Does history repeat itself when it comes to breaking hearts? Yes and no.
The stages of love’s demise are the same regardless of the century, says author Meghan Laslocky in her delightful, if spare, “The Little Book of Heartbreak,” released this month. She begins with the 12th-century tragic affair of the philosopher-monk Abelard and scholar-nun Heloise, and ends more than 800 years later with Rob Gordon, the record store owner who, in the 2000 film “High Fidelity” seeks old girlfriends to find out why they moved on.
All of Laslocky’s subjects experienced what she calls the “arc of heartbreak”: anxiety over whether their beloved really cared, a devastating breakup, rumination, reaching out to friends, a reality check and, finally, acceptance.
What they didn’t have to deal with were Facebook posts, tweets and Tumblr photos.
Within minutes of a separation, hundreds, if not thousands, of people may know about it. And with a breakup plastered across what some call the “digital Jumbotron,” both the wounded and wounder have no time to reflect or craft a story before others have heard.
Consider how different things would have been for Lady Edith, the plain, middle child of the 1920s British family in “Downton Abbey.” Tongues in Oxfordshire most certainly would have wagged when Edith, 25, was abandoned at the altar by her much-older fiance Sir Anthony. However, friends outside the county likely wouldn’t have learned about the desertion for weeks or even months.
Today, Sir Anthony’s departure would have gone viral within the hour.
Author Laslocky, 46 and married, said in an interview that if she were in her 20s like Edith, reading Facebook posts about romantic partners “would do my head in. Today’s exhibitionism online, and airing dirty laundry, is disturbing.”
Molly Amster couldn’t agree more. Age 29 and the director of volunteer services at a nonprofit organization in Baltimore, she split up last year with a woman who had been her partner for almost five years.
Soon after they finally stopped speaking, Amster pulled up Facebook and saw pictures of her ex attending an out-of-state wedding with another woman. She “totally flipped out,” she said.
Amster removed her ex as a friend on Facebook. But that didn’t allow her to escape news about her former girlfriend through their many shared Facebook friends. When the former girlfriend got engaged, Molly learned about it online.
“I would love to be able to never think about my ex again,” Amster says. “My chance of doing that is sabotaged by Facebook. The lure of knowing I can access that information, at any time, hinders healing.”
According to an article in American Demographics magazine, one in three Americans has suffered a breakup in the past 10 years. Some experts say that the end of a dating relationship can be more painful than a divorce — and can be minimized by friends and family while prompting a rush of stress hormones like any other trauma.
Many people are taking steps to limit the potential for their private lives to go viral. Two out of three women who use a social network, for example, say they have removed people from it, according to Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project.
Nicole Mann, a college junior in St. Louis, is dating a young man steadily but decided against saying anything about it online. “We have pictures together on Facebook, people know of us together, we go to events together, so it’s pretty public,” she says. But to put up “in a relationship” on Facebook? They would have to have “the talk” first, and they’re not ready for that.
Also, she says, if they did broadcast on Facebook that they were in a relationship, and then broke up and returned to the status of being “single,” they’d spend days trying to explain why to Facebook friends and friends of friends.
Courtney Karamanol, 27, a lawyer, recently took what her friends saw as a drastic step. She was living in Chicago, dating a man in New York and reluctant to declare herself in a relationship on Facebook. She agreed to do so only when her boyfriend’s buddies started razzing him. When the relationship fizzled, she shut down her Facebook page rather than suffer the viral aftermath. “I haven’t done much of anything since the split, but (my ex) doesn’t really know,” she says. “I kinda think that’s the way it should be.”
Karamanol’s reaction was not as extreme as that of, say, Charles Dickens’s Miss Havisham. Havisham, Laslocky writes, was abandoned on her wedding day and retired to her home in her wedding dress, which she wore until her death.
Karamanol moved on more quickly.
With a couple of taps on her computer keyboard, she got rid of her boyfriend, everyone associated with him, and even friends who might chat about her loss.
Laslocky approves. “There’s an advantage in getting things over quickly,” she said.
Laura Sessions Stepp is a freelance writer.