Breaking up is hard(er) to do

Social media has made it more difficult to call it quits

Illustration by Hayley Doshay

The first time I contacted a girl because I had a crush on her was in third grade. Her name was Jenny, and she had long, golden hair. I think that’s what I liked about her, or maybe it was just because she didn’t pick her nose. At some point in our budding romance I passed her a note professing my affection—“I like you.” That’s all I remember of this inaugural crush.

Several years and girlfriends later, I encountered Tracy in the first class of my first year in college. It was 1991. She sat in front of me and had long, curly red hair. That alone was enough to get my attention, but she was beautiful, all around. By chance, she also worked at a coffee shop near campus that I frequented and one night, early in the semester, I stopped in and struck up a conversation. For the next three years we dated intermittently but she was never into me as much as I was into her. Thankfully, I never did anything too annoyingly navel-gazing, other than pen some bad love songs. In fact, early into my infatuation, I remember telling myself to redirect toward my courses the energy I was expending on my love-induced existential angst. About a year into the heartbreak, I started getting straight A’s.

That’s not the only upside to the story, though, for Tracy also introduced me to the Internet as a means of communication. It was 1993. She told me we could “talk” via our computers and a dial-up connection. One evening we both signed into a chat room-type platform and started sending messages. I was tentative in my assertions toward her, given the imbalance of the relationship. I remember at one point writing that I felt strongly for her. I then stared at those words on the screen for what felt like an eternity, waiting for a response. When it finally came, she gently replied that the chemistry was not there for her. No matter. I was a college kid brimming with the arrogance of youth, and I remained smitten. The “relationship” ended when she moved away after college, with the boyfriend whom she had been seeing the whole time I was in pursuit.

So I have been around long enough to experience a sea change in romantic connectivity: from passing paper notes to chatting on a nascent Internet, to the ubiquitous online communications of today. Now, in the quest for a potential mate, you can join a dating site and do preliminary research on numerous prospects before ever reaching out to any of them. You can scan their images for physical attraction, peruse their descriptions for mutual lifestyle connections, and even watch for quirks in their photographs or writings that hint at a deeper, mystical chemistry. Once you’ve identified a good prospect (or many), you can email them, and if they reply, you can be assured that at least they’re interested enough in you to do that. From there, you can continue to email, or text, and deepen your connection, all before you even meet in person. Thus, when you do meet face-to-face, you are well ahead of the game.

I have younger friends who I occasionally regale with “when I was your age” dating stories. How it used to be that if you met a potential mate somewhere and you did not get their phone number, your only hope was to run into them again someplace else. How twists of fate were therefore much more crucial. How today, if you meet someone and you get their name, you likely can make an online connection with relative ease. I would have gotten laid a lot more in my younger years if I’d had Facebook, I lament to them.

But a recent relationship has me rethinking my envy of romance in the Internet age. I met Maria in a conventional way, at a party of a mutual friend. She was funny, smart, and physically attractive enough, but I did not think about her romantically at that point. A few days later, I received a Facebook friendship request from her and in the next few weeks, she would occasionally like one of my photos or briefly comment on one of my posts—just enough to remind me of our online friendship. Eventually, she sent me a message asking if I would be interested in meeting for a drink. I replied with my cellphone number, which led to a few drinks one night at a bar. We again hit it off, but we parted that evening with only a hug.

I received a text from her early the next day. “Good morning,” she wrote, “what’s on your schedule?” I replied with my humdrum workday plans, and she replied with hers. Over the next week or so she would text every morning, and we would carry on an exchange throughout the day and evening. I also explored her Facebook page. Thus, when we did meet in person at a restaurant for our second “real date” I felt I knew her well. Consummating the relationship after dinner at my place was the next logical step. We were now a couple, especially to her.

With all the background communications via texting and the Internet, this was perhaps the easiest entrance into a relationship that I had ever had. Except there was one nagging problem: from the start, I wasn’t sure I was that into her. Just like Tracy with me, the chemistry felt off with Maria. Maybe it was the differences in our tastes and outlooks. Maybe it was physical. For whatever reason, the longer we dated, the more my feelings for her lessened. After several months together, I decided that the fairest thing for both of us would be for me to break up with her.

I wanted to mitigate any emotional distress that she might experience from the breakup, so I began to slowly pull away. I would decline every third or so time she wanted to meet, citing previous commitments. When she would text I would wait to reply, keeping my answers short. In general, I stopped initiating contact with her, be it texts or sex. This is a tried and true method to begin a breakup. Ideally, the breakee senses the aim of the breaker and in a preemptive strike ends the relationship.

Before the Internet and smartphones, this gradual pulling away was easier to do. When the main means of non-face-to-face communication was land-line phones, you simply did not answer calls. If your insignificant other left you messages, you would ignore them. When you finally did talk with them you could always come up with a valid excuse. You were out running errands or listening to music in headphones or taking a nap or simply away from the phone. When caller ID became available it was even better, because you could now screen the calls and pick up if it was someone else.

With Maria, the more I pulled away, the more she would text or call my smartphone, which she knew I always had with me. Without the excuses facilitated by land lines, I would always reply. Not responding made me feel guilty in a way that I never felt when I didn’t answer a land line (again likely due to the paucity of excuses). One morning, I decided that for both of our sakes this had to stop. So I didn’t reply to any of the texts she sent me that day, nor the next few days after that. She tried to contact me through Facebook, but I ignored those messages, as well. I don’t know if she knew that I was intentionally avoiding her or not, but when I finally did answer, she acted like nothing had changed.

I thought about how to best end it with her. A text? An email message? In the end, I deemed these modern-day “Dear John” letters weasel ways to break up. All the Internet searches I conducted on “how to break up with your girlfriend” agreed. Instead, they counseled that I “man up” and meet her face-to-face. So I met her at a coffee shop one afternoon. We had a nice chat and as we left, I pulled her aside to an isolated corner of the building and told her it wasn’t working for me. She didn’t show much emotion, only nodding occasionally, seemingly in a daze. I’m not sure how upset she was over the breakup. We are still friends on Facebook, although I haven’t heard from her since.

My latest girlfriend/break-up experience demonstrates to me that regardless of all the new technology, there are still certain universal truths about romance. No matter how much or how often you can stay in contact, or how much you learn about someone via their Facebook page, if the chemistry isn’t there, it’s not going to work. And when you realize it’s not working, even though you can send a breakup text or email, the only honorable thing to do is to end it face-to-face.

The only question I have now is, do I unfriend Maria on Facebook?