The Endless Breakup

From ghosting to orbiting and submarining, technology keeps elaborating new ways for people to avoid the emotional labor of breakups. But that only keeps them stuck in anxiety and self-doubt.

By Lisa A. Phillips, published May 7, 2019 - last reviewed on May 17, 2019

Illustration by Edward Levine
Illustration by Edward Levine

I want someone I can talk to, create art with, and bounce ideas off," Alice, an active member of  the New Orleans arts community, told a friend one day. "I want us to be each other's critic and support. I want somebody I love to dance with, someone I love to touch and be around."  "That's a tall order," the friend replied.

Within days, at a meeting about a new theater project, Alice was introduced to Jonah, who had just moved to town and was looking to join the arts scene. That very night, she took him to the closing party of a film festival, the first event of many they attended together. Not long out of a rough divorce, Jonah feared he would fall into a recent pattern of getting quickly obsessed, then putting up walls. "This doesn't seem to be happening with you," he confided.

Months later, a potential pregnancy prompted Alice to announce that if it were true, she would have the baby: At 40, she felt it might be her only chance. A pregnancy test proved negative, and when, the next morning, she reached for Jonah, he turned decisively away. Long, wrought emails followed. He wanted to cut the intensity without cutting her out but didn't know how.

Then they literally danced into each other at Mardi Gras and were a couple again by morning. But she always felt that he held her off. They broke up again, but he kept reaching out to her online, for advice, for perspective. She felt she was the most important woman in his life.

The gravitational pull of the relationship moved to Alice's Facebook feed. Jonah tagged her on Game of Thrones updates; he shared articles about theater and social justice and others that tapped private jokes. He "made me feel that everything was all right, that he still needed me," she recalls. When she tried to break off contact, he boosted the bytes of affection. She curated her own online presence around him. "Everything I posted, I thought, What would he think of this?" she says. "A picture of me looking fabulous, climbing a mountain, on some adventure." She wanted him to see her moving on—the one thing she wasn't doing.

Alice and Jonah were lovers for just a few months, but the long half-life of digital attention from a distance—"orbiting," in today's parlance—kept her hanging onto the hope of rekindling the romance for four years. She finally blocked him to purge him from her psyche and begin the search for a more palpable relationship.

Alice is scarcely unique. Increasingly, men and women find themselves stuck in a virtual spiderweb of contact, connected by keystroke, with exes lingering electronically, not merely visible through intertwined networks of friends but monitoring their online presence, sending off pale signals through likes and tags on social media posts—but not engaging directly. In this newest iteration of interest, rejection is both more continuous and more amorphous, difficult to define, difficult to get beyond.

Because contact takes place on an electronic landscape where communication demands little investment of effort, gauging a might-be-partner's true level of interest is now a nerve-wracking enterprise from start to finish, fueling soaring levels of anxiety. Reports from the clinic as well as the street leave little doubt that ambiguity is the new norm of relationships. How can a generation pushing to banish ambiguity from sexual relations cling to it in romantic relationships, even when it begets paralyzing rumination and self-doubt?

The End Is a Beginning

Endings matter. They shape our memory of the entire experience and even determine whether we can think about the experience, whether we find it pleasant enough to mentally revisit for any reason. Nobelist Daniel Kahneman has spent a lifetime exploring the quirks of human judgment. He's found that memories of experiences are disproportionately colored by how they felt at the end. His peak-end rule establishes that the way an experience ends dictates what we take away from the entire thing.

Breakups are by nature emotionally difficult, but a neatly wrapped up breakup—how two people communicate, how they act as they disentangle—doesn't just make a contribution to happiness, it allows exes to grow and move on toward the goal of finding lasting love and emotional fulfillment. If dating is essentially a series of experiments to find a good partner, a good ending makes it pleasurable enough to cognitively appraise the experience and learn from it. To make positive meaning from loss, the breakup itself is as important as the best times a couple shared.

There's hard biological evidence that breakups present an opportunity for growth. Rejection ricochets through a number of neural systems, and at the same time that it stirs the emotional chaos of pain and loss and longing—resembling addiction—it also turns on higher-order brain networks that facilitate learning. The activity prepares people to adapt to the loss.

