Breaking up is hard(er) to do

Social media has made it more difficult than ever to split the sheets

Illustrations by the amazing Hayley

Names changed to protect both the craven guilty and the innocent breakee.
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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. I do remember that she and her family moved away that school year, so I doubt that the relationship progressed much further.

A few years later, a girl named Nicole telephoned my parent’s house. It was a wrong number, but since we were both in sixth grade and entering puberty, we ended up talking. We talked every night for a couple of weeks, and at some point we decided to meet. She lived in a different school district, but there was a roller skating rink midway so we met there. All the time we had talked, I didn’t know what she looked like. I remember her being cute when we finally did meet, or at least cute enough to make out with behind the building. I met her a couple times after that and made out with her again, but I don’t remember how our fling ended. One of us probably met someone new during the snowball skate.

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 she was at the register. I ordered 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. And I was very into her. College, ideally, should upend the world and make you reconsider in a good way your place in it. Throw in a mostly unrequited love and you can really spin into introspection, though not always in a good way. Indeed, I remember friends at that time who ventured down the rabbit hole of “nobody understands my pain; woe is me” for far too long. 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 As.

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’m sure most of the exchange was pretty banal; this was new technology, after all, so just writing and receiving a “hello” was novel enough. I was tentative in my assertions toward her, anyway, given the imbalance of the relationship. I do remember writing at one point 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 also in pursuit.

You know what would look great on you?

So I have been around long enough to experience a sea change in romantic connectivity: from passing paper notes and talking on a landline, 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. Or, if you do meet someone in person somewhere, you can likely later find them on Facebook. If they friend you, the amorous trajectory is similar to that of the dating sites. In short, you can not only locate potential mates easily and efficiently using today’s technology, you can also learn a lot about them prior to meeting them in person. Thus when you do meet face-to-face, you are well ahead of the game.

Indeed, 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 in to 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 can likely 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.

In a similar vein, I tell them I envy their easy access to another romantically themed material: porn. When I was young, we had to go to great lengths to get that stuff. It was a fantastic day when, at around 11 years old in the early 1980s, I found two Penthouse magazines in a neighbor’s trash. By the early 1990s, I was struggling to catch sight of a boob in a late-night scrambled cable channel. Even in the late 1990s, you were still forced to furtively visit the backroom of the video store. Now, any type of porn you can imagine is at the tip of your fingers at any time. Orgies? Facials? Japanese tentacles? All and any can be found on YouPorn or Red Tube, and for free.

But I recently discovered a downside to this easy access. A Gen Xer friend of mine had been dating a younger man, but they had broken up over sex. The Millennial could rarely get it up, which surprised me given his age and her hotness. Apparently, he had become so addicted to porn that sex with a real woman was no longer exciting enough. He had spent his late-childhood, adolescent, and college years developing a habit in which he always needed to find new, more intense porn to get off. The easy access to any kind of sexually stimulating material imaginable during his formative years had wired the pleasure centers of his brain in a truly sad and scary way, where a real woman in the flesh had become not titillating enough in comparison to furry gangbangs or bukkake fests. My friend’s situation was echoed by a recent article titled “Did Porn Warp Me Forever? Like other boys my age, I grew up with unlimited access to smut. At 23, I wonder if it’s totally screwed me up.”

It’s not you, it’s me

Like the downside of internet porn, 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. We had a number of shared interests and I chatted with her much longer than I often do with a new acquaintance at a party. 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 cell phone number, which led to a few drinks one night at a bar. We again hit it off, but we parted that evening only with 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. Shortly after this exchange I looked at her Facebook page. I noticed that we both liked Beats Antique and decided that she certainly looked good in several selfies. A couple of hours later another text: “Back from lunch and wanna nap. How you feeling?” I could also use a nap, I replied, but who couldn’t? “Meth addicts,” she answered. No doubt she had a good wit. I looked at her page again and noticed that she, too, liked film noir. A few hours later: “About to drive home. Hope traffic isn’t heavy. Hate that.” I agreed and, once again, I looked at her page. Does she really like Lee Brice? Then later that night: “Reading a book and dozed off. LOL, I think I need my bed.” I too was reading and was about to go to bed, I responded. But before I did, I had one last look at her page. I was a bit surprised to learn that she was a fan of several New Age sites.

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 kept exploring 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. I hate the corporate country of Lee Brice, and I have no religious faith, much less anything to do with crystals and zodiac signs. Or maybe it was physical. She was pleasing but had a different look than the women to which I am normally attracted. Maybe it was simply because I hadn’t dated anyone in a while and was out of the habit of compromise. For whatever reason, the longer we dated, the more my feelings for her lessened instead of deepened. After several months together, I decided that the fairest thing for both of us would be for me to break up with her.

I liked Maria and wanted to mitigate any emotional distress that she might experience from the break up, so I began to slowly pull away from her. 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 and not reciprocating her pet names for me. In general, I stopped initiating contact with her, be it texts or sex. This is a tried and true method to begin a break up. Ideally, the breakee senses the aim of the breaker and in a preemptive strike ends the relationship. The former thus retains feelings of control and self-respect while the latter gets what they want, with relative ease. This ideal, however, rarely occurs. Instead, as the breaker pulls away, the breakee usually redoubles his or her efforts. If the former neglects texts and phone calls and does not initiate dates and sex, the latter will increase these. At the very least, the breakee will hopefully become frustrated with the unreliability of the breaker and will begin to detach emotionally, even if they do not sense a coming split.

Before the internet and smart phones, 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.

Better friends than lovers

Today, because most of us are never without our smart phones, the old excuses no longer work as well. Other than a very few places—the shower, the movies, driving, sleeping—we are rarely unable to answer our phones, and thus always expected to take a call from our partner, or at the very least, call them right back. Likewise with caller ID. It is still an effective way to screen calls, but now your main squeeze knows you know it’s them. “I know you had your phone, and you knew it was me,” they will ask, “so why didn’t you answer?” And if you fabricate an excuse, you better make sure that it’s not contradicted on Facebook. “How could you have been sleeping when I texted? Your friend posted a picture of you at the bar!” I can only imagine the difficulty of avoiding a partner in the near future, when they are able to send a drone to track you down.

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. Maybe I just haven’t yet figured out how to adroitly circumvent the constant contact of today’s technology, but I knew that any excuse I offered would ring false. Plus, 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 woke up to find two texts that she had sent the night before, after I had gone to bed. I decided that for both of our sakes this had to stop. So I didn’t reply to any of the texts that 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 at the time, only nodding occasionally, seemingly in a daze. I’m still 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 that regardless of the 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 break up 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?