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.
Lisa Bonos is Outlook’s assistant editor.
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