if she really left him. He'd say things like, "I can't live without you," or, "I'll die without you," but it didn't sound romantic — it sounded scary.
"I felt trapped," Jazz told Cosmopolitan.com. "I had spent six months wanting to break up with someone, after years of dating, but I was too afraid of what they were going to do with themselves. I thought if he hurt himself, people would blame me. It made me feel guilty for not loving him."
Her boyfriend's threats started out vague, but then got more specific as she tried to end things. "When he knew I was really breaking up with him, he would text me more specific plans," Jazz said. "I remember a couple of days after the breakup getting a message that he was in the garage with the car on, and he was going to sit there and die. He knew those messages would get my attention."
When Jazz was able to go through with the breakup, it took place over the phone, when she and her boyfriend were in two different cities. She needed the distance to help her out. Not only was she scared of what he might do to himself, she was scared he might try to hurt her too. With the help of a friend who came over to make sure she actually went through with the breakup this time, Jazz called her boyfriend and then called his mom — she wanted his mom to know how worried she was he might hurt himself.
Jazz's situation isn't a unique one. You probably know someone with a similar story, if you don't have one yourself. If you aren't a trained therapist, it can be really hard to know how to react in a situation where someone you're trying to break up with says they'll hurt themselves if you go through with it. It's scary — and even though this is someone you've decided you no longer want to be with, you still don't want to see them hurt.
In order to provide some very basic guidelines, should your or a friend ever find yourself in this situation, Cosmopolitan.com spoke with two experts — Jaime Gleicher, a dialectical behavioral therapist, and Cate Desjardins, a social worker and therapist — about what you should do when a partner threatens self-harm or suicide during a breakup.
1. Always keep yourself safe.
Even though your partner might not be threatening to hurt you, both Gleicher and Desjardins emphasized how important it is to make sure you aren't in danger. "The first order of business is keeping yourself safe," Desjardins said. "If they reach out to grab a knife or razor blade, I would be very cautious about reaching out to try and grab it because you can hurt yourself. They're also clearly not thinking clearly, they're making really impulsive decisions. You have to keep yourself safe."
She added that it's also totally acceptable to remove yourself from the situation and call for help from somewhere else.
"You don't want to do anything that compromises yourself, your health, or your future," Gleicher said. This is a case-by-case thing, and you'll have to use your best judgment. But if you're breaking up in person, and your partner picks up any item they could use to hurt themselves, you should leave. If you're breaking up via text or phone call and receive a threat from your partner, don't drive over to where they are, even if they say, "I'll stop if you come over." In this situation, Gleicher said it's best to acknowledge their pain and say you're reaching out for help.
"I wouldn't go over there," Desjardins said. "If it escalates, and you're getting threats via text or phone call and aren't there, I think it's important to say, 'This sounds really bad and is something I really can't help with. I'm going to connect you with someone who can help you.'"
2. Take every threat seriously.
What you don't want to do in this situation is say something that eggs your partner on or makes them feel worse, like, "I bet you won't do it," or, "You're just trying to manipulate me." Even if you don't think they'll actually hurt themselves, you should acknowledge what's happening and take it seriously. Desjardins said she would take each of these threats seriously.
"Even if someone is making jokes about hurting themselves, I think every joke is an indicator of some unspoken truth," Desjardins said. "They should be taken seriously. You hear a lot of 'oh, they're just being dramatic,' or ,'they just want attention,' and it's like well, yeah, they do want attention. It's unfortunate that this is one of the main ways they've learned how to get attention."
She said that, for someone who isn't a trained therapist and isn't equipped to deal with this sort of behavior, the best thing you can do is validate that they're hurting, and then reach out to someone who's trained in helping people who are suicidal or threatening to hurt themselves — like a therapist, crisis support line, or 911.