Anthropologist Helen Fisher and colleagues conducted a pilot brain-imaging study of men and women who had so recently experienced rejection that the sting of unrequited love could be switched on by seeing a photograph of their rejector. In the wake of getting dumped, the research shows, people experience increased activity in the forebrain area associated with processing gains and losses—an indication the rejected lover is trying to figure out what went wrong, likely evaluating the partner choice made. It's not surprising such a process is deeply embedded in the brain. Rejection, Fisher observes, is a common, even inevitable experience in the search for a suitable mate; the ability to learn from it has direct value for our ability to survive and reproduce.

Deep difficulty is a great teacher if at some point it can be seen as a learning experience. In a study that examined hundreds of personal stories about the end of relationships, Stanford University postdoctoral fellow Lauren Howe, working with psychology professor Carol Dweck, identified a common redemption narrative. Among the respondents who suffered the least emotional damage from a breakup were those who viewed the split as a chance for self-improvement.

Illustration by Edward Levine
Illustration by Edward Levine

In some cases, the breakup helped them accept that they couldn't control what their partner did, or it taught them how to be forgiving. "By seeing breakups as opportunities, people can harness them for self-improvement," says Howe. If you learn something new about your priorities and values in a relationship, you can use the experience to move on to a brighter romantic future, she explains.

The Unending Digital Dump

Relationship dissolution has always been an anxiety-provoking process. The partner pulling away is anxious about making the right decision, navigating what psychologist Roy F. Baumeister calls the moral dilemma of the rejector—having to decide between hurting another person and staying in the relationship, which would entail pretending to feel something one doesn't. Is the relationship too bad to stay in or too good to leave? Is there something better out there? There is no guilt-free option. Only now, thanks to technology, there's the constant sense that something better may be out there.

People are far more reluctant to share bad news than good news—what psychologists know as the "mum effect." And with another nod to technology, the digital era is constantly elaborating new ways for rejectors to avoid the emotional labor of a definitive breakup.

Electronic rejections can be unstintingly pithy, delivered in a one-line text message. They can also, gradually and agonizingly, be inferred through silence, in a phenomenon known as "ghosting": You figure out the relationship is over because your partner doesn't answer your texts, calls, and Snapchats for two weeks. "Silence is the new no, and I really hate that people don't have the courage or integrity to say no," observes Andrew, 61, recalling his relationship with a younger man who suddenly stopped responding to messages.

If ghosting is the inevitable price to pay for the ease of digital communication and online dating, its targets still struggle to accept it, says Leah LeFebvre, a University of Alabama communications professor. They may play it cool, she finds, but ghosting changes them. It makes them more cautious about reaching out to explore new possibilities. "They become less invested in communicating with potential partners and starting relationships; they become guarded, careful, and scared to be truthful to others."

Adding to the torment of ghosting are all the ways an ex can continue to  haunt. Being orbited—a photo liked, a tweet favorited—may offer the impression that an ex is still paying attention, still emotionally attached, but that feeling can quickly give way to wishing things were different. "We all want to feel seen and heard," says Los Angeles psychologist Jennifer Taitz, author of How to Be Single and Happy: Science-Based Strategies for Keeping Your Sanity While Looking for a Soul Mate. "We all want to feel that we matter. Orbiting is a tiny dose of feeling that way." In the long term, an insufficient one.

The emotional cost of watching a former partner through social media is high, Taitz observes. It's scarcely mitigated by breadcrumbing, an active if frustratingly minor sign of interest, such as an occasional Snapchat message or text. Inevitably it leads to sadness. People also struggle with feelings of invalidation. If they still long for their partner, seeing a photo of the person having a great time without them may make them feel they no longer matter. "Keeping up with someone can very easily keep you ruminating, obsessing, and feeling regret," says Taitz.

A Changed Landscape of Love

Relationships today play out on a radically new landscape of love. Electronic contact is cheap; it requires little effort. Emojis can even talk for you, if you wish. Tapping a heart takes only a split second on a free app. Technology has not only lowered the personal investment required for communication, it has vastly extended the reach of communication. People have more connections, but those connections are very thin. Yet connections live on electronically long after they  evaporate in the flesh.

Social networks and dating apps open worlds of possible partners. The upshot is that, by its very nature, by creating the sense of options—and especially the illusion that the perfect partner is one click away—digital romance undermines commitment and fosters ambiguity in relationships.

