I can still picture my university boyfriend sitting in my living room, slumped over and dejected in the final, fading moments of being ‘my boyfriend.’ It wasn’t fun; breaking up never is.
Even less enjoyable was the realization, a few weeks later, that he’d systematically removed every Facebook memory of me, cleansing this new medium we’d both joined just a few years earlier. He unfriended me — painful, but expected — then untagged himself in every single photo we’d taken together in our three years of courtship.
Moments spent together in our university residence, gone. Cottage trips, erased. Bonnie and Clyde Halloween costumes, obliterated.
I found myself wondering: Who has time to do that?
Lots of people, it turns out. The post-split social media purge makes sense to me now, as I’m sure it does to anyone who has dated another human being after the invention of the Internet. Now, we’re haunted by past flames on Facebook, dumped through cryptic text messages, ghosted by lovers who somehow disappear despite having a world of communication tools at their fingertips. People are also dating longer, providing ample opportunities to meet new partners and, inevitably, split up with most of them. In the 1960s and ’70s, the average age for a first marriage was just over 25 for men and 22 for women, but by the late 2000s, the average age for both was around 30. The entire dating landscape has changed in the digital age — and with it, so have breakups.
Back in 2006 — just two years after Mark Zuckerberg founded ‘the Facebook’ as a Harvard sophomore — Indiana University anthropologist Ilana Gershon began researching this shift. She recalls showing a clip from comedian Dave Chappelle in a class and noticing a student crying. “Dave Chappelle does a lot of things,” Gershon says. “But he doesn’t make people cry.” The student, she later learned, had just been dumped through a text message. “He wrote to her, broke up with her, then refused to communicate with her through any other medium,” Gershon recalls. “He wouldn’t take her phone calls. He wouldn’t communicate through Facebook. He refused.”
Far from uncommon, that’s the new breakup landscape, and one that’s often impersonal and bewildering. (As one of my colleagues put it, the Post-it note Berger left Carrie in Sex and the City was “practically chivalrous” in comparison.) Even celebrities aren’t immune. Take pop-star Katy Perry, whose 14-month marriage to comedian Russell Brand ended on her phone. “Let’s just say I haven’t heard from him since he texted me saying he was divorcing me December 31, 2011,” she told Vogue back in 2013.
Gershon grew fascinated with this new relationship reality. In her book, The Breakup 2.0: Disconnecting Over New Media, Gershon writes about interviewing dozens of undergrad students about dating and breakups in the digital age. When students told her their “breakup stories,” many shared a common thread: A focus on whether someone was dumped through a text, email, phone call, Facebook message or in-person conversation. “This gives important information about how the person hearing this should be interpreting it,” Gershon says.
In other words, “the medium is the message,” as Canadian communication theorist Marshall McLuhan wrote back in 1964. Fast forward 40 years, and Gershon found modern daters have a keen understanding of each medium’s meaning, with a large majority of students agreeing in-person is still the best way to tell someone it’s over. But that doesn’t mean people actually do it that way. One 2015 Pew Research Center report found most young people aren’t a fan of dumping-by-text, yet 27 per cent of teen daters have broken up with someone through a text message (and even more, at 31 per cent, have been on the receiving end.)
Aside from being impersonal, B.C.-based registered clinical counsellor and master certified Gottman therapist Darren Wilk says texting can lead people to be downright cruel during a split — a trend he’s noticed in his 15 years of working with couples. “The texts I’ve seen from them,” he says. “Just the swearing, and the names, and assassinating each other’s character.” Even 10 years ago, things weren’t that bad. “Now, whatever comes to people’s minds, they just push send.”
The Pew research found even fewer young people support breaking up through social media messages or a changed Facebook relationship status. Still, those get used too, with 6 per cent of teens reporting that they’ve broken up with someone through both those strategies.
One Canadian startup, fittingly dubbed The Breakup Shop, is capitalizing on society’s eagerness to dump people digitally. Starting at $10, you can buy a breakup text, while $29 will get you a breakup phone call with a runtime of a minute or less. And for $80, you can buy the dumpee a “breakup gift pack,” complete with Chips Ahoy! rainbow cookies, a Netflix gift card, two red wine glasses, a handcrafted sympathy letter, and either a copy of The Notebook on Blu-ray or the video game Call of Duty: Ghosts. Since launching in early November, the company says it has performed around 160 breakups, and plans to launch an app in the spring to deliver even more breakups “without the hassle.”
But anyone who’s been dumped knows modern breakups are a hassle, filled with both physical and digital clutter. Alongside shared furniture, love letters, framed photos, and other real-life junk, there’s also a trove of online mementos in emails, text messages and tagged photos. Matt Shumate, author of self-help book From Broken Up to Bro 2.0, recommends a complete online detox from an ex to speed up the healing process. “Don’t unfriend them from Facebook necessarily,” he told me in an email. “But certainly unfollow and make sure that they won’t be popping up into your social feeds.” (It’s something Facebook has been paying attention to, launching new tools late last year so people see less of their old flames without blocking or deleting them.) For some, those measures don’t go far enough, and healing after a breakup might mean staying off social media altogether, Shumate told me.
I thought about his advice and what it would look like in a practical sense. It could mean deleting Instagram for a few months to avoid seeing any photos of a former flame’s latest brunch trip — who wants to see an ex drooling over #eggsbenedict? — or logging out of Twitter to skip their pithy tweets about the Oscars. Or maybe it looks like what my college ex-boyfriend did in the mid-2000s: A total Facebook cleanse, erasing every trace of our relationship from his digital world. I think, perhaps, he was ahead of his time.
However you do it, a post-split detox doesn’t change the messy reality: Breakups today are a minefield of impersonal communication methods and lingering digital memories, including many that are impossible to erase. But it’s worth keeping in mind that, even amid the complexity of modern romance, splitting up is a natural — and time-honoured — part of dating. “Some relationships are about saying goodbye,” says Wilk. “And that’s fine.”
Breaking up is hard to do — but do it right
Sure, modern daters have a plethora of options for dumping their significant other. But amid all that choice, experts say there are some etiquette tips worth keeping in mind to soften the blow.
Do it face-to-face
Texting or changing your relationship status might be easy, but they’re not the best ways to end a relationship. “I think any of these more modern ways that avoid the human decency of face-to-face interaction, to break off something that was allegedly a meaningful relationship, only serve to hurt feelings,” says breakup researcher Gary Lewandowski Jr., chair of the psychology department at Monmouth University. The bottom line? Do it in-person.
Do have a conversation
Without a proper back-and-forth, it’s hard to move on — and that applies to both people, says breakup expert Matt Shumate. “Saying things out loud will let you have that feeling of ‘getting everything off your chest’ and being able to move on and feel that you’ve done right by your former partner,” he explains.
Don’t show off on social media
Once you’re single again, it might be tempting to post photos of nights on the town with your date of the moment. But that can sting. “When it comes to social media, don’t use it as a way to get back at your ex, showing them pictures of you with new prospects,” says Shumate. “Understand that they’re probably looking through your feed and what you post could be pretty damaging for them.”