Why Are We So Bad at Breaking Up with People?
i-D explores the lack of authenticity and directness when it comes to dating and breaking up with people today.
A few weeks ago, I made plans to meet up with the guy I had been seeing for about a month, thinking we were going to get tacos. Shared meals were a mainstay of our budding relationship, but when I suggested we meet at my apartment or the restaurant, he insisted on meeting me at a street corner in the neighbourhood where we both live. I had just returned from a week-long trip, and our text convos seemed to be relatively normal. However, the anxious voice inside my head told me that things between us were maybe just a little bit off.
As I approached said street corner and watched his awkward body language from afar, I felt a hot pang of discomfort spread throughout my body. I was convinced I knew what was about to unfold, but tried to keep my cool and pretend things were ok. We hugged awkwardly, turning our faces away from each other and avoiding direct eye contact -- a hug strikingly different from the firm yet gentle embraces we had shared weeks prior, laying in his bed after having sex together for the first time. Still, I pretended nothing was up, and asked, “Shall we go for tacos?”
“Can we actually talk for a sec?” he replied, trembling, and proceeding to end our almost-relationship right then and there on the street, with a ramble about how he needed to spend more time working on himself. Even though part of me had seen it coming, I was at a loss for words, mostly because the ending itself felt so serious, even though we had only been casually seeing each other for a short while. Of course, I had liked him and was interested in seeing where it could go, but did our brief romance warrant such an ending? And why couldn’t I say anything back?
This wasn’t the first time someone has broken up with me IRL in a public place when we were barely dating. While I appreciate the gesture of someone making a conscious effort to do so face to face -- especially in a time when people usually disappear behind their phones via ghosting, orbiting, or benching -- it’s easy to see how technology has completely changed the way young people like me navigate dating and relationships, and this is particularly true for endings and breakups. In fact, it feels like none of us have any idea what the fuck we’re doing.
Jennifer Musselman, a former TV exec turned psychotherapist who helps people navigate relationships, believes that while digital media has become a great tool for dating and allowed us to meet people outside of our immediate networks, it has also caused us other problems including “disconnection, misguided sex expectations and self-esteem issues”. In this way, the advent of dating apps are a double-edged sword: we are always connected but simultaneously disconnected, from ourselves and each other. It’s a world steeped in stark contradictions.
Accordingly, Brianna Rader, CEO and founder of sex and relationships app Juicebox, says: “When you meet people without any common connections, there are no repercussions for behaving badly (ghosting, being a jerk, etc).” Due to this, there’s been an uptick in thoughtless behaviour, in which people are often lazy or rude when it comes to communicating their feelings. But more than this, people now view each other as transactional, instead of as fellow human beings with genuine value. “When there are thousands of other people out there in your app, why bother to take special care in communicating?”
Today, texting and online communication in dating and relationships can be especially messy when it’s difficult to understand someone’s tone through digital language. Brianna says these methods of communication give us an easy way to hide from our bad behaviour, since “people can be jerks without repercussions”. As we’ve become more reliant on these apps and more accustomed to these bad behaviours, the value and practice of transparency and direct communication has been lost.
Going one step further, digital connectivity has completely changed the way we interact with people, causing us a boatload of communication issues, including how we navigate breakups. When you realise it’s the “end”, is it deceitful or polite to keep up appearances over text? While some might say it’s wrong to communicate an ending with a text message, others might feel more comfortable with it, as it means they don’t have to endure the humiliation in person.
Though I recognise that the guy I was seeing most likely intended no harm by breaking up with me in person -- and probably thought it was the nice or “right” thing to do -- it’s interesting to consider if and why I would’ve preferred some honesty over text, instead of him pretending things were fine until we could meet in person.
Movies and television today fail to address the nuances of digital dating, leaving us with few reference points for navigating these issues, while our parents grew up in a completely different era of dating, meaning that most of us have likely received no education on how to deal with these problems. For many of us, we’ve grown so accustomed to being ghosted, it’s become the norm not to be completely authentic or honest, especially when we barely know someone. When I told some of my friends about my recent “breakup” many said they felt uncomfortable even just hearing about it, while others said they always prefer a breakup text over an in-person chat.
Accordingly, Jennifer argues that “less communication has led to less practice at how to have difficult conversations effectively”. While online media has often turned ghosting and other thoughtless behaviour into viral and comical memes, the current state of dating culture says something deeper (and quite sinister) about the millennial mindset. We’re so caught up in swiping left or right, we tend to have little regard for others’ feelings.
So, how can we break up with people better?
"It's always better to have an honest conversation than to be ghosted", says Brianna. It’s possible that people like me are so used to being treated transactionally that a serious conversation can feel startling, making us feel more upset. Still, if you’ve only been on a few dates, she says a kind message could suffice, although it’s definitely a case by case basis.
In Brianna’s own life, even when she goes on one date with someone, she feels she owes them a text message explaining where her head is at or her interest level, as she wouldn’t want to discourage someone from putting themselves out there after meeting her. Yet for longer-term relationships, a breakup should not come as a surprise. “Several difficult conversations about the issues in the relationship should occur before reaching the point of breaking up,” Brianna says.
With this, Jennifer recommends trying to be more honest and upfront with people -- from the very beginning and throughout your time together -- about where you’re at and what you’re looking for, because this will require the other person to do the same. If we put more honesty into practice, we’re more likely to attract that in return. “Too many people think they want a relationship and use lame lines like, ‘if the right person comes along’, but this places all the responsibility on the potential partner, when in fairness, being ready for the right partner through knowing oneself is just as important to compatibility,” she says.
Looking to the future, as Gen Z has grown up with a phone in hand from practically the moment they left the womb, Jennifer says new research shows that a rising cohort is demonstrating a backlash to the tech-focused behaviours of millennials, and are craving more in-person connection. “I suspect we will see the pendulum swing back to the middle, with more balance of meeting and mating online and through personally cultivated meetups,” she says.
While in my own life, psychotherapy and cognitive behavioural therapy have helped me better communicate my feelings and act more authentically while navigating the dating world, I still can’t help but wonder—if I was Gen Z, would breakups feel less awkward?