Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The Soft Break-Up

When you really love someone and they break up with you, it’s going to hurt. That can be pretty hard. That’s one kind of hard break-up; hard in the emotional sense. In another way, however, it’s getting more difficult for break-ups to be hard. By this I mean less about emotional pain and more about the clarity with which a relationship stops. There have always been messy, lingering break-ups, but break-ups used to be more likely to come with clear and definitive ends. Hard stops. Full stops.

I cannot give you a number but I believe that more and more break-ups are soft. Why? Technology is a big part of the answer.

If you are young . . ..  Hold up a moment. For our purposes today, I want to define young as being under the age of 35. (I apologize to those of you who are 35 and older for choosing that particular cut off.) Anyway, if you are young, you have grown up in a time of rapidly escalating use of online connection, text messages, and social media. When it comes to electronic ways of being connected, 15 years ago was the Dark Ages.

If you are young per my definition above, this next point may seem unimaginable to you.  Seriously involved couples used to break up and severe all, or almost all, contact. Imagine that, if you can. That’s a hard break-up—a full stop to the relationship. Sure, sometimes when a couple shared a major social group like church or school or small towns, the two ex-partners would continue to “see” each other around. After all, you couldn’t make the other person quit the group just because you were no longer together. But other than such cases, break-ups were hard not soft. Relationships truly ended, relatively clearly. Sure, some people got back together, but fewer than do now. And lots of people have occasionally checked on an ex, especially if they still shared some social network that made it possible to do so (non-electronic, I mean). But mostly, relationships ended and, when they did, that was that. Hard stop.

Electronic connections have staying power. You might “unfriend” someone on Facebook that you had been seeing or were seriously involved with in the past, but you may also just not bother to get this done. It takes some effort. It also used to be vastly more unacceptable to keep any contact with someone you used to date once you were in a new relationship. It’s hard to say which change lead the other, but I suspect the mass of ways to stay connected electronically preceded the social change for it becoming marginally more acceptable to keep tabs and contacts with someone you used to be involved with romantically. People have always been curious about what others they used to date were doing “now.” But it was vastly harder to keep tabs. That’s partly why some people are so interested in High School reunions. That was a chance to see what’s become of Susie or Sam or Billy Joe. (The other social change I’ll not address much here, but one that adds to all the complexity of this topic, is the growth in the sheer number of partners that many people have been involved with by the time they settle down.)

To recap, the default for breaking up used to be fairly rapid disconnection from an ex, along with a relative absence of ongoing access to information about the life of this past love. There were many exceptions, of course. Still, the default was hard break-ups. The default is shifting now toward soft break-ups.

Hard break-ups are useful. They are especially useful to committed couples. New, serious relationships are going to be harder to sustain while people are busily connected to, and still monitoring, their exes. After all, it’s a pretty rare couple that can cope well with one or both partners staying connected with exes through electronic media. Exes may no longer be so ex but that does not completely alter the dynamics of jealousy.

Because the default for breaking up is now soft rather than hard, people have to put more effort in cutting off connections when a relationship ends. There is otherwise a lot of inertia in favor of the connections continuing because we live in a world of links. Letting things slide is letting all the connections continue. It requires decisions and action steps to make a break-up more total.

Does all this matter? Obviously, I think it does. A fundamental aspect of commitment relates to how a person manages attraction to, and connection with, alternative partners. I don’t know what vows are most in vogue right now, but “forsaking all others” is a classic marital vow (at least in wedding services from a Western tradition). That line represents the fact that committing to one partner means choosing to give up other partners one could have had.

Real commitments always involve making a choice to give up other choices. That’s the essence of commitment. If you are in a relationship with potential for a real, lasting future, consider the advantages of making some hard break-ups with your past. You have to decide to do this because of the aforementioned inertia of the otherwise ongoing, electronic connections. You might also have to talk with your partner and work out a plan together for how you will cut some old ties.

As is so often the case, technology brings a vast number of options but this also makes choices more important (and more difficult). Friends are great to have, but a gallery of past loves is a pretty complicated audience for a new stage of life.