Last week, Merriam-Webster added more than a thousand words to the dictionary. Among them, “to ghost” was defined as abruptly cutting off all contact with someone by no longer accepting or responding to phone calls or messages.
With Valentine’s Day approaching – a time of year some data analysts have foundis actually a peak moment for breakups – I got to thinking about that mundane, uncomfortable and sometimes heartbreaking step that is the breakup, and the etiquette that goes with it.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, I asked my friend – let’s call him Martial Arts Man – about it: “What’s your go-to technique for breakups?” My friend, an arrestingly intelligent and attractive man in his 30s, twisted his mouth and face a little, displaying internal reflection.
“The truth is, I never break up with people,” he explained. “I just disappear.”
Martial Arts Man, someone I had known all my adult life and who had shown consistency and loyalty in friendship, was clearly a complete jerk with women he engaged with romantically. It was not unusual for him to be in two separate relationships with women he had (falsely) promised monogamy to. There could easily be up to eight women on the side too, he said, ones he would have casual sex with.
The logistics of this made my brain overheat. He shrugged. When it all got too much, poof, he informed me – he disappeared. Clean slate. That easy. Not for nothing, the list of furious exes was long.
He felt bad, he admitted. The ghosting was clearly not nice. But showing up, openly rejecting someone to their face and telling them the ugly truth felt worse.
I decided to dig deeper and ask friends and acquaintances about how they would like to be broken up with, for a change.
Hirona Amamiya, 31, musician
“The number one rule about breaking up is to actually break up,” says Hirona Amamiya. “Not telling someone? Just walking away? How could you?! Can’t you at least take five minutes to call?” she exclaims.
Amamiya says the worst thing about breaking up is finding out an entirely different side of a person you thought you knew well. She recalls one breakup – initiated by her – that left her a little shaken. After she told her now ex-boyfriend, he became very cold. A week later, she received a package at her home address.
“I opened the box and saw all of these receipts. I didn’t understand what they were, so I looked closer. Dinner receipts from restaurants, theatre and movie theatre tickets, all these things we had done together.”
Her partner of one year had been meticulously documenting every dime he had spent on her. Among the wide-ranging pile of assorted receipts, she found that there were some on which he had written, and circled, the relevant sum.
“It felt like he was saying, oh, I spent all this money on you. It was a bit creepy. A breakup can make you see the real person. For a year he acted like this nice businessman, like a grownup. But he was just pretending.”
Anna Schirrer, 35, doctoral fellow
Anna Schirrer agrees the minimum requirement in breakups is to voice the breakup. The alternative doesn’t just seem selfish, it’s unfair. People who are broken up with “shouldn’t have to do the emotional labor of putting two and two together and realizing it”.
“What is it about letting people know where we are and where we aren’t that makes it so difficult? What is it about ourselves in that space of utterance that so many people would rather be silent or vanish?” Stirrer reflects. “Stop protecting yourself from conflict or potential conflict,” she concludes.
She says hurting people can seem inevitable in a breakup, but you can do it “as compassionately and responsibly as possible”.
“It’s a cliche, but it is about communication, letting people know where you are and where you stand, and what you are thinking about, and daring yourself to word those things. That way, a wrong breakup is impossible.”
Emilio Cota, 31, engineer
“If a person has had enough brain or brain management to tell you they have feelings for you, then they should have enough to tell you they no longer do,” says Emilio Cota.
Cota believes the idea of rejection is tough for everyone: “It can affect your confidence, even if you’re the one to break up.”
In the past, Cota avoided relationships full stop, he says, for fear of having to face both uncomfortable seats, of either being the rejector or the rejectee.
“There is an opportunity cost to playing it safe because you can’t even give yourself the possibility of being in a situation that is better,” he says, explaining that if you remain single, you avoid unhappy relationships and outcomes but you also deny yourself the possibility of happy ones.
Just like for startup companies, if you’re going to fail, make sure you fail fast, he says. He offers a few more pointers to justify his “fail fast” ethos.
- Do not make it to the point where you’re cheating on someone, or feel repulsed by the person.
- Do not deny the other person the possibility of meeting someone new if you’re no longer invested.
- Do not be the person who picks a public space to shorten, or limit, the interaction.
- Give the relationship the respect it deserves, including at the end.
CJ Thomas, 26, farmer
CJ Thomas agrees that honesty goes a long way, and wrong or right timing should not be the question. “There is always a good time to break up with someone if you don’t like them, or you know something is wrong. It’s always a good time to be honest.”
Just do it, basically.
Thomas always breaks up in person, and says people shouldn’t be afraid to cry. There’s sadness in endings, even if they are not overtly dramatic. “When I’ve broken up, it’s been hard, but not because I hated the person; it was because it wasn’t right.”
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