Gleicher also made the important distinction between suicidality and non-suicidal self-injury, or NSSI. In cases of suicidality, she said you should always, always call somebody. "Self-harm is how they're trying to express pain, trying to feel something," Gleicher said. "In that case, you have to say, 'This relationship isn't really healthy for either of us anymore and we need to get you help.' You need to validate that they're going through a lot of pain. The first thing you need to say is, 'I see you're in a lot of pain, and we need to get you help.'"
3. Call someone who knows how to help.
Although you may be tempted to try and help yourself (this is someone you care deeply about, after all) Gleicher and Desjardins don't recommend too much intervention. At the end of the day, you aren't trained to deal with someone who's in a crisis. And back to the first point, you have to keep yourself safe. Gleicher recommended calling someone who's close to them first, if they aren't holding anything that can hurt them or if you don't feel they're in immediate danger. But if suicide is brought up, you should call the police right away. "It's so much of a responsibility and burden if you try and deal with it on your own," Gleicher said. "And nine times out of 10, you won't be able to. Involve someone who knows how to deal with it."
Desjardins said to get in touch with someone close to them who can be where they are quickly if need be. "Whoever in that person's life that you have the best relationship with, and they have a decent relationship with," she said. She recommended saying something like: "Hey, I'm really worried about so-and-so. We're breaking up and they said they're thinking about hurting themselves. Could you check on them?"
One of the most important things to remember, though, is that you shouldn't hesitate to call the police if you believe they're in immediate danger of hurting or killing themselves. Gleicher emphasized that no one is going to be annoyed with you for calling if you believe the danger is real — they're trained in dealing with situations like this, and it's not something you can handle on your own.
4. Don't take the breakup back.
Even if your partner says they'll calm down and stay safe if you hear them our or stay with them, you shouldn't. It's hard to think of it this way, but threatening self-harm during a breakup can be a manipulation tool. If you already decided you should get out of this relationship, stick to that decision. This isn't a healthy relationship at this point, anyway, and your partner likely needs help sorting out bigger issues.
"I don't think everyone who's doing it is doing it with the intention of being manipulative or abusive," Desjardins said. "But, unfortunately, I do work with people where it's part of a larger relationship pattern of emotional and psychological abuse."
5. Know that this isn't your fault.
Gleicher emphasized that threats like these are almost always signs of bigger, preexisting problems. "All of this is a symptom of a much deeper psychological issue, whether it's deep depression, anxiety, an eating disorder, or addiction," she said. "You cannot make someone take action on themselves, you cannot cause it. That's really, really important. We get so wrapped up in someone saying, 'I'm gonna kill myself if you don't stay with me,' but it's not on you."
What would be best would be for the partner who's threatening harm to seek help with a therapist who can help them work through why they felt moved to make those threats. She also said that, just like you can't blame yourself for your partner's behavior, you can't let other people who might have heard what happened blame you either.
"I would tell them to educate themselves on suicide or self-injury, and show that it's really part of a bigger issue and not just dependent on one situation or one person," Gleicher said. "You can say, 'It's really terrible this is happening and it's clearly beyond me at this point — it's tied to something much deeper.'"
6. Get help for yourself.
A situation like this is not only traumatic for your partner who's making the threats, it's also traumatic for you. Your partner should probably seek help with a therapist or someone who can provide bigger help, but what's under your control is that you seek help, too. "I would talk to a therapist," Gleicher said. "If you can't get to a therapist, then a trusted family member or loved one, or a guidance counselor at school. I would speak to a professional."
7. Know you're not alone.
Gleicher said that in her therapy practice, she sees people who've been in situations where partners threaten self-harm during breakups on a daily basis. It's especially common among people under 30. "A lot of people don't talk about it, but it is as common in my practice as eating disorders or drug use," she said.
If you've been in a breakup where self-harm was threatened or are facing this dilemma now, the best thing you can do is reach out for help. These guidelines are a good starting place, but the issue is so individualized that not everything works for every person. It's never a bad idea to seek help.
*Name has been changed to protect privacy.