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What's the difference between "He dumped her" and "He walked out on her"? Are there any different shades of meaning in these two phrases? Are they completely different?

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    There are, as you say, different shades of meaning. Generally, though, the answers below attempt to make these "shades" black and white, which is impossible when one is dealing with romance between humans. – Hot Licks Apr 15 '16 at 12:24
  • There is, of course, the alternate "He broke up with her", which is a typically less harsh way of saying that he ended a relationship (regardless of the length of said relationship). – Doc Apr 15 '16 at 14:42
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Excellent threading everyone - thank you. I've been walked out on, walked away from, got dumped, been kicked to the curb, abandoned, etc. All or any of these terms could be generalized to any or all of my experiences...ah well, could not we all "count the ways...."

How-be-ever, speaker's goal and implied agency is the distinction for me:

To "dump" someone, as one would haul trash to the dump, implies an ascription of value (or an implied devaluing as mentioned above in "good riddance") whether it be a toxic relationship, a partner with baggage or with child (and depending on the dumper's perception perhaps child = baggage) or the value is ascribed to the action itself; to dump is to release something from one's possession (and to release oneself from the implied concomitant obligation, connection, affiliation, responsibility for, etc.) BTW, I once got "dumped" via voicemail, so in my experience the face-to-face-less-ness of the act left me feeling very much "dumped" and not "walked out on". In the term "dump" there is an implied imbalance of power as the dumper not only gets to do the dumping, but also gets to ascribe "dump-worthiness" to the one getting dumped. "Dumping" someone in some sense can even imply robbing them of their personhood - not only objectifying them, but deeming them so unworthy as to take action to get rid of them. (I'm using gender-neutral singular here.)

To "walk out on" someone has to do with individual agency, bodily action, and human geography. First there is a turning away from, then a moving away from, and an implied staying away from, thus creating a separation from the one left and the one who did the leaving. To me there is less ascription of value to the actor, the action, and the one against whom the action is being taken, and more of an intentional omission of value; to "walk out" is a pragmatic divestment of sorts, requiring only the effort to take oneself out of a relationship.

That is to say, the person who "walks out" does so more as an action independent from the relationship (or as an act of independence) than the person who "dumps" in reaction to the relationship (an act that is responsive/reflexive and therefore its value has implied dependence on the relationship).

To the original questioner, the choice you make has to do with how you wish to portray the action and actor to whomever you are imparting this information - and how you wish to reveal or conceal your own thoughts or feelings about the circumstances.

"He broke up with her" explains who did what without qualifying what happened. "They broke up" is also neutral. "They chose conscious uncoupling" could also be neutral, depending on whether you're a Gwyneth Paltrow hater or not...

Hope that helps...

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To walk out on [someone/something]:

to suddenly end your relationship with someone or something

[TFD]

You can walk out on a person you are in a relationship with (usually a long-term one), or walk out on a contract you have. Typically the things you "walk out on" are more serious and binding things, and the act of "walking out" is often unexplained.

To dump:

To discard or reject unceremoniously

[TFD]

Dump is usually only used with short-term romantic relationships, though it can be used with personal relationships as well. In the act of dumping, the person getting dumped is typically left with a poor explanation for the end of the relationship.

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A girlfriend is dumped, a wife is walked out on.

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    +1 for a concise but accurate explanation. – Steven Littman Apr 15 '16 at 0:03
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    I don't think this is accurate at all. You can walk out on a girlfriend. The issue is whether you live with them or not. – curiousdannii Apr 15 '16 at 2:17
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    @curiousdannii would you say a wife could be dumped? – user662852 Apr 15 '16 at 10:53
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    @user662852 It would be understood, but not natural IMO (and in AusEng). – curiousdannii Apr 15 '16 at 11:43
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    @Mari-LouA you can count on me for a reopen vote anytime. we should form a reopen voting pool to defeat the strict editorial standards here. – jlovegren Apr 16 '16 at 19:49
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Differences I can think of:

  • "walk out on" implies a committed relationship, usually living together, and possibly with kids. (You can't "dump" your wife and kids, but you can "walk out on them".)
  • "dump" in this sense is only used for romantic relationships, whereas you can "walk out on" a project, housemates, etc.
  • being "walked out on" (to me) implies some kind of traumatic experience for the victim with serious consequences, whereas being "dumped" suggests being upset, but without the suggestion of long term trauma. (But maybe that just follows logically from the first point.)
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    For your third bullet, "abandoned" is relevant. – GalacticCowboy Apr 15 '16 at 15:19
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To me from a BrE perspective, "dump" implies permanency while "walk out" doesn't necessarily:

  • "He dumped her after the second date": there will never be another date (but also implies relative short-termness of the relationship)
  • "He walked out on her at the restaurant, but he apologised the next day": he left their meal abruptly (perhaps leaving her with the bill)

For the AmE sense of 'left permanently' I might use 'abandoned' or 'deserted' because 'walk out on' isn't clear enough.

  • I think this should be the accepted answer, because if someone said "He walked out on her" to me, I would assume they just meant that "he" just physically left the room she was in - i.e. one can infer nothing about the relationship ending. – Keith Hall Apr 15 '16 at 11:36
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    @KeithHall - I think you are wrong. While "walked out on" can be interpreted to mean "left the room", that is not now the idiom is used 99% of the time. And love is fickle. Many a couple has broken up, only to "reconnect" later, no matter how the break-up has been described. – Hot Licks Apr 15 '16 at 12:22
  • @HotLicks, OP asked about different shades of meaning, so that 1% could be significant here - dumped is unambiguous, walked out on isn't :) – Keith Hall Apr 15 '16 at 12:42
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The words are very close, if not synonyms. However, if one looks at shades of meaning, there are some differences.

Dumping has the feel of an "active" action. You have to actively dump someone. It typically means you must go face to face with them, and through some series of actions (typically a lot of brutal words), both parties walk away with a complete understanding that it is over.

Walking out on someone has less of the active feel. If you walk out on somebody, you just walk. It typically does not involve a face to face confrontation (although a heated face to face confrontation may preceed walking out). After one person walks out on the other, the person who walks has a complete understanding that it is over, but the other person is left in the dark. Is this a phase? Is he coming back? These questions echo in the mind of someone who was walked out on, but they are not questions that someone who is dumped deals with. Walking out also implies that there was a level of obligation between the parties, and those obligations were ignored when one walked out.

Jlovegren gave a very nice succinct answer, but it doesn't come with much of an explanation:

A girlfriend is dumped, a wife is walked out on.

The most easy to explore part of this is "a wife is walked out on." One cannot "dump" a wife just by telling her she's dumped. There's a process for it, called divorce. In practice, "divorcing" is such a singular action that one tends to use it rather than other words. The one case where I can think of where you would use "dumped" would be in a very casual conversation between very masculine individuals where it's important to show indifference:

"Hey, what ever happened to your wife?"
"Oh, her? I dumped her years ago. She took the house and half my pension. Good riddance."

On the other hand, it's hard to walk out on a girlfriend because, in most typical boyfriend/girlfriend relationships, there's not enough shared obligations between the two parties to really use that phrase. Walked out really implies you had something concrete to walk away from. An out-of-wedlock pregnancy might create enough shared obligations to garner the phrase:

"I thought you were with... what was his name..."
"I was. We were doing well too. But then I got pregnant, and when he heard the news, he just walked out on me."

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