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. While there have always been messy, lingering break-ups, they used to be more likely to come with clear and definitive ends. In the past, seriously involved couples would break up and sever all, or almost all, contact. That’s a hard break-up: a full stop to the relationship.
Sure, if a couple shared a social circle like church or school or a small town, the two ex-partners would continue to see each other around. But other than such cases, break-ups were hard not soft. Relationships truly ended, relatively clearly.
I cannot give you a number but I believe that more and more break-ups are “soft.” They involve ongoing contact between the partners, even as they enter new relationships, and they might involve a reunion or two before a slightly more definitive end. Mark Regnerus and Jeremy Uecker voice a similar belief in Premarital Sex in America: “Sexually active emerging adults seem more apt to settle into friends-with-benefits arrangements with ex-girlfriends and ex-boyfriends than young adults a generation or two ago.” After breaking up, some couples continue to be physically intimate, which naturally can lead to more emotional difficulties. Even if exes no longer see each other in person, they’re apt to at least stay up-to-date on each other’s lives.
Why the decline of the hard break-up? Technology is a big part of the answer. If you are under the age of 35, you have grown up in a time of rapidly escalating use of online connection, text messages, and social media. Those electronic connections have staying power. You could “unfriend” an ex on Facebook, stop following them on Twitter, and delete their phone number from your phone after your break-up, but you might not bother. Letting things slide is letting all the connections continue. Making a break-up more total requires decisions and deliberate steps. In the past, on the other hand, it took little effort to sever contact, but a significant amount of effort to keep up with an ex. It might have required traveling to a high school reunion.
Making a break-up more total now requires decisions and deliberate steps.
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 came first, but I suspect the multitude of ways to stay connected electronically preceded the social change and made it more acceptable to keep in contact with someone you used to be involved with romantically. (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.)
Why does the evolution of the break-up matter? Because hard break-ups are useful. 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.
Hard break-ups are especially useful to committed couples. 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 in the 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 it 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.