How do you know when a relationship is really finished? Is it after looking over a meticulously compiled list of unacceptable details, or rather one specific incident that pushes you over the edge? What about an unpleasant combination of both? Does there come a time, in a relationship that we know we’ve been in for too long, when we actively look for reasons to leave, gleefully tally up everything our partner has done wrong? And when we leave, which exit method do we choose? A no-holds-barred, insult-laden brawl inspired by recent episodes of our favorite reality television show? Or is that new, allegedly kinder thing people are doing called the “slow fade” a better option?
How long does it take us from the moment when we decide to leave someone to actually initiate the breakup conversation? For me, it’s ranged anywhere from two weeks to six months, not only because I hate confrontation, but because I’m legitimately frightened by the other person’s reaction. Besides, what if I change my mind? I’ll find a plethora of excuses not to end things, partially because I’m trying to remember what being alone feels like, and mostly because I’m dreading the inevitable confrontation and admission of “real” feelings that will come from both sides. I wonder when the most convenient time to break up with someone is, and if my partner’s schedule can really handle the month or so of serious recovery that being broken up with often requires. “I can’t break up with him because he’s got a show opening in a week,” I reason, or “Now’s not a good time because he has a final exam, his sister is coming to visit, we were supposed to go to a wedding next month and I’ve already sent out my response card….” As always, there are a million reasons, few of them valid, not to do something. Especially if that something is hurting someone else.
Once, I waited so long to end it with someone that I ended up breaking up with him on a bench outside of a movie theatre, ice cream in hand, after he’d flown in to see me for a week. We then had to endure an exponentially tortuous series of events with my family, where well-meaning cousins asked us to pose for pictures and my (former?) boyfriend often left to go weep in the children’s tree house. It wasn’t a great decision, and while I’d like to think I’m alone in my what’s been described as “cruel and stupid” breakup timing, I know plenty of women, and even more men, who have done the same thing. Karma got me a few months later when, on the evening of our anniversary, I was sat down on a park bench, ice cream once again in hand, and broken up with in the middle of a Manhattan intersection in a speech so crazy it included the line, “You’ll notice whenever I talked about my feelings for you over the past week, I used the past tense.” If it’s now (understandably) socially unacceptable to wait until the last possible second to end things with someone, what are our other options?
“Ghosting” is the trendy new thing to do, but what I’ve learned from that is that it’s not always actually an end. No matter who initiates the radio silence, what it can sometimes mean is not exactly “I’m not into it,” but rather “I’m not into it enough to treat you well or to work towards making this a real thing, but I would like to have a safety in my contacts to text any time after midnight when I’m trying to get some.” It’s amazing to me how many people allow themselves to be manipulated by the 2 am text because they think sex is the way to “rekindle” someone’s affections – and after waiting up for a guy I really liked until he finally rolled in, wasted, at 3:30 am, I swore that I’d block the number of any dude who ghosted me. I’ve never successfully blocked anyone’s number, but I walk around yelling at my girlfriends to “have some self respect” and reminding them “they deserve better” than this “idiotic prick.” Why is it so hard to take our own advice? Why can’t we resist ghosting other people when we know how annoying it is when someone does it to us? Are we all really that conflict avoidant? Yes. Does ghosting someone actually avoid a conflict? No. I’m thinking here of the many passive-aggressive “so…..i guess this is over, then?” texts I’ve both sent and received.
Plus, ghosting someone doesn’t leave much room for the thrill of an explosive fight, the kind of thing that can go on at maximum volume for upwards of three hours with set breaks for sobbing, making calls to friends, and locking yourself in the bathroom for dramatic effect. These kinds of breakups happen most often at the end of long-term relationships, when you’ve had time to get the really good dirt on people. These are the kinds of stories you tell your friends, both to make your ex seem crazier than they actually are by revealing their actions when they are at their most vulnerable, or to prove to your friends how “strong” you were, how you didn’t take any shit. Some of the best ones I’ve heard include posting someone’s cheating crimes on social media and tagging his boss, or the time my friend took a flyswatter to her breakup sparring partner because it was the closest thing she could grab.
What I really enjoy though, is getting myself into situations that I know have a set end date. As in, his visa expires and he has to go back to his home country, and nobody wants to take this thing overseas. I’ve heard plenty of stories about long distance relationships, and even had a failed one of my own. This scheduled date of death allowed both me and the man I was with to treat each other like complete garbage, but to excuse each other’s behavior because, hey, there’s only a month left, so why break up? In our quest to “avoid drama” by ending things before we began to actively, deliciously hate each other, we ended up completely eradicating the possibility of the amicable and inevitable end we’d both agreed upon when we first started dating.
I haven’t yet dated a married or engaged man, but I’d assume his wedding to someone else would be an equally convincing and final end date. But in today’s world, maybe not. Affairs seem to be the new normal, egged on by things like online dating and the ability to reconnect with your high school sweetheart from fifteen years ago via Facebook. Cheating, and the way people react to it, can either lead to an amazingly dramatic breakup or a usually futile determination to hang on and “save the relationship” at the detriment of both parties’ mental health. I knew someone who, after cheating, was given this ultimatum: either you stay with me and we work this out, or I blacklist you to everyone you know and work with. Given this anecdote, I can kind of understand why he cheated.
Then there are the couples that don’t break up – at least not initially. They make an enormous and expensive spectacle of their forever-like-a-diamond love, ask friends to spend money they don’t have on hideously enameled plates, then a few years later they’re crying to you over a glass of Pinot Grigio (it’s always Pinot Grigio) because they’ve realized they just don’t like the person they married. These breakups are only different from earlier days in that they cost a lot of money and actively involve, even hurt, other people. Many people say they “don’t believe” in divorce. These people are either trying to protect their assets, have strong religious or cultural beliefs that guilt them out of divorce, or they’re just stubborn. I’m being facetious here – of course there are complicated reasons to divorce or not to divorce, but the main thing is that you don’t get to write off the possibility of dealing with yet another breakup just because you’re married.
It’s disheartening to think that society has come up with all these options for telling someone you don’t love them anymore instead of focusing on something worthwhile, like Lindsay Lohan. What is your preferred method of breakup, if you initiate ending things at all? (After all, there’s always the option of waiting for the other person to do it.) What’s your proudest – or craziest – “breakup moment?” Do you have a preferred setting or time of day? Or, if you truly think you are finished with breakups for good, what hope can you offer the rest of us?