Why do we always demonise the dump-er, never the dump-ee?
This feature is part of our two-week series on choices. Click here for more.
The decision to breakup may not feel like a decision at all. Anyone who has experienced a dead-end relationship will know the feeling of gradually dawning recognition: vague doubts, once distant, suddenly draw near; time together becomes oddly taxing – did they always clear their throat that much? Why can’t you ever watch the movies you want to watch? Even the way they breathe starts to irritate you.
Before you know it, doubt has calcified to certainty. Your victim awaits in blissful, heart-wrenching ignorance.
I have deftly evaded rejection, always had the last word, and each time been very, very sure. Yet in none of these instances have I felt particularly spared from pain.
I have been the breaker-upper in every relationship I’ve had, which, for a serial monogamist, could be considered a stroke of luck: I have deftly evaded rejection, always had the last word, and each time been very, very sure.
Yet in none of these instances have I felt particularly spared from pain. With both an excruciating lead up and strangely messy aftermath, no matter how cleanly I cut things off, ending a relationship is hard work.
However unconscious and abstract the breakup up process, the desire to ends things will, one way or another, manifest itself in reality, and action will be taken. Some people will do anything to avoid facing this head-on, and resort to cheating, betrayal or the dreaded ghosting.
Surely the kinder, more efficient thing to do is make a choice, then express it clearly and honestly?
Yet, in the face of someone to whom you have had and may still feel great affection, coming to the decision to breakup is excruciating. There is no scale to weigh the feeling of guilt against that of abandonment, but it is surely no more pleasant.
What's more, the inevitable grief, withdrawal and (momentary) bouts of regret, take on a rather masochistic twist when apparently self-inflicted. Certainty will not stop you questioning yourself repeatedly: why are you causing yourself and others so much pain? Why can’t you just be happy? After all it was your decision, wasn’t it?
In my experience, you will not be the only one asking these questions.
Gossip travels fast, and with breakup gossip possibly the most titillating of all, soon enough your callousness will be public knowledge. As mutual friends delete you from social media and others probe you for blame-shifting evidence, moral high ground is premium. For those on the outside, and I have certainly been among them, the temptation to point fingers, to take sides, to pontificate, can be almost irresistible.
In the aftermath of my own breakups, however, I have found this extremely upsetting. Losing friendships is hard at the best of times, but in response to a decision that was personal, private and painful it feels like a particularly cruel punishment. There is a fine line, it seems, between loyalty and moralising, and perhaps it is unfair to fault those who believe they are engaging in the former.
In the moment, of course, I recall feeling utter contempt for such people: do they want their friend to stay in an unhappy relationship? Have they seen how mismatched the two of you are?
In the moment, of course, I recall feeling utter contempt for such people: do they want their friend to stay in an unhappy relationship? Have they seen how mismatched the two of you are? Do they know about that time their oh-so-wonderful friend played dress-ups with some sketchy female friend and her lingerie, and even though they insist nothing happened, why did you find out about it via her instagram? Do they have any idea what you have ENDURED?
Yet analysing the who/what/why of romantic choice, and dissecting it together, seems to be an ingrained, even natural social response to such situations. Given the impossibility of finding simplicity or certainty in our own romantic lives, it can be reassuring or cathartic to construct and then judge a narrative.
To me, though, it seems this narrative is too often predetermined: from television to film to music, pop culture (like your mutual friends) may have chosen a side, and it is generally has not favoured me. What did Taylor Swift’s boyfriends actually do that was so bad? Why do I think differently of Zayn Malik since he broke-up with Pierre Edwards? 500 days or not, wasn’t it Summer’s right to choose who she dated?
Post-breakup, the pop culture to which I crawled in my damaged state told stories of abandonment and rejection in which breakups are not only emotionally, but morally loaded: rarely do relationships end on screen it seems without cheating, lying or other betrayals. Actual, considered romantic choice is often absent or imbued with callous indifference. Even films like Forgetting Sarah Marshall and 500 Days of Summer, whose entire focus is a male dumpee’s acceptance process, struggle to avoid demonising the female dumper.
Yet these are the stories we love. Perhaps this is why celebrity breakups are always, publicly, so mutual and amicable, and why this harmoniousness is so laughably, frustratingly unbelievable: The idea of “conscious uncoupling” is as emotionally dishonest as it is hilarious, and though it cannot discourage speculation, it demonstrates a determination not to feed it.
The idea of “conscious uncoupling” is as emotionally dishonest as it is hilarious, and though it cannot discourage speculation, it demonstrates a determination not to feed it.
As such, the exceptions are all the more exciting: Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears; Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart; Taylor and Jake Gyllenhaal/Harry Styles/et al. Even Zayn, sweet beautiful Zayn, seemed uncharacteristically ruthless when, having already broken the innocent hearts of his One Direction bandmates, he then (allegedly) dumped his fiance via text message.
As with all stories that are told time and time again, it is perhaps important to consider why those of jilted lovers and cads loom so large in our imaginations. Everyone makes mistakes, we say when we want to understand and to forgive, but the choice to leave someone, to break their heart, is alarmingly intentional. And in our strange moral universe it is this most personal choice which seems to be a perpetual public dilemma.
And so, I write in defence of the breaker upper: the ultimate thankless job. Of course, no one would argue that being on either side of a breakup is ever easy, and certainly having the active role, the agency and the control in such circumstances, is a privilege. (The added dimensions of shock, confusion and powerless are not something to be wished on anyone.)
But, as a wise man once said, no matter how flat you make a pancake, it’s got two sides, and in casting a villain and a victim in any breakup story forces inherently suspect moralising.
Yes, I have been lucky, and, according to my mother, horrifyingly ruthless, yet somehow being on the right side of this choice has not made losing partners, friends and my treasured gameboy colour (I still want it back, Tim) any easier.
I am by no means suggesting that the answer is to try to stay friends. Never do that. My break ups punctuate my adult life so far as pivotal periods of acute trauma and pain, and the simplest solution has always been to be to break off any and all contact as quickly as possible. If anything, I resent being forced into one last piece of agonising emotional labour by those lazy reprobates. Once the guilt subsides, however, take pride in your choice: Humane, horrifying and wholly unappreciated, you have chosen sweet, sweet freedom.