The Art of Breaking Up

Julie Spira isn’t just any writer. She bills herself as an expert on Internet dating, and wrote a book called The Perils of Cyber-Dating. When, in 2005, she met The Doctor on an online dating site, Spira was positive she’d finally found The One. “He seemed very solid and close to his family,” Spira recalls. He made it clear on their first date that, after the end of a lengthy marriage and a year of serial dating, he was looking for an enduring relationship. “That was very appealing to me.”

She took it as a sign of his integrity. It didn’t hurt that he was handsome, too. Eight months of exclusive dating later, The Doctor asked her to marry him.

They planned a simple wedding. But first, they put their individual homes up for sale so they could buy a place together. They went house-hunting together nearly every weekend. When her father got sick, The Doctor saved his life.

Fourteen months into their engagement, Spira received an email from her fiancé titled, simply, “Please Read This.” She put the message aside to savor after work and other commitments. When she finally clicked on it, she wished she hadn’t. “The email had an attached document. It said I was not the woman for him, that the relationship was over, and to please send back the ring. It said my belongings would be delivered tomorrow,” Spira says. “I sat there and my whole body started to shake.”

Spira had to plaster on a happy face for a few days—her parents were renewing their marriage vows at a family party on the other side of the country and she wasn’t yet ready to tell anyone about the broken engagement. “I wore my ring. I pretended my fiancé had an emergency and couldn’t make it. Then I went to my room and sobbed in secret.” Once home, she cried every day for a month. Then another electronic communiqué arrived from The Doctor. It said, in its entirety,

“Are you OK?”

That was all she ever heard from him.

The breakup left her socially paralyzed. She didn’t, couldn’t, date, even after many months. She remains single today, three years later. Disappointment ignites anger when she thinks about what happened. “It was cowardly and cruel. Where’s the human side of it? Where’s the respect from someone who was devoted to you for two years?” It’s scant comfort when people tell her that Berger dumped Carrie by Post-it note on Sex and the City. “With email, you don’t even have a guarantee that the person got your message.”

Saying good-bye is heartbreaking, and most of us are total jerks about it. Bad dumping behavior is booming, especially among the young. In one recent survey, 24 percent of respondents aged 13 to 17 said it was completely OK to break up with someone by texting, and 26 percent of them admitted to doing so. “It’s always been hard to break up with someone face to face,” says Stanford University sociologist Clifford Nass, author of The Man Who Lied to His Laptop, “but lack of social skills makes it harder. And we’re learning fewer and fewer social skills.”

As a result, remote shortcuts like electronic endings look deceptively appealing—although, at the very least, they chip away at the self-respect of the dumpers and deprive dumpees of a needed shot at closure. Little wonder that hypersensitivity to rejection is on the rise, and it’s contributing to large increases in stalking behavior, especially on college campuses. More than 3 million people report being stalking victims each year, the ultimate measure of collective cluelessness about ending love affairs well.

As drive-by breakups like Spira’s become more common, mastering the art of the ending is more necessary than ever. The average age of first marriage now hovers around 27, five years later than in 1970. Most people are having more and more serious relationships before they find the one that works. The emerging social reality demands some preparation for romantic rejection, given its potential to shatter one’s sense of self. For both parties, the experience influences how—or even whether—one moves on with life and love.

The best breakups, if there is such a thing, enable acceptance and minimize psychic wreckage, so that the pain of the ending doesn’t overwhelm the positive trace of the relationship. For the partnership will take up permanent residence in memory, likely to be revisited many times over the years. The challenge of breaking up is to close the relationship definitively and honorably, without devaluing oneself or the person who previously met one’s deepest needs. Yes, Virginia, people can fall out of love with grace and dignity—if only they learn how to give breakups a chance.

Battered by Biology

Because our brains are wired from the beginning for bonding, breakups batter us biologically. Initially, says Rutgers University anthropologist Helen Fisher, everyone reacts to rejection like a drug user going through withdrawal. In the early days and weeks after a breakup, she has found, just thinking about the lover who dumped us activates several key areas of the brain—the ventral tegmental area of the midbrain, which controls motivation and reward and is known to be involved in romantic love; the nucleus accumbens and the orbitofrontal/prefrontal cortex, part of the dopamine reward system and associated with craving and addiction; and the insular cortex and anterior cingulate, associated with physical pain and distress.

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