It's not every day you get invited to celebrate the end of someone's relationship.
Particularly not if both people are going to be in the room, everyone's still breathing, and nobody will let you place bets. So when the Facebook event invite popped up ("Let's Celebrate the End of 6 Years!"), I hit "attending" immediately. Having gone through a particularly messy breakup myself a few months earlier, the idea of going gave me a weird sort of masochistic thrill. Admittedly, the whole thing came as a bit of surprise. The couple hosting it had the sort of relationship it was hard not to admire. They communicated well. They made each other laugh. They were engaged. They had plenty of shared interests. And apparently now they had one more thing in common: a desire to be single.
When I pulled up on Saturday afternoon, I was skeptical. At first look, it seemed like the kind of thing that would be really easy to hate. It was kitschy. It was self-involved and a bit smug. Of course, it was hard to know if that judgement was borne of simple cynicism, or because my last breakup had been such a messy affair. Or if it was just because I had no idea what to expect. Punches being thrown? An Airing of Grievances? Putting a line down the middle of the living room, Hook-style, and asking friends to take sides? Would there be booze provided, or did we have to bring our own? Even the internet couldn't help; a Google search for the term "Breakup Party" returned only an Urban Dictionary result, and a link to the desi hip hop song-stylings of this guy. For generations, romance has been pervaded by this strange sort of secular dogma; the notion of soulmates, for example, or that "everything happens for a reason," or the idea of "finding The One," as if building a relationship with another human being was the equivalent of some giant cosmic Easter Egg hunt. And a 'Breakup Party' doesn't gel with those conventional notions of romance. A breakup is a failure. A betrayal. An admission of defeat. Something to be endured. Not celebrated.
The atmosphere was jovial when I arrived. For starters, the place was decked out like it was an actual fucking party. Balloons. Streamers. They had snacks. By the front door were a few packs of Post-It notes, a pile of sharpies, and a sign which read: "WRITE YOUR FAVOURITE MEMORY OF US AND STICK IT TO THE WALL!" There were between 20 and 25 people shoehorned into this tiny one bedroom apartment—some on chairs, some on couches, some on cushions tossed onto the floor for the occasion. Someone had set up a screen and a projector.
People ate, drank, and laughed. Understandably, there was also some tension in the room, although it's hard to know if that was a shared feeling, or something I projected onto the crowd.
Because as it turns out, our hosts had also invited my ex.
She sat against the opposite wall, on the floor, nursing a glass of red wine, and studiously avoiding any glance toward my end of the room. I probably should have expected it; we had plenty of mutual friends, and had so far made a pretty good show of switching off on social engagements, entering and exiting as quickly and gracefully as possible to minimize everyone's discomfort. I busied myself with opening a beer, and a few minutes later, our hosts stood up at the front of the room, and announced they'd like to "get started." Everyone applauded, and I prepared for things to get awkward. There was no way this wasn't going to be a huge disaster. Was there?
"Thank you guys so much for coming," he said, while she gave an awkward wave and sipped from her wine glass.
They started by reading out some of the post-it notes.
"Houseboating on the Shuswap!"
"Our kayak trip"
People chimed in with anecdotes—some funny, some touching. One was illegible and had to be explained. At least one other was awkward for reasons that totally went over my head. But it was real. So many parties are just collections of people humblebragging about their achievements, trying to avoid subjects of any real substance. This was grabbing substance by the scrotum.
Then came the slideshow.
They sat together near the front, while he spoke eloquently about how they'd met (on a sailboat; she was a tourist, he was giving tours around the Gulf Islands, and they'd somehow managed to hook up on the boat without anyone else noticing). He talked about the early months, how it had transitioned from lust to love, how they had defied relationship "science" by moving from hooking up to dating in a relatively smooth arc. The transition into living together looked similarly smooth (at least, from the outside), and featured the sorts of things you'd expect: getting a dog, going halfsies on some art. They showed photos of them on trips, them at parties, them being general goofballs somewhere. He seemed pleasantly surprised as he recalled what had attracted him to her in the first place. She spoke only briefly, a bit overwhelmed. She thanked everyone for coming, for being their friends on their "journey," and that she looked forward to new journeys ahead.
Of course, there was plenty left unsaid; how, a year after they'd started dating, they took a sudden right turn into an open relationship, how they had explored threesomes and foursomes together, how they had started seeing other people, how they had both learned to constructively manage whatever jealousy came from that arrangement without creating drama or annoying their friends by steering every conversation toward a discussion of non-monogamy. How they'd managed to keep it up even after moving into their one-bedroom apartment (enough of their friends knew the arrangement, so nobody even had to ask about the second bed tucked into one corner of the living room for emergencies). How there had been minor betrayals. Boundary-pushing. Conflict. Resolution.
The presentation ended without any drama. No Airing of Grievances. No line in the sand. The only punch I saw sat by the door in a glass bowl. As he explained it, it was a practical decision, the end result of a six-year transition into what was now a strong friendship—deep, abiding, and platonic. And rather than fight the truth, they decided to acknowledge it with balloons and streamers.
Afterward, there was relief in the room. It was as if the party had provided a strange catharsis—not just for the hosts, but for all of us who had ever been in the same position. Human relationships are hard, even when they look easy. Especially when they look easy.
Popular culture has led us to believe that, if we meet the right person, that relationship will stay in the honeymoon phase forever, providing an endless supply of poignant, earth-shattering moments. But the reality of human relationships is that habituation is inevitable, the way that gradual exposure to dogs can make you less afraid of dogs, or listening to "Hotline Bling" over and over will eventually take the thrill out of it. It's as predictable and physiological as it is emotional. Because of that, relationships change and evolve. And most of the time, they end.
Some people hold on long after they should have let go. Some people go home with someone they'd repeatedly warned you not to worry about. Some people throw a party. Which begs the question: should we be focused less on when we break up and more concerned with how?
Or better yet, how well?
As it happened, my ex-girlfriend said exactly what I'd been thinking.
"This is the breakup I wish I'd had," she said.
She wasn't talking to me, but she'd ended up sitting next to me when she said it.
"Yeah," I said. "Me too."
I left after that.
Jesse Donaldson is a Vancouver-based author.