Benjamin Franklin once declared, “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes,” but I believe a close third is heartbreak. Breakups happen constantly and although they’ve been around for a long time, the breakups that your grandparents experienced are an entirely different thing than the breakups that today’s high school kids are dealing with. Many people, including Ilana Gershon, associate professor of anthropology at Indiana University, claim this is due to the introduction of increasingly sophisticated online technology.
Never before have there been so many breakup options available to us, but rather than make it easier to breakup it has actually made it much more difficult, Gershon says. With so many new options available, the method we choose has a significant effect on how the breakup is received, she adds.
“When someone breaks up by email, it matters that they could also have chosen to break up by phone, voice mail, instant messaging, or letter,” Gershon says. “People are aware of the options and have distinct ideas about these options.”
A 2015 poll conducted by the Pew Research Center confirmed this when they interviewed over 1,000 teenagers and found that 78 per cent of them believed breaking up in person was the most socially acceptable method. Ranking as the least acceptable was a tie between “changing your social media status to single” and “getting one of your friends to tell them,” at only seven per cent each.
Among the many newly available breakup options mentioned by Gershon, the two that seem to have the strongest influences are social media and text messaging. Despite only 12 per cent of teenagers rating text messaging as one of the most acceptable methods of breaking up, 27 per cent reported using this technique.
“Because of the Internet and Facebook in particular, breakups can involve audiences in ways that people are still trying to understand.” – Ilana Gershon
Research associate at Pew Research Center, Monica Anderson, explains that while text messaging is viewed as largely unfavourable, it does have some advantages.
“Some people said that they used text messaging because they didn’t want to see their former partner hurt, while others wished to avoid facing anger or physical retaliation,” she says.
According to Gershon, another benefit of text messaging is that it allows the opportunity for both people to take a step back from the situation and think about their response before sending it. Also, if you happen to suffer from severe social anxiety like many people do, text messaging allows the person initiating the breakup to bypass a lot of the initial awkwardness and make the breakup as brief as they want.
This option to have a quick breakup can be especially helpful according to recent research by Brigham Young University linguistics professor, Alan Manning, who suggests that the majority of people prefer only a very brief explanation beforehand.
“An immediate ‘I’m breaking up with you’ might be too direct, but all you need is a ‘we need to talk’ buffer — just a couple of seconds for the other person to process that bad news is coming,” says Manning.
Gershon points out that while the actual act of breaking up is what people generally focus on the most, the events immediately following a breakup can be just as important or even more important. In these times where social media dominates our lives, dealing with your new ex can be like navigating a minefield.
“After breaking up, the two people have to figure out how to let their friends know that they are no longer together,” says Gershon. “Is it appropriate to let people know by Facebook immediately, or should people wait to tell their close friends by phone or in person? Different groups of friends decide together what is the most appropriate medium to spread the news of a breakup.”
“When I asked my students who should be the first person to change their relationship status on Facebook after a breakup, people had many different ideas. One woman insisted that the person who was dumped should be the one to end things publicly on Facebook and said that everyone in her sorority thought this as well. But other students said that it was whoever reached their Facebook profile first.”
Others, Gershon adds, didn’t think that the question of who ended the relationship on Facebook was as important as waiting a few days and that it was simply polite to wait before announcing the breakup to one’s social network.
“There were even different beliefs about why waiting was polite. Some thought it was important to wait because some friends would want to hear the news of the breakup by phone. Others thought that people would need time to heal before dealing with the social ramifications of posting the news on Facebook,” says Gershon.
Rather than being a private affair, breakups in the digital age are much more of a public thing, Gershon adds. “Because of the Internet and Facebook in particular, breakups can involve audiences in ways that people are still trying to understand.”
The days of being broken up with in person or through handwritten letters are quickly being replaced by text messages and Facebook updates and what the future holds for breakups is anything but certain.
Editor: Emily Thwaites | firstname.lastname@example.org