Several months back, a friend and I were discussing the recent break-up of a colleague of ours. My friend had expressed to this colleague’s bromance partner that she thought his delivery of the break-up—via email—was an inappropriate way of communicating such a topic. In response to this sentiment, and in full support of his bro, the bromance partner explained, “It’s the Information Age. He was giving her the information.”
Recently, I met with a friend for Sunday brunch in downtown D.C. I was excited to hear more about the new guy she had been talking to, as he seemed like a great catch, and she sounded really happy with him. However, somewhere between her waking up in the morning and then meeting me at the downtown metro, she received a text message that altered the course of our conversation for the afternoon. The text message was from this man, whom she had been planning to go on a little trip with the following weekend, reading something along the lines of, “Go ahead and cancel that reservation. We can’t do what we are doing anymore. I don’t want to explain. Help me by making this easier for me.”
About a month before, I had my own experience with what it’s like to wake up one morning and find a, “Hey, I’m breaking up with you,” email. And, yet another event that occurred in the past year involved a friend being “given the information” over Gchat. So, in light of the increasing rate of digitally-based break-ups occurring, my friend and I began to further contemplate the topic over brunch. I couldn’t help but wonder—when did this phenomenon actually take root, and more so, what does it mean for humanity as a whole?
It used to be completely taboo to break-up with someone via text message or other digital forms. In some regards, you were socially shunned as a coward, disrespectful, or more bluntly and colloquially, “a total douche.” And, this wasn’t all that long ago, because I definitely remember it.
My freshman year in college, a dorm pal and I used to laugh hysterically over a YouTube video called “Text Message Breakup” by the infamous Kelly. The music video includes an array of people singing in disgust over Kelly’s boyfriend breaking up with her via text message. It’s even complete with a character dressed up as a NSA employee, supposedly intercepting this information and joining in duly judging Kelly’s ex-boyfriend.
A quarter into my sophomore year in college, I decided that my nearly three-year relationship with my high school sweetheart just wasn’t going to work. The burgeoning future was pulling us apart even if we weren’t pushing. I made up my mind, and then I gathered all of my courage, and I drove the five hours home to see him and tell him that I believed we needed to go our separate ways.
It was horrible. I hated it. He looked so upset, and I had to both comfort him, but also stay true to what I knew I needed to do. It would have been so much easier to send him a text and then disappear. But who was I after all of our time together if I couldn’t look him in the eyes and use my own voice to mouth those words?
In Jonathan Safran Foer’s June 2013 New York Times opinion piece, “How Not to Be Alone,” he discusses the advances in technology over the years and how they relate to human connection, remarking, “Each step ‘forward’ has made it easier, just a little, to avoid the emotional work of being present, to convey information rather than humanity…I worry that the closer the world gets to our fingertips, the further it gets from our hearts…Being attentive to the needs of others might not be the point of life, but it is the work of life. It can be messy, and painful, and almost impossibly difficult. But it is not something we give. It is what we get in exchange for having to die.”
We’re living in a world where the D.C. metro system is most recently filled with advertisements in train cars and stations for military drones—personless devices that can kill without emotion. And, meanwhile, we’re sending our own bombs through the wires to the people who trusted us the most. A 2013 survey found that 88% of male respondents had broken up with someone over text message, and 18% of female respondents had. This is happening in a world where “from 1999 to 2010, the suicide rate among Americans ages 35 to 64 rose by nearly 30 percent, to 17.6 deaths per 100,000 people.”
So, maybe my colleague’s bromance partner was right. It is the Information Age, and he was, in fact, giving her the information. But, maybe that’s not the point. Maybe the point is to convey your humanity through your actions, rather than to so simply and detachedly deliver the information. As Foer explained, this type of attentiveness to human needs isn’t easy, but rather “require[s] the hard work of emotional computation and corporeal compassion.”
In Sex and the City, season 6, episode 7, Carrie Bradshaw receives the 2003 version of the text message break up on a post-it note her boyfriend left her, reading, “I’m sorry. I can’t. Don’t hate me.”
What baffles me about Carrie’s post-it, my friend’s text message, and the explanations I’ve received from others on why they chose a digital means rather than connecting with their partner though vision and voice, is that it gets back to being all about the person doing the breaking up in the first place. “I don’t want to explain. Help me by making this easier for me.” “Don’t hate me.” There’s a logical fallacy present when you’re using the easy means to break up with someone (thereby making it harder for that person to digest the event), and then asking them to take it easy on you.
A relationship is the ultimate institution of human connection. It is something we have constructed to house our hearts, our love, our dreams, our trust. So, when we end a relationship through digital, disconnected means, what are we ultimately doing to the human psyche by denying this institution the main thing it’s about in the first place—human connection?
Breaking up with someone is never easy, but sometimes it has to be done. And, when it does, it’s so important to do it with a bit of grace. As messy and hard as it may be, if you’re bringing this news to someone who adores you and has taken care of you for a time, you owe them the grace, the respect, and the kindness of doing it right. It’s something to keep in mind, lest you run the risk of clouding what could otherwise be your good heart and thought in a disingenuous veil. It hurts the human heart to know that love could be gone through an email/text message/Gchat/tweet/etc. when it knew love’s face, love’s eyes, love’s touch so well.
Luckily, there is some good news. In the end, the best way to overcome the modern-day dearth of human connection is to confront it head on with human connection. As my friend and I discussed this topic over Sunday brunch, we laughed and laughed and laughed, and my heart felt whole, and my head felt happy. We riffed joyously over the most obscure potential social media break-ups we could imagine—a several years old MySpace message, a tweet reading: @girlfriend #itsover, a Facebook photo of a couple with the caption: “this used to be my gf.”
So, laugh, laugh, laugh, and brunch, brunch, brunch. And maybe, wrapped somewhere within that beautiful human connection we forge, we’ll all find our courage again, and start to look each other in the eyes.