“I’ve come to realize over the past few days that I don’t want a relationship.”
On the surface, it seemed pretty cut and dried, yet despite countless rereads of my ex's breakup email—the third of its kind that I’ve received in my life—I was still left with major questions. The most glaring one: “You don’t want a relationship… or you don’t want one with me?”
This crucial piece of information felt essential to my ability to reflect on the failure of our short-lived romance. But since Christine hadn’t indicated that she’d wanted to have a conversation, I sent a polite reply and tried to move on—without closure.
I thought I’d figured out how to deal with this kind of thing in grad school, when Ashley dumped me via email after a three-year relationship. Her out of the blue missive, as well as her almost year-long refusal to talk to me or answer any questions after it, had also left me in the dark. Was it the medium that made things so difficult for me? Or was it an inability to grasp my own role in the failure of these relationships?
It was hard to say. Email breakups obviously don’t allow for conversation in the same ways that texting, instant messaging, and in-person discussions do, but that’s not to say they don’t have their time and place. Pew Research Center data has shown that nearly 1 in 5 people have ended relationships via text or email, and that men and women are equally disposed to it. In an article for Slate, writer Amanda Hess even defended the practice, citing a number of situations in which she argues it’s appropriate: not wanting to be alone with the other person, feeling the other person is too stubborn to accept the breakup in a live conversation, wanting to use writing to establish a clear thought process, and of course, plain old cowardice.
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In some cases, an e-breakup may not actually play out that much differently from an IRL one, but there are still substantial differences in how the two are experienced. In email breakups, we’re denied majorly important components of communication: body language, affect, spontaneity, and unconscious transmissions. In bypassing human interaction and curating our conversations, we risk watering down our experience and limiting the possibilities for self-knowledge and authenticity, especially in cases where the other party may have questions. Often, the computer screen becomes a wall that we hide behind in order to avoid being vulnerable.
Online communication also compromises our ability to determine and express emotion, says Steve Whittaker, a cognitive psychologist and professor of human-computer interaction at the University of California at Santa Cruz. "One reason initiators might prefer email for breaking up is that they don’t have to see or acknowledge the emotions that the recipient is feeling," he says. In a 2013 paper, Whittaker discussed the common impulse to avoid or forget negative feelings after breakups, typically by disposing of digital reminders such as photos and text messages. But as anyone who has seen Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind knows, getting over an ex isn’t as simple as hitting “delete.” (Though we aren’t too far off from trying.)
Of course, IRL breakups aren't perfect, either, and can open the door to unwanted arguments, impulsive comments, and oversharing, says George Nitzburg, a clinical psychologist who researches online interactions and interpersonal relationships at Columbia University. Nitzburg has found that online breakups leave more room for ambiguity. “The absence of tone of voice, eye gaze, and body language means that both parties are less able to read one another, which is a double-edged sword,” he says. “An online breakup that lacks audiovisual contact can lead to miscommunication that can be accidentally and unintentionally hurtful, but ex-partners can also know each other so well that hurtful truths are more likely to be revealed when breaking up in person.” Maybe it just comes down to how real we’re willing to be, both with ourselves and our companions.
For some, closure is simply the ability to compose clear narratives about the things that happen in our lives. Tara Marshall, a psychology researcher who studies cross-cultural psychology and romantic attachment styles at Brunel University in London, also finds that the emotional tone of a breakup email can be difficult to interpret, especially if the email lacks detail. In her estimation, face-to-face breakups are often preferable in terms of getting closure.
“People need clear reasons as to why the relationship has ended so they can construct a clear narrative about the end of the relationship; this closure helps them to [deal with] their negative emotions and move on,” she told me. However, this only goes for longer relationships, where both parties have formed an emotional bond—Marshall believes that email breakups are perfectly fine for shorter relationships, where there have only been a few dates.
But do we really need closure? Can’t we just suck it up, download Tinder, and move on? Not always, and Freud can help explain why (bear with me). In his 1917 essay “Mourning and Melancholia,” Freud established the difference between two kinds of grieving. He found that mourning is a healthy, conscious response to the loss of a loved one, while melancholia involves longer-lasting and more traumatic consequences that can include a drop in self-esteem, difficulty functioning in the world, feelings of inferiority, and a general inability to make sense of and move on from what’s happened. If we aren’t given the opportunity to understand and process why a breakup is occurring, we can be denied healthy mourning and remain trapped in a state of melancholia.
Ilana Gershon, a cultural anthropologist at Indiana University, studies the intersection of breakups and technology and has written a number of articles on the topic. One reason email breakups can feel ambiguous, she argues, is because of how we’re wired to deal with “media switching"—holding conversations across multiple mediums. “Sometimes, even when one person believes a breakup is final, the other person doesn't accept its finality until it's repeated in another medium,” she wrote in an article for the Journal of Anthropology.
Since we use so many modes of communication in our daily lives—email, texting, phone calls, as well as apps like Facebook and Instagram—difficult news may not always feel real the first time we see it. So what is it about an email that doesn’t seem final? It's hard to say.
Gershon, who explored these issues even more deeply in her book, The Breakup 2.0, told me that the breakups that were most devastating were ones in which the person ending it refused to switch mediums. “I don’t think that there is a clear path to closure, and we Americans often like to blame the medium used for closure. But it is much more complicated than that.” In her opinion, all media can lead to bad breakups. “It isn’t the medium itself, in other words,” she says. “It is what you understand the medium to do to a message.”
Perhaps the answer lies not as much in the technology we use to break up as much as it does with how authentic we decide to be. If we’re more real in our breakups, more willing to ask and answer difficult questions, will it allow us to heal better, ultimately improving our overall mental health and strengthening our preparedness to thrive in future relationships? Or are we just doomed to revisiting our favorite Smiths albums while eating an entire pizza every few months until we get married or die? Either way, I’ll be eating pizza and listening to The Smiths until I die, but it’d be nice to find someone to share that with.
I spent years reflecting on what happened with Ashley and contemplating the ways I could have dealt with it better, eventually coming to accept that her use of email was, at least partially, an expression of deeper problems with our connection. When Christine dumped me by email years later, I was a little more prepared to work through the truths and mysteries that accompanied it. It’s true that email as a medium can contribute to messy breakups, but it’s also true that email breakups can be a symptom of both our ambivalence about our own feelings and our anxieties about dealing with conflict head-on in relationships. From what I’ve learned, the solution to bad email breakups isn’t to avoid using email, but rather, to try to better understand why we have the impulse to use it in the first place.
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