The art of the digital breakup

So I went through a bad breakup recently.

It wasn’t tough because of the feelings I had for the guy. Rather it was because of the way things ended. After 10 days of silence from him, during which I calmly texted, called and e-mailed, he e-mailed me to say he was overwhelmed with work and couldn’t handle a relationship. No call, no conversation. Two months of dating — we’d met each other’s friends and were seeing each other every weekend — dissolved in one impersonal paragraph.

(Jacob Thomas for The Washington Post)

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Of course, when was the last time you were rejected and thought: Ah, that felt good? Still, from what I’ve seen in my own dating life and what I’ve heard in conversations with other singles and relationship experts, technology has made our breakups even worse.

With so much of life happening on the Internet — and about 23 percent of couples now meeting online — it’s inevitable that “I’m just not that into you” ends up in our inboxes, sandwiched between bills, notes from our bosses and e-cards from Mom. And it’s not unheard of for Facebook users to get news about their romances when the other person changes his or her status from “in a relationship” to “single” — without talking about it first.

A digital rejection can be efficient and effective: The dumper can control the message; the dumpee can’t interrupt or argue. No body language to misread, no tears to witness, no awkward hugs and no breakup sex. But we miss out on a lot when we outsource uncomfortable conversations to our e-mail accounts. In exchange for efficiency and emotional distance, we often give up a chance for real closure — and to show the other person that you care for them and respect the effort you put into the relationship. A face-to-face breakup vs. splitting up digitally is the difference between ending a romance with a namaste bow or using a karate chop.

So where should we put the dividing line between digital and real-time rejection? Online dating consultant Laurie Davis, founder of eFlirt Expert, tells her clients that after three dates, if they want to cut things off, they should call. Not surprisingly, a lot of them disagree. “In such a digital society,” Davis says, “our fallback is that we have any difficult conversation by e-mail or text.”

Or we avoid the conversation altogether, which can be even rougher than outright rejection. A 30-year-old D.C. lawyer who had been on a few dates with a woman who didn’t respond to his texts said that, instead of silence, he would have preferred a simple message turning him down.

“I’d rather have people tell me straight up why something isn’t working out,” he said. Otherwise, “my mind will go to the most negative place.”

Some digital breakups, though, can take you to a positive place. A 28-year-old D.C. nonprofit worker I recently spoke with received an “I’m just not feeling it” note that was so kind, she said, that she didn’t mind that the rejection was digital. A man she’d been out with three times complimented her for being “an amazing combination of fun, attractive and smart” but said that he felt “there’s something missing.” He ended by apologizing for delivering the news by e-mail but said that he wanted to express how he was feeling — and he’s better at doing that in writing. He also offered to discuss it more in person if she wanted.

She liked the note so much that she used it as an outline for the next digital breakup — one she initiated — and she’s even passed it along to about five friends who’ve used it, too. They began referring to it as “the breakup e-mail template,” she said.

Another 27-year-old D.C. dater has a digital breakup script that is short enough to send via text or Gchat: “Now just isn’t a great time to be dating. I’m just going to focus on my non-romantic relationships.” She developed the terse rejection note with a friend about two years ago, she says, when she was casually dating and was “trying to find a way to end things nicely . . . and digitally.”

Of course, the problem is when a digital rejection is more callous than nice.

Ilana Gershon, an associate professor of communication and culture at Indiana University, says a breakup text or e-mail is often just the beginning of a conversation — the 21st-century version of “We need to talk” — that might lead to an in-person meeting. But that transition is rarely smooth. In her 2010 book, “The Breakup 2.0: Disconnecting Over New Media,” Gershon writes about a young man who initiated a breakup conversation with his girlfriend via text message. Because the couple had used texting only for joking around, the woman didn’t know if he was serious. Once he confirmed (via text, of course) that he was, she had no interest in continuing the conversation.

No surprise, the consensus among the undergraduates Gershon has surveyed is that a digital breakup equals a bad breakup.

But there are two exceptions to keep in mind: Dating experts are careful to point out that if you’re in an abusive relationship or are concerned for your safety, choose the method with the most distance, which might be e-mail. And Jodyne Speyer, author of “Dump ’Em: How to Break Up With Anyone From Your Best Friend to Your Hairdresser,” suggests that when the other person has an overpowering personality, e-mail might be a more effective way to deliver bad news.

Bad news is better than no news. For those who don’t get so much as a rejection text, Audrey Melnik has a tool to help them find out what they might have said or done to turn someone off. Through her Web site, WotWentWrong.com, singles can send messages to dates who’ve disappeared, requesting feedback. A recipient can write his own response or choose from prepackaged answers, including: “Too much fighting; You are selfish; You don’t make me feel attractive; You text instead of calling.”

Taking the outsourcing of emotional conversations one step further, Bradley Laborman, founder of IDump4U.com, will make breakup phone calls on others’ behalf for a $10 fee. He’s made hundreds of calls in three years, he says, because he’s tired of people dragging relationships out because they don’t want to be the bad guy. He even posts the audio of selected breakup calls online.

Suddenly, my breakup e-mail isn’t looking so harsh.

Regardless of how a breakup talk begins, there’s a good chance the conversation will eventually make its way into Gchat or e-mail. Once the shock of rejection has settled, e-mail can be at its most productive in the breakup process. A dumpee who was caught off guard by an in-person breakup might want to follow up with things he didn’t think to say in the moment. Or an ex might want to make clear that she still would like to keep in touch.

That’s the kind of e-mail a 29-year-old neuroscience researcher in Washington received recently. He and his ex, who had been friends for seven years before dating for four, dissected their phone breakup over e-mail for about a week. While he said the correspondence gave him some added closure, the fact that he could read and reread her words, and that she kept popping up in his inbox, made the breakup more difficult. “It was like getting re-broken-up with,” he said.

“We’re so good at blurring our memories and forgetting details and fuzzying them out,” he said of in-person or phone breakups. But with e-mail, you can pull up each person’s words, and all those feelings come rushing back. And the notes are forever forwardable — another reason to avoid sending them in the first place.

As technology moves deeper into our lives, we have to work harder to maintain intimacy in our most delicate conversations. There aren’t many dating rules that I believe in, but Davis, the online dating coach, has the right idea: If you want to break things off digitally, do it early — after one or two dates. Beyond that, talk over the phone or in person.

But no matter how many rules you make or how hard you try for a compassionate breakup, there’s always a chance the other person will think it’s cruel.

After my first e-mail rejection six years ago — which included the gem “I don’t feel that special tingle in my feet when we’re together; the unexplainable feeling that knocks you over when you’re in love” — I’ve tried hard not to reject anyone through their inbox.

A few years later, that conviction led me to make a date that had an unmentioned agenda: a breakup talk. When I matter-of-factly told him, a few bites into our tapas, that I just wanted to be friends, he was upset about the message — but more about its delivery.

“Why couldn’t you have just done this in an e-mail?” he asked.

bonosl@washpost.com

Lisa Bonos is Outlook’s assistant editor.

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