Break-Up Etiquette 101

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Though it’s an abrupt switch from last week’s column, and kind of a downer going into break, I wanted to discuss break ups right now for a couple reasons. Firstly, like anyone else with a pulse, I have spent most of my time over the past week listening to Adele’s exquisitely heartbroken new album. Secondly and more importantly, two of my close friends are currently slogging through terrible breakups, one bad enough that he’s no longer at school. They’re having really shit times, mostly because their ex-beaus are both being total dicks and it’s really painful to watch. So hopefully, this can prevent a couple of these situations from happening to others.

When we are little, no one ever teaches us how to properly break up with someone. This is a shame, given that most of us will have to be on either side of the exchange at least once in our lives, and it’s a delicate situation that can be hard to get out of without looking like an asshole. The tightrope is even harder to walk in a community the size of a postage stamp. Obviously, breakups are usually easier on the dumpers than on the dumpees, but there’s an art to being in either position.

First off, when you actually dump someone there are a few guidelines. Do it in person. If that would require a plane or a 2 day blimp ride, using the phone or skype is okay, but DO NOT beak up with someone by e-mail, by text message, by gchat, by post-it, by skywriter, by making your best friend do it, or by changing your facebook relationship status and hoping that your former significant other gets the hint. These things are what we call “Dick Moves,” and they entitle you to public ridicule for at least a limited time (proportional to how much of a dick you were).

When the dumping goes down, keep it succinct but light on details. The breakup clichés are cliché for a reason: everyone knows they’re not the truth, but they’re usually easier to hear than the truth. This is a time when easier is better. “We’re growing apart” is nicer than “I don’t love you anymore” and certainly better than “I can’t stand your friends and every time you call me ‘sweetie’ I have to suppress the urge to scream.”

In my opinion, a breakup should be about the length of the body paragraph of an essay. That gives you enough time to get in and get out without being abrupt or going into too much detail. You should not go over your entire relationship history, make small talk, or debate the merits of your decision. The first is unnecessary, the second is also unnecessary and weird, and you should have done the third one before arriving. I was once dumped for three straight hours, and they were confusing, painful, stupid hours that I will never get back. Do not do that to someone.

Post-dumping, there is a mourning period for both former lovers. Obviously, this will be different for every person, and will probably be less intense for the dumper, who has the benefit of premeditation. I like to have a single, semi-dignified crying session while talking to the first remotely close friend I can find/call and then get down to some sustained, slow burning anger. Some people like to go the traditional pint of ice cream, tissue box, The Way We Were route. Others are going to run it out until their sneakers fall apart. Whatever you really want to do, this is not really the time to deny yourself.

There are two exceptions to this rule. The first is excessive drinking. I’m not a huge fan of LMFAO-style drinking to begin with, but in a dumping situation, it usually gets ugly. Drinking only makes you happy in the very short term and only under very specific alcohol conditions, and a post-breakup binge drinking session has higher than average likelihood to end in meltdown or unintended bad decisions. I’m not judging you, I’ve certainly had a few not-ideal post-dumping booze moments, but they’re not the kind of nights that you should aim for. The second is revenge. Hasty revenge plots are never as satisfying as you think they are going to be because ultimately, you’re usually trying to hurt her as much as she hurt you or working through blind rage. Blind rage makes for really bad forethought. And breakups are one of those places where the high road is usually better.

This isn’t idealism; this is pure PR. People pay attention to the actions that others make post-breakup and tend to be judgmental about them. When you’re under scrutiny, it’s usually better to be the Jennifer Aniston or Sandra Bullock than the Jesse James, Charlie Sheen, or Angelina Jolie of the situation. You want to be the one adopting gratuitous numbers of babies rather than the one claiming to be a “total, bitchin’ rock star from Mars” (On second thought, don’t do either of these things, but hopefully you get the point.).

In a post-breakup world, the basic aim is to not be a douche bag. The onus for this is usually predominantly on the dumper, as you’re already working at a possible deficit. On a campus that makes Bigfork, Montana look roomy, this is more involved than it is in a lot of places. The first thing is to try to avoid each other as much as possible in the first few weeks. No matter how amicable the break up was, whether you would prefer that he die or if you might consider being friends or getting back together, there needs to be some kind of clear separation so that everyone can calm down and reboot. This is more and less feasible in different circumstances, but if you were the dumper, it would be nice if you made some concessions. Nothing major, just try to keep some kind of basic routine so she can avoid you easier and try to leave her a few safe spaces where you don’t go.

This also affects your immediate future romantic decisions. The rumor mill at this school puts UPS’s delivery guarantees to shame, so you can pretty much be assured that anything you do will get back to your ex, and soon. I can’t ban you from doing anything or give you some kind of timeline for when things become okay, but the basic rule is whomever you do next, keep it on the DL for a while. DO NOT hook up with her publicly or flaunt your new beau in central campus spaces. There are few feelings worse than watching your very recent ex grope someone in front of you, then bring her to Sunday brunch the next morning. I’ve been there, and it’s not a situation that I would like to repeat.

And if you screw up—if it gets out that you cheated, if you have sent her a CD in campus mail with nothing on it but twelve tracks of “Picture to Burn,” if you have started publicly referring to him as “Pencil Dick”—apologize, and at least pretend to be sorry. You will see each other at least once a day until one or both of you dies or graduates, so if you can’t get along, at least try to get to a place where you don’t want to murder each other.

This last step is totally up to the individual. Once you have established some distance and have achieved a level of acceptance, you have to figure out what kind of relationship you want to have with this person from here on out. No relationship is a totally fine answer to that question, but you may want to try to be friends. I like to reach a point of moderate amicability with my exes. Some people call this maturity. Others call it sadistic.

If you want to establish a new social structure, you have to accept that it will probably involve at least a light version of the past relationship evaluation that you hopefully avoided at the breakup. But this is a delicate situation that is best started very slowly and considerately, usually building from a smile, to a hello, to an inquiry of how they are doing, to light conversation over a series of interactions. This isn’t a step that you need to take, but I usually feel that given time, it’s worth it to not be enemies.

Maybe reading this has made you extraordinarily depressed, but that’s okay. We have a glorious, procrastination-filled week ahead of us. Enjoy it, and don’t make any Dick Moves.