I just found an article that says Saudi men can now use text messaging to divorce their wives. Just send the words “I divorce you” three times, and the marriage is finished. Okay, we’re not quite that bad here, but I think we’ve gone overboard with reliance on technology to do things that really should be done in person. What do you know about this? And what’s the right way to break up, if there is one?
From the earliest “Dear John” letter to the Saudi’s text divorces, technology has not only brought people together—it’s let them know they are officially apart. Although it’s unclear how often Americans get the heave-ho in 160 characters or less, I thought science must have explored people’s feelings on the matter— or at least, how people think breaking up should be done in general. But out of over 89,000 formal research articles about breakups, not one deals with Our Topic. I even called esteemed communications experts including Dr. Traci Anderson, just to be sure. No, they said; nobody’s done this research yet, or if they have, it’s not published. This means you win the Original Question Of The Year Award. It also means I did what nerds do: Ran the study myself.
“The Breakup Questionnaire”, just six items long, was given to 55 ethnically and racially diverse college student volunteers in class (avg age 23), and to 30 anonymous respondents from among my Facebook contacts (avg age 41) via Survey Monkey. All 85 participants anonymously stated their sex; age; whether texting was ever okay as a way to end a romantic relationship; if so, when; if not, why not; and what words they would want said to them if they were the dumpee.
Good science rests on consistent results of many studies—not on the outcome of one questionnaire. And my results don’t represent all Americans; they don’t even represent everyone I know. However, the results were surprisingly consistent, whether I compared younger-older, male-female, college-“real-world”, or any combination of the above—which is fascinating.So let’s take a field trip through the data, and then find some solidly research-based recommendations for breaking up.
First off, 87% of all respondents agreed that texting a breakup is wrong with a capital WRONG—because:
—it should be done in person
— it’s cowardly, and
—as Aretha Franklin could have told us, it’s about R-E-S-P-E-C-T, or a lack thereof.
One man summarized the feelings of most when he wrote, “Something that serious should be done in a respectful way, and texting is not respectful. Texting should be used to remind someone to pick up milk, not to tell them that their life is going to change.”
Even the pro-text 13% imposed limits. Younger collegiate adults overwhelmingly named fear of physical abuse as the one acceptable reason. 40-somethings approved the possibility of a text breakup if the dumper was very young, the relationship was extremely brief, or the textee had already acted outside the bounds of propriety—and therefore, had it coming. “I saw you snogging my BFF at the party, you jerk!”
So how should you break up, other than not via text? When answering the question that ended, “What words would you most like them to use when they break up with you?” men and women of all ages and backgrounds overwhelmingly wanted honesty, but not brutality. Respondents strongly preferred their former date to say something worthy about them, and then to proceed to an honest but kind reason for the breakup. The most-desired reasons reflected the theme of a poor match: “It’s just not going to work out,” “I don’t think we’re right for each other,” “We don’t have enough in common,” and/or “We’re not a good enough match.” One woman summed it up: “I’d like for them to mention the positive aspects of the relationship, and then say that they don’t feel we’re a match and give a sensitive explanation…Like perhaps, ‘I have had a great time going out these past couple of months, but to be honest, I don’t feel like this is going anywhere…”
The Big Picture of other relationship research says these respondents are on the right track for long-term happiness. Why? First, because happy marriage remains a major goal for most people, and the best pathway there—demonstrated in dozens of studies— is similarity. These respondents’ desire to hear that “I don’t think we have enough in common to continue” is not only honest, fair and kind in the moment—it’s Truth, a reason deeply rooted in the reality of what makes for a happy permanent union.
Second, as Dr. John Gottman’s tracking of hundreds of couples has shown, respectful interactions are absolutely key to a happy union; a lack of respectful behavior ultimately destroys love and ends marriages. So I hope people will “do unto others” what they’ve said they want done to them, conveying respect even during breakups. We tend to behave in the ways we’ve practiced; and practicing respect all along the way speaks well for long-term happiness with the Right One.
So—Yes, Matt, There Is A Right Way To Break Up, and here it is. In person or, barring that option, in a live phone call, say, “I’ve really enjoyed ________________ about you. But I don’t think we have enough in common to continue, and I don’t feel the way I’d need to for us to move forward together.” No matter how long or how short the relationship, this is kind—you start with something you like, and you avoid character assassinations. It’s honest—after all, if you had everything in common and felt it was working, you would not be leaving.It’s respectful—it’s live and gives the other person the chance to respond. Oh, and—bonus!— it’s unassailable: The other person can’t realistically argue that you do feel the way you’d need to, nor that you find it to be a good enough fit. Finally, it’s plain good practice for The Real Thing later on, when you’ll need respectful, kind acts to be second-nature as they carry you forward and sustain you and your beloved—The One for whom all this painful breaking up is ultimately done.
All material copyrighted by Duana C. Welch, Ph.D., 2009