There are no longer clear signals of interest. With cheapened communication, technology itself makes discrimination of interest difficult. Rejectors who feel morally ambivalent about letting a partner go have the means at their fingertips to string along the partner with a two-word text reply or an emoji, while the partner is left to decoding every micro-move and upturned thumb. A prepackaged flirt message, available on most dating apps, can be sent to hundreds. "The goal is to put out feelers to see if someone else is interested without having to fully lay one's own interest on the table," says Carin Perilloux, a psychology professor at Southwestern University. "That way, if we're rejected, it won't be as costly since we can plausibly deny we were showing interest in the first place."

There's much to be said for expanded options in life. Having choices is critical to well-being and personal freedom. But as psychologist Barry Schwartz has famously enunciated in The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, people have trouble deciding when faced with too many choices. They end up less satisfied. For relationships to work, partners have to commit to each other, an act that requires giving up options. It's also the antidote to ambiguity. Social media serve as a constant reminder of all the partner options out there, ready for exploration the second a conversation sours.And the web of interconnection through social media enables people to monitor former partners even if they don't set out to.

As a result, everyone's on a back burner, hovering on some link in cyberspace, ready to be reactivated with a click. Nicole, 31, thought she was done with her on-again, off-again casual romance with Howard. When she last saw him, she wanted to let him know their sexual relationship was over, but he unexpectedly brought along another woman, "the person he said he wanted to spend his life with." Nicole broke off all contact with him.

Illustration by Edward Levine
Illustration by Edward Levine

Four years later, Howard, newly single, popped up via Hinge, a dating app linked to networks of Facebook friends, by liking a photo she posted—a digital move known as submarining, when someone out of contact for a long time suddenly resurfaces. She decided to see what would happen. The old chemistry was there. But rehashing the past proved upsetting all over again, and Nicole wondered why she'd let him back into her life. "It wasn't like he broke my heart, but still I'm feeling the weight of it."

Ambiguity Is Everywhere

Ambiguity is not just an unpleasant feature of breakups. It suffuses modern relationships from beginning to end. "Ambiguity is pervasive," says Scott Stanley, a professor of psychology at the University of Colorado who researches commitment in romantic relationships. "It's at every stage of mate seeking. People wonder, Are we in a relationship? Is this a date or just a hookup? Do we have a future?"

As a result, it's easier than ever to be in an asymmetrical relationship, where one partner is more interested in maintaining the relationship than the other. A less committed partner has more incentive and more power to keep things ambiguous—the very heart of what makes people so distressed.
Despite having less to lose if a relationship folds, less committed partners don't necessarily want the relationship to end immediately. If they avoid defining what's happening, they can string the more invested partner along as long as they want, prolonging ambiguity.

Pushing for clarity in a relationship potentially leads to conflict about the status of the relationship—which may blow the whole thing up and force the more committed partner to leave. "The current conditions are hardest on people who are seriously seeking a partner," Stanley says. "They're going to have a hard time getting a clear read on the potential for a future."

By its nature, electronic communication does not favor getting a clear read on relationships. And it often replaces interaction that could. Because so much relationship building now takes place through texting and interacting via social media, observes psychologist Barry Lubetkin, founder of the Institute for Behavior Therapy in New York City, people lose out on important social cues that would otherwise let them know exactly where they stand with a partner. Body language, eye contact, facial expressions, pauses, sounds of sarcasm: Is the other person leaning toward you or away—or checking out other attractive people on an iPhone?

"Cues such as these are crucial in understanding a person's interest in relating lovingly to a partner," says Lubetkin. "None of this can be accomplished through texting." The resulting impersonality, he notes, encourages a rejector to take the easy, no-feedback way out when the relationship breaks down.

Previous generations faced far less ambiguity, because the culture scaffolded relationships more. Dating took place largely in the context of looking for a mate to settle down with, and it roughly progressed in stages from casual to serious. There were road signs and markers of partner interest all along the way, because decisions to move forward had to be made at every point. You dated different people, you became exclusive when you found someone special, and, if all went well, you got engaged, then married, perhaps with a stage of living together beforehand. The same framework made it possible to talk about what was happening if moving from one stage to another didn't seem possible or desirable.

Most people still want to find a loving partner, but marriage is no longer the majority experience; and those who do marry are older than ever: The average age of first marriage is now 29.8 for men and 27.8 for women, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. One effect of what Stanley calls The Big Delay is that people are having consequential relationships in a "zone of ambiguity"—without the assumption they'll lead anywhere. All that relationship practice does not make perfect.

