The fact is dating, sex, basic human connection is hard. But we’ve got just the little snack to help. Ask An Alfawhore, the sex and love advice column from the tell-it-to-ya-straight, sex-positive, uber feminist older sister you always wanted is back. This week: the unspoken grind of post-breakup press releases.
I’ve recently ended a long relationship and am in the process of recovery. I think I’m mostly OK, but I hate having to talk about it so much, and feel like every time I have to recount the story I am knocked one step backwards. How can I get away with never talking about it again? Do I put out a full-page ad in the local paper to let everyone know? Does anyone even read the paper anymore?
Suddenly Single in Saavedra
Congratulations, you’ve stumbled onto one of the unspoken secrets of dating life: a breakup isn’t a thing that simply happens once. Instead, a breakup is a gradual process wherein one is forced to repeat, mantra-like, the reasons for the dissolution of a relationship to well-meaning yet out-of-the-loop friends, family members, and acquaintances. There is no one single breakup; the inciting incident turns into a time loop you must trudge through whenever you come face-to-face with the question “hey, how’s your girlfriend/boyfriend/partner?” Which is always much more often than you ever noticed when you were still with that partner.
Like so many of our modern maladies, this can be chalked up to our nature as highly social beings. We’ve been socialized to be aware — and deeply interested in — the emotional matters of people we’re even slightly acquainted with. Of course, our transformation into social-media-obsessed gossip-hounds complicates matters, amplifying the scope of our networks and thus broadcasting our relationships to an ever-growing circle of friends, family, and — ugh — followers. This can make it especially noticeable when a partner suddenly drops out of sight from your online profiles, which plants a seed of curiosity that will inevitably lead to a line of questioning that will force you to recount a sad incident. Sometimes in public. Sometimes in private. Sometimes through a DM exchange. Regardless, it is always a bummer. It always leaves you kind of winded. And it always hurts.
What’s interesting is that this isn’t even about being reminded of a bad thing, because breakups are not something you just forget about. They remain a dull background hum, forever intermingling with every frequency. You can tune it out for a time, distract yourself with fun stuff, but it will find a way to bubble up to the surface. It’ll catch you when you’re out trying to have fun, and it’ll quietly beat you up while you watch everyone else have fun around you. What is disquieting about these conversations isn’t being reminded of a breakup. It’s that they force you to verbalize the reasons for it. And because you want to keep things light, you’ll likely come up with a palatable, over-simplified version of events that can be tossed-off casually in conversation. This will diminish the weight of it and leave you feeling like a liar. But who wants to be a bummer in public?!
I remember waking up the day after my most recent breakup and feeling like I was caught under a weighted blanket of dread. I wandered around my apartment and thought about the explanations, and the emails, and the incessant pangs of conscience that were sure to follow for the rest of the week. I thought about the ways in which I was going to have to fill everyone in. I thought about the phone calls, the text messages, and the unsolicited pep talks. I thought about those tasks like they were a tiresome set of chores: cleaning the apartment, doing the dishes, paying bills, telling people my relationship was over. A checklist of mundanity. I thought about how the breakup process would be easier if it were more cut and dry — one quick severing of all liaisons. Not contentious, but professional. Like ending a business relationship with a firm handshake and well wishes. No unpleasantness. And I thought about how interesting it was that these tasks had nothing to do with my former partner, but everything to do with everyone else.
I sat on my computer, filling the first person in, trying to come up with the best ways to describe it. Nothing came out right. Every line felt a couple of levels too over dramatic or nonchalant or bitter or bemused. I found no way to capture the complexity of the situation, because I wanted to accurately communicate the complicated reality of it. I wanted to convey the good and the bad. I wanted to make it clear that I was fine. I wanted to talk about the internal tune-up that happens with every breakup: the eradication of “oh, here’s something interesting to do this weekend” and “ah, we should go to this restaurant,” because they are a constant reminder that what was there is no longer.
SSS, I completely understand how you feel. You want to put out a press release and get everyone to stop asking about it, because their well-meaning words are like a wave of support that strangles you. But my suggestion is that you seize this opportunity. Because every time someone calls attention to this low background hum of dread, they are helping you chip away at it. Every time you confront this bad feeling, you make it more pliable, more malleable, easier to handle and turn into something else. You want to hide this pain away and isolate it from the rest of your life, but what you really should be doing is tackling it into submission. Sometimes the most seamless thing is to point out “hey, look at this huge fucking seam right there.” Ride this wave where it takes you, because it really does get easier.
And then, eventually, it happens. “It” — the happening — the quiet epiphany that marks the complete severing of your relationship. How and when it happens is different for everybody. But it is an almost victorious moment when it becomes clear that this unrest is nothing to do with anyone else other than the two of you. That’s where your brain finally takes that leap. And it hurts, because it has to. Coming to the sober realization that a person who meant everything to you is fully out of your life is massive. It’s this creeping horror that just rushes up like a sickness and takes full hold of you, strangles and shakes you, squeezing every other feeling out of you so all you have left is this fright. It subsides, but the high-water mark remains. You’re changed, but you’ve made it through.
It’s only after you emerge at the other end of this onslaught of emotion that you can pick yourself up and start letting someone else in. It’s only after you’ve come to that full stop, and you’ve quit relegating the pain and anger to other outside factors. When you’re truly over it and you realize that it’s actually behind you. When you realize it’s okay to stop agonizing because your paths were pulled apart. When you learn to live with the fact that the two of you just had no distance left to run together.
It’s a good feeling. It’s liberating. And you get there by talking about it. So go ahead — don’t be afraid. Plunge head-first into the hurt. It’s going to be okay.