Achy Breaky Heart

Break-ups can be long and complicated, taking days, months or even years.  They can involve many tense conversations and stretches of indecision.  Breakups take work.  Sometimes, faced with the possible work of a breakup, people will try to take a shortcut. They will break up on Valentine’s Day.  There is a cost – you are obviously a cad when you break up on Valentine’s Day.  Your ex will tell stories for years afterward about being dumped on Valentine’s Day.  And your ex won’t have to say much more than: “and it was Valentine’s Day” to earn a sympathetic gasp of horror from his or her audience.

You’d think the same could be said of text-message breakups, or breakups by any media. Texting “its over” (sic) should end the relationship as quickly and cruelly as ending a relationship on Valentine’s Day. It makes an intuitive sense that you can’t text breakup without immediately destroying any possibility of continuing the relationship. But in my research on how people use new media in the process of ending a relationship, I discovered that it’s not that simple. Based upon in-person interviews with 72 people, mainly undergraduates at Indiana University, I’ve learned that using new media to break up with a partner doesn’t have the same stigma as a Valentine’s Day breakup. 

This is a bit strange.  Almost everyone I interviewed agreed that the ideal way to end a relationship was in a face-to-face conversation.  Not all media were equally awful – people would have long and very interesting conversations about whether Facebook message was worse than texting or using instant messaging.  But all media were clearly second-best.  Four people disagreed, and preferred texting or instant messaging to talking to someone in person.  I do think it is telling that all four people imagined themselves to be the ones ending the relationship, and concerned about how to make the breakup conversation as effective as possible.  And one was clear that if she was ambivalent about the relationship at all, she would try to talk about problems in person first.  She valued instant messaging breakups in particular for their efficiency.  These four were clearly exceptions.  Many people who are using new media all the time still believe that breakups should happen in person.

But what people believe and what people do are not the same thing.  People don’t think one should use new media to break up, but they use new media in the process of breaking up all the time. Frank talked about how he would use Facebook to chart the fights and reconciliations in his relationship.  One day he announced the relationship was in trouble by changing his relationship status on Facebook, ten hours later he announced he was back “in a relationship.”  His friends’ first sign that his relationship was in trouble was the rapid changes to his Facebook relationship status.  So Facebook can be a glimpse into other people’s disconnections, but a glimpse that tantalizes instead of satisfying.  His friends couldn’t tell in the moment whether a breakup was taking place – is the newsfeed recording a breakup saga or a story of near dissolution narrowly averted?

So why doesn’t the e-breakup have the same effect as breaking up on Valentine’s Day?  In part it’s because people haven’t yet reached any widespread consensus about all the complexities involved in having emotionally charged conversations by different media.  Valentine’s Day is a widely agreed upon day of ritual romantic importance. Break up on this day and you’ve shattered more than the relationship. But people still aren’t sure how to communicate certain things by Facebook or text, and they are constantly checking with their friends and watching how other people use new media for clues.

One example of these evolving values is the various ways people use the Facebook relationship status “it’s complicated.” Many of the people I interviewed thought “it’s complicated” indicated problems in the relationship; indeed, this was some of the first public indications on Facebook that a break up might be imminent.  Others, however, use “it’s complicated” to convey a different message.  When one student Lindsey put “it’s complicated” to indicate that she was in a long-distance relationship with someone she met during her overseas study in Greece, acquaintances on campus kept asking her if they were still together.  She was trying to use “it’s complicated” to indicate the headaches of a cross-Atlantic relationship, but other students’ first inclination was to interpret the status as a sign that the relationship was falling apart.

Another woman, Rosie, told me that when she first arrived on campus, as a freshman, she became casually involved with an older student in her dorm.  They never were “in a relationship” on Facebook, but they posted “it’s complicated” to indicate that they were in the beginning stages of a relationship, which might or might not progress towards “in a relationship” on Facebook.   These negotiations between the couple about what to use as a status were always done with a sense of what everyone else around them seemed to expect.  In this case, Rosie thought that her older non-boyfriend had a better sense of when people used “it’s complicated” in college than she did.  She later found out that not many people did choose “it’s complicated” to let their friends know a relationship might be starting.

Part of the work of moving to a new place or joining a new group of friends is learning or deciding together what the agreed upon ways of using the Facebook relationship status and other features of new technologies are going to be.  And if all of this is still in the process of being worked out, it isn’t yet clear to everyone what sending a breakup text is going to accomplish.

Sometimes you can text “its over” and the person will never talk to you again. But sometimes it is just the start of a long series of conversation and negotiations, in which you may end up in a relationship with the same person but based on different expectations. It’s not necessarily a breakup that’s a firm or easy out. Breaking up on Valentine’s Day has clearer consequences. Breaking up by new media is still uncertain, still a matter of trial and error.  It’s complicated.