Is Your Partner “Soft-Launching” Your Breakup?

This bizarre dating phenomenon is the ultimate head-trip

May 25, 2023 6:35 am
Charles And Diana in canada 1991
If you feel like your partner is emotionally distancing themself, it's time for a chat.
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We’re all familiar with the soft-launch of a partner: suddenly, that IG pic of your morning coffee seems to have another person’s burry torso in the background. The hiking trip selfie has an undisclosed silhouette of a faceless person standing off to the side. Your Friday night taco feast has two baskets, but no indication of who is sharing them with you. You might introduce this mystery person to a close friend or two, but no major group hangouts. Your family probably has no clue they exist yet.

When we do this, we’re hinting that there is someone in our lives but aren’t sure it’s real or secure enough to fully announce it to the world. It’s a form of self-protection — a way of introducing someone adjacently into your life without the embarrassing social media scrub if things don’t end up panning out with this new boo. All in all, the soft-launched relationship is pretty harmless. No one is getting hurt, assuming you do eventually give your partner a hard launch after things get solid. 

Now, allow us to introduce you to the soft-launched relationship’s evil cousin: the soft-launched breakup, when someone starts to set the stage for a breakup without doing the ACTUAL breaking up, which is both incredibly brutal and common. “This pattern of behavior is unfortunately prevalent in relationships and may lead to significant distress,” says Dr. Nazanin Moali, Ph.D., a psychologist, sex therapist and host of the Sexology podcast. “This method of distancing, often associated with gaslighting, can lead the person on the receiving end to question their own reality.”

Here is everything you should know about the soft-launched breakup — and what to do if you think it’s happening to you.

What Does “Soft-Launching” a Breakup Actually Mean?

This is what a soft-launched breakup (SLB) looks like, in a nutshell: it’s a form of gaslighting and manipulation designed to set the stage for a breakup, without doing the emotional labor of actually breaking up with someone. “There is a protector factor that tends to happen with these breakups,” says Dr. Lee Phillips, Ed.D, a psychotherapist and certified sex and couples therapist. “They will start soft-launching the breakup so they don’t get too far ahead and invested in the relationship.”

Your partner (usually a serious partner) starts to hint or directly state that things aren’t as serious as you believed they were. They may start making comments like: 

  • We’re just having fun. 
  • Oh, I didn’t know you thought we were that serious. 
  • I assumed we were on the same page that we were taking things slow.
  • I didn’t think we weren’t allowed to see other people. 
  • I’m not looking to settle down anytime soon.

Your presence begins to fade from their social media. Your invitations to gatherings of friends and family dwindle. Essentially, it entails a partner gaslighting you into thinking that you were mistaken about where this relationship was headed. It forces you into a state of insecurity, where you begin to question your own memory and reality. 

And let us tell you, that is super destabilizing. “This may result in breeding of self-doubt, particularly in individuals who already struggle with insecure attachments,” Moali says. “The process can be quite unsettling and damaging, as it tends to undermine one’s confidence and perception of the relationship’s dynamics.”

If someone is very crafty, they may even get their partner to feel so fed up with their emotional distancing that they get them to do the breaking up, saving them dealing with the emotional fallout of dumping someone. “They may be afraid of conflict and so they don’t want to say something directly, as they can’t tolerate being seen as the ‘bad guy,’” says Pam Shaffer, MFT, a licensed marriage and family therapist.

An SLB can happen in any relationship construction. Joli Hamilton, Ph.D, CSE, a qualitative researcher who focuses on relationships, says that she sees this in non-monogamy, too. While consensual non-monogamy folks often pride themselves on being top-notch communicators, they aren’t immune to relationship fuckery. “There seems to be a certain type of person who resists taking responsibility for changing the relationship, and so they suddenly backtrack [on the commitment],” she says. This can happen to anyone.

The Strange Reasoning Behind This Behavior

It can be easy to simply say that a soft-launcher is an a-hole or a coward, but this isn’t fair. The reasons we behave the way we do are complex. Oftentimes, it has to do with conflict-avoidance, fear of vulnerability and not knowing how to articulate our needs in a constructive way. 

Shaffer tells us that a soft-launch is often a last resort when we don’t know how to set boundaries in our relationships. “They may be struggling with not knowing how to ask for healthy space in a relationship without ending it,” she says. “They may be coping with shame around potential fear of intimacy or possibly not wanting to face the unfortunate reality of potential incompatibility.”

What’s more, Philips says that sometimes a person may favor an SLB because they themselves are in a toxic situation. “The partner who wants to soft-launch a breakup may be the victim of gaslighting,” he says. “Their partner could be manipulating them thinking they are being too dramatic or making them feel crazy, so they start to pull back and engage in activities without them, hoping it will cause the other partner to end the relationship.”

Philips adds that an SLB can act like a buffer for pain. It can be a way to seemingly be gentle with the situation. But the reality is, being served (or serving) an SLB is pretty sucky. The hard truth: there is no pain-free way to end a relationship. 

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How to Tell if a Significant Other is Soft-Launching the Relationship’s End

It can be challenging to know when this is happening. We want to see the best in our partners. We want to believe that we’ve misunderstood and they aren’t really trying to end things, especially if we’re still invested in the relationship. “It’s so tempting to see and hear what we want to, omitting the signs that someone is giving us early on that they are unreliable,” Hamilton says.

Here are some expert-approved signs that your partner is soft-launching your breakup. Keep in mind these aren’t fool-proof (people are complicated), but they can serve as a catalyst to starting an open and honest conversation:

  • They stop texting as much/don’t respond as often.
  • They’ve stopped initiating dates and/or sex.
  • They still share loads of photos on the socials, but you’re not in them anymore.
  • They stop inviting you to parties/gatherings.
  • They stop making time for you.
  • They stop all conversations about the future. 
  • They stop sharing their whereabouts and leave you guessing where they are.
  • They stop showing a lot of physical or verbal affection.

How to Approach Your Partner if You Suspect This Is Happening 

The thing about relationship discontent is that you can feel it. Shaffer says to follow your intuition. If you think something is wrong, it probably is. The real question: what is next for this relationship?

If you believe you’re in the midst of an SLB, Hamilton says that nothing beats a straightforward conversation, no matter how uncomfortable or awkward. You need to ask “real questions about the level of commitment they have to the relationship rather than trying to get explanations for their cagey behavior,” she says. “Focus on ‘what’s next for us’ rather than ‘why did you do that,’ and see if they are willing to get more explicit about your relationship agreements.”

Philips adds that you may find there is conflict, but if you come to it with curiosity and empathy, you may find they actually have other things going on in their lives and just weren’t sure how to handle them. It’s not always a soft-launched breakup, but it’s definitely best to be clear on what is and isn’t going on.

If it does, in fact, turn out that they’re looking for an end, that’s okay. If things end, it won’t kill you. “Know that there’s nothing wrong with you for noticing changes in your relationship and feeling stirred up as a result,” Shaffer says. 

Moali adds that this is “a reflection of their behavior and coping mechanisms, not a measure of your worth or lovability.” You’re better off being with someone who is able to meet you at your emotional level. You deserve someone who is as invested as you are. It’s definitely better to be on the hunt for love than to be in a relationship where you’re starving for it.

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