In most areas of human endeavor, experience is an advantage. But a long history of romantic partnerships doesn't necessarily make people better at relationships. In fact, research Stanley has conducted with University of Denver colleague Galena K. Rhoades shows that people with more sexual encounters or more experience living with a partner are less likely to have quality marriages later on. One reason is that they are especially aware of alternatives in a way that makes it harder for them to dive all the way into a relationship.

There is a group of people, generally under age 25, who actually seek ambiguity because they do not feel ready to settle down; the general delaying of adulthood, to say nothing of the widespread burden of student debt, has contributed to their ranks. Stanley calls them Determined Delayers. Their attitude can be summed up as She'll (or He'll) do for now, and moving in together is not a reliable signal of commitment. The ambiguity creates few problems if both enter, maintain, and end the relationship with the same attitude—and with mutual appreciation for its having lived out its purpose.

There are others, says Stanley, who have deeper reasons for preferring ambiguity, reasons that may drive behavior from below the level of conscious awareness. The decades-long run of family instability may have produced a generation among whom many think that ambiguity offers protection against hurt and loss. At the same time, he sees some evidence that family instability has generated a greater number of people than ever with  a skittish attachment style. The anxiously
attached may be especially reluctant to press for clarity of commitment, even if they want it.

That doesn't mean uncertainty hurts any less. Both seekers and delayers inhabit the same mating markets. Seekers face a hard time getting a clear read on the potential with some people, says Stanley. And any relationship between a seeker and a delayer is asymmetrical from the start: Only one of them may benefit from ambiguity. The other typically gets burned by investing emotionally before having figured out exactly how invested the other is.

A growing body of research shows that uncertainty can lower well-being when a relationship really matters to a person. Among many other things, strong relationships provide self- validation, contribute to self-enhancement and personal growth, and deliver support. Ambiguous relationships breed uncertainty and anxiety. "Once people want things to be clearer," Stanley says, " they will not do well with uncertainty."

Illustration by Edward Levine
Illustration by Edward Levine

The Soft Breakup Hits Hard

The weakening of relationship scaffolding has taken down whatever social scripts existed for talking about breaking up. If the possibility of a shared future isn't on the table in the first place, it's hard to discuss where a relationship is going. With fewer shared assumptions about the goals of dating and sex, individuals have to be far more skillful at communication in relationships, especially when breaking up. "These are high-skill moments," says Stanley, "and most people don't have those skills."

Instead, people resort to what Stanley calls the "soft breakup," leaving with much unsaid about the real reason for the split and how final it truly is. That silence allows the partner who wants the relationship to continue room for hope that things will change. The withdrawing partner may be more certain that the relationship is over, but doesn't say so, often out of a desire to avoid causing harm, or the messiness of conflict.

"The nature of anxiety is not knowing," says Alexandra Solomon, a psychology professor at Northwestern University and the author of Loving Bravely: 20 Lessons of Self-Discovery to Help You Get the Love You Want. "It's not knowing what's next. Are we in or are we out? Everyone's walking on eggshells. Everyone feels like they're doing it wrong."

When people get dumped without learning why, explains Solomon, they are at risk of interpreting the rejection as a reflection on who they really are, at risk of thinking: They must have done that to me because of the kind of person I am. That person walked away with no explanation because I am weak/ugly/worthless.

Absent a clear explanation, they are subject to seeing rejection as the diagnostic sign of something deeply negative about them. This, Stanford's Howe finds, is how people acquire the "heavy baggage" that they carry into future relationships. Haunted by a rejection, they fear recurrence and do everything to avoid it. They "put up walls" to protect themselves.

Everyone knows that rejection delivers an immediate sting. But Howe could detect enduring pain five years later among those who responded to rejection by questioning their true self. The more material people have for their breakup survival/redemption/I-learned-from-something-difficult, the better, Howe concludes. "In making sense of a breakup, we start to tell ourselves stories about the relationship and our role in its end. These stories are powerful and can influence both how we feel about ourselves—whether we feel ashamed or empowered—and how we feel about our future."

Even casual pairings suffer from ambiguity, and hazy endings can be just as anxiety-inducing as in more serious relationships. In interviews with college students, Kendra Knight, a professor of communication studies at DePaul University in Chicago, found that partners in "friends with benefits" pairings often avoid discussing what they want from each other. Talking honestly about emotions or conflict is part of what defines a real relationship—exactly what participants feel they're not supposed to be having.

