Charlotte, 31, hadn’t planned on breaking up with her boyfriend via WhatsApp; it just sort of happened. “We were having the same huge argument for the second time that week, and I snapped,” she said.
Partly motivating the breakup was the prospect of going into lockdown together, which they’d need to do if they wanted a more-than-virtual relationship during the pandemic. “Social media was awash with smug couples baking bloody banana bread together and I guess I just couldn’t imagine that being us.”
Charlotte acknowledges WhatsApp wasn’t exactly the most heartfelt way to end their relationship of two years, but she was all “fought out” and tired of feeling like an afterthought in the relationship. “He saw me as something he would ‘do’ after he had ticked everything else off his list, including his washing,” she says. “And really, if you tell someone what you need from a relationship and they flat out tell you they won't or can't do it [via WhatsApp], what is left to discuss?”
Charlotte is one of many people COVID-19 has forced to conduct a surprise relationship audit. With the world cartwheeling through a crisis that may last (insert depressing amount of time), many of us are grappling with intense relationship questions that either didn’t exist previously, or were a lot easier to ignore a month or two ago. We’ve all had to buck up and ask tough questions, like: do we upgrade our relationship from two-hangs-per-week to living together 24/7? Is our relationship #PandemicStrong, and if not, should we just break up already? Whether you currently share a home/dog/Prius or keep things mostly digital, your potential breakup likely won’t include a long face-to-face conversation followed by an even longer, ideally permanent, time apart.
Charlotte calls her quarantine breakup the “gift that keeps on giving” because it has forced her to confront her emotional fallout in a time where temporary coping strategies like hooking up with DJs or getting blackout at the bar just aren’t possible. “If there is one thing that quarantine gives you, it is time to process—time to lay on your couch and cry and eat shit food without the immediate fear of anyone new seeing you naked.”
Briana, 20, agrees that a quarantine breakup is not actually too terrible, despite the fact that her breakup—which came in the form of a blindsiding text message—was not her choice. Briana says the text was a cowardly way to end things (especially since she and her partner had already been living together, and so an in-person chat would have been possible not to mention less bizarre) but says the timing of it was fine. She was able to move in temporarily with her sister and is “not upset at all” that her partner didn’t delay the breakup until a more convenient, post-quarantine moment. “Being stuck in a house with someone who clearly doesn’t want me there would have potentially been way more damaging to my mental health than the breakup.”
Tom, 40, can speak to that personally. Cooped up with his ex (their relationship ended pre-pandemic but world chaos quickly sidelined moving plans) Tom says he is trying his best not to become “Jack Nicholson in The Shining.” While he initially thought the drama of a global pandemic might force his relationship back into functionality, that turned out to be wishful thinking.
“I wondered if in this time of crisis and uncertainty, we’d realize that we loved and needed each other. But just like...no.”
Several weeks ago, Madison, 22, arrived back from Thailand to the apartment she shared with her boyfriend, only to discover he had been communicating with his ex in a way that made her uncomfortable. She says there was no choice but to break up, in person on the spot, but Madison’s recent travel meant neither of them could leave their home for 14 straight days—not even for a short walk or to get groceries. “It was really crappy, to feel alone but not be physically alone, you know?”
Maria, 28, has also found herself in a nightmarish scenario living with an ex, who ended their relationship during quarantine on the grounds that Maria and her two kids no longer felt like “family” to him. Maria was, and still is, heartbroken for herself and her two young children. “My ex has been their dad as far as they can remember, and [the house we share] has been their home since they were babies. They call him dad.”
Lacking an exit option, Maria is taking things one uncomfortable day at a time. “He spends most of his time downstairs in the basement gaming and I take care of my kids and the house. Sometimes he eats with us, sometimes he eats downstairs. It's awkward. We interact mostly as roommates but it's hard to treat someone you were sure you were gonna marry as if he is only a friend.” Maria says they still have sex sometimes but it’s different: there’s no cuddling, no talking afterwards. “The next day we just pretend it didn't happen, which is also weird.”
For cohabitating couples with no exit strategy, Madison and Maria’s stories might serve as cautionary tales. Maria advises avoiding a quarantine breakup if at all possible: “You can't start the healing process under the same roof.”
Tara, 26, was with her boyfriend for five years, only to have their long distance relationship dissolve (somewhat mutually) over the phone last week. Tara says the phone call was a better way to end things than Zoom or Facetime, because even though these platforms might seem to facilitate a more intimate conversation, they just add unnecessary pain and awkwardness.
“I don’t want to be staring into a computer screen crying and watching someone I love crying with me...and then be unable to touch that person and hold them and cry together,” she said. And let’s be honest, when most of us video chat, we’re mainly watching ourselves. Care to see your own Breakup Face? Tara doesn’t. “No one wants to see [that],” she says.
Plus, to break up on Zoom is essentially to break up on camera, which introduces a degree of self-censoring and artifice that probably negates any “authenticity” you might expect to gain through video. Also: consider the possibility of glitches. Consider the possibility of your soon-to-be ex’s face, frozen and pixelated as they scramble to end the call. “Trying to hang up the phone over a normal call was difficult enough, and having to turn off the camera and say goodbye face-to-face just wouldn’t leave me feeling good,” Tara says.
When it comes to breaking up, in quarantine or not, the golden rule is basically: Don’t Be A Jerk. Try not to blindside. Try not to drop a breakup text bomb and then ignore your phone for six hours to play Animal Crossing. We’re all trying to make it through a pandemic, OK? It’s not a great time to be toxic.
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