How Technology Has Changed the Way We Break Up

Catherine Raillard / Corbis

Remember the 2003 episode of Sex and the City in which the girls were shocked that Carrie's beau Berger broke up with her via a Post-it note? The once-promising relationship ended with these pitiful words scrawled on a sticky square of yellow paper: "I'm sorry, I can't. Don't hate me." At the time, it appeared to be an abnormally cruel and cowardly way to leave a lover. But seven years later, it just seems so…2003. Almost quaint, in fact.

That infamous breakup belongs to an ancient era—before Facebook (launched in 2004), widespread texting, and ubiquitous smartphones. The current state of the breakup is more accurately described in popular culture by this lament from Drew Barrymore's character, Mary, in the 2009 film He's Just Not That Into You: "I had this guy leave me a voice mail at work, so I called him at home, and then he e-mailed me to my BlackBerry, and so I texted to his cell, and now you just have to go around checking all these different portals just to get rejected by seven different technologies…It's exhausting."

Around the time that movie was being made, Ilana Gershon, an assistant professor of communication and culture at Indiana University, began to notice a curious phenomenon among her students. She was teaching a class on linguistic anthropology—the study of how language influences culture—and she tried a new exercise to get her students to think about their shared expectations for behavior. "I asked them what makes a bad breakup," Gershon says. "I was expecting people to have really dramatic stories, 'I caught them in bed together,' something like that." Instead, they all responded with tales of outrage about the medium rather than the message, complaining that they got the bad news by text or by Facebook rather than in person.

Gershon decided to study how new technology has changed the rules of romance. She interviewed 72 undergrads, 18 men and 54 women, who shared stories of being dumped via texting, voice mail, Facebook, instant messaging, Skype, and even occasionally an actual paper letter. The result is her new book, The Breakup 2.0: Disconnecting Over New Media. Almost all the people she talked to agreed that the most honorable way to break up was in person, but many turned to new media because the face-to-face conversations didn't get the results they wanted, Gershon says. "They would be in cycles of breaking up and getting back together, and they finally said, 'If I do it through another medium, maybe I will finally end this relationship and I won't be stuck anymore.'"

Although it's a scholarly work, the pain of the stories is clear. A student named Leslie checked her Facebook profile late in the day and found out the guy she thought was her boyfriend was announcing on his newsfeed that he had a new girlfriend. Then, Gershon writes, Leslie noticed that her own profile had changed because her now-ex boyfriend was no longer listed as the person she was in a relationship with.

Facebook's role is unique because it is so public, Gershon says. (In one class, her students compared it to the abstract gaze described by French philosopher Michel Foucault). "Facebook official" has emerged as a new stage in a relationship, Gershon says, but the meaning can differ from one person to the next. Gershon says that some people will claim that a breakup isn't official until it is Facebook official, while others point out that changes in Facebook status may just be a sign of trouble; in many cases it's unclear whether the breakup will take.

Texting creates other problems. A student named Rebecca had an on-again, off-again relationship with her boyfriend, Ted. Just when she thought things were going well, she got a text that said, "this isn't working out." The rest of the breakup was conducted entirely by texting; Ted refused to answer the phone, e-mails, or Facebook messages. Rebecca got angrier and angrier because she couldn't engage him in an actual conversation about what had gone wrong, Gershon says.

Media switching—going from texting to Facebook to e-mail or something else—is common, but there's no widespread agreement on what using different technologies means in the breakup process, Gershon says, and that ambiguity adds to the anxiety. When earlier technologies were introduced, she says companies and institutions put tremendous effort into standardizing usage. "At a certain point, you didn't know whether you were going to answer the phone saying ahoy or hello," Gershon says. "Alexander Graham Bell wanted ahoy, and Edison really wanted hello and his company pushed for this."

We know how that battle ended, but there's no such clarity with today's new media. Now it's all about giving people options. "They are focusing instead on privacy and intellectual property issues, so there isn't the push for standardization that people are used to in teaching them how to deal with these very social problems," Gershon says.

Many of the people she interviewed were nostalgic for the past when, they believed, relationships were marked by real rather than virtual symbols of connection, like wearing a boyfriend's fraternity pin or his varsity jacket, and things were much clearer. Gershon assures them that breaking up has always been hard to do—whether it involves a tearful face-to-face confrontation or a letter written on perfumed stationery or a text. The only difference now is that we might actually have 50 ways to leave a lover, and they all hurt.