Yet, the habit of reticence in casual relationships deters development of the ability to express oneself in more prized relationships. "It's an acquired skill," says Knight. "If you can't talk about being sex buddies," you can't expect to communicate about the difficulties even good relationships face.  

In a world marked by declining empathy, documented especially among the young, text breakups happen because they're easier. If you can't recognize the humanity of others, you can't act with respect for their feelings.

The cost is blindness to the brutality of sparse information. "The [rejectees] have questions: Am I good enough? Why don't they want to be with me anymore?" says D. Scott Sibley, a professor of psychology at Northern Illinois University. "People get scared about facing the hurt they're going to cause by breaking up with someone. But people are hurt most when they don't understand."

Empathy and openness, then, are the essence of The Good End. Moving through partings mindful of the other's humanity gives both individuals the cleanest shot at finding new love.

Illustration by Edward Levine
Illustration by Edward Levine

A Good End

How to do a relationship exit interview—and why you should.

The search for human connection is always a trial-and-error process. That doesn't make breaking up easy to do. But it can be done in ways that preserve the dignity of both partners, prepare both for their next relationship, and mitigate the pain of loss with understanding. Two people who once cared for each other owe each other—and themselves—an honest and kind explanation of what became unsatisfying. "The greatest problem people have in breakups is lack of closure—the need to fully understand what happened," says psychologist Barry Lubetkin. That frees them to move on and grow. Simply disappearing may look like the easy way out, but it corrodes self-respect. A good exit talk takes both a degree of maturity and some planning.

Think Ahead

Before initiating a conversation, deeply reflect on why you want to break up. Does your partner have habits or values that are inconsistent with your own? Think carefully how you will express the unresolvable problems in the relationship.

Be Brave

From start to finish, intimacy is a risky business. There's always the possibility that the person you're getting closer to won't return the feeling or that you'll have a change of heart. Don't expect the conversation to be easy. But it will bring relief.

Plan Ahead

Set a reasonable time and place to meet face to face. Having a breakup interview in a public setting helps individuals manage their emotions, says Lubetkin. If possible, ask your partner's friends to intercede to make sure your partner comes to the meeting and has support afterward.

Engage with Empathy

Empathy—the ability to understand someone else's feelings—is essential whether you're saying or hearing that the relationship can't continue. Being mindful of the partner's humanity helps the person take in what is always heard as something deeply wrong with oneself that caused the other to stop loving: "I know this is not what you want to hear." "Maybe you've been feeling the same weakening of our relationship; we don't have the same warmth."  "I want both of us to have the chance to find the closeness we no longer share."  

Grant the Good

Let the other person know all the things you've respected and admired. Then point out that while those things remain true, the feelings you once had have come apart.

Explain Why

Be honest, calm, and compassionate as you explain your view of what no longer works for you—"I'm not ready to make a long-term commitment."  "Something happened that I can't get out of my mind."—and mention any efforts you've made to get your partner to modify bothersome behavior. Listen carefully when it's your partner's turn to speak.  

Avoid Put-Downs

Breakup talks do not benefit from all-encompassing judgments, either of the person you're leaving or of yourself.  They hurt, and they stir defensiveness, prolonging discussion. Don't resort to  "I'm not a good person. It's all my fault." If there's someone else in your life, say so.

Even Casual Relationships Have Strings

If you've been friends with benefits, remember the friends part. There is some kind of mutual regard and attachment.

Ask for Feedback

Exit interviews are most valuable when they provide information about what you could do better. Ask how your behavior and attitude contributed to the ruin of the relationship, Lubetkin urges. "Was I too demanding? Too clingy? Too distant?"

Show Generosity of Spirit

Once you've discussed what wasn't working for you and why, "end with a wish or a ritual, something that says, 'I release you to the world with love and light. I hope you find somebody who's good for you,'" advises psychologist Alexandra Solomon.

If You Can't Get the Full Story, Write It.

If a breakup convo doesn't go well or happen at all, you don't have to struggle with feeling worthless and humiliated. You can work through what happened on your own. Recount the breakup story in writing, including the failure to get an explanation—a sign the other lacks emotional maturity and that you need someone who can talk through hard things with you.

Disconnect

Unfriend and block each other on social media and take each other's contact information out of your phones. It's not mean. It's enforcing a healthy boundary to permit healing.

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