When Breaking Up by Email Is the Best Choice

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Photo: 2/A.C./Corbis

A male friend recently described a breakup where he had no real reason for dumping his girlfriend, just a vague feeling of dissatisfaction and the belief that he’d be happier on his own. Unfortunate, but not unheard of. Normal breakup stuff. Then he described the breakup, which consisted of him sobbing for two hours while seated next to this girl on a sofa. He was so ashamed that he covered his face with his hand, shielding his eyes as tears flowed freely from them, chest heaving as he tried to figure out why he felt as he did. She ended up comforting him. Then she ended up in his bed. Then she slept over, and the next morning, they had to start the process over again.

“That,” I replied, “is a situation in which I’d rather be dumped by email.”

This week, SUNY announced an upcoming “healthy breakup training class,” ostensibly to combat harassment by talking about boundaries. But outside of avoiding stalker situations and literal criminality, what are the best practices for breaking up? As my friend described how the girl he was dumping felt compelled to comfort him — then sleep with him, then continue getting dumped in the morning — I realized that in the game of misery mitigation that is breaking up, even the email breakup (and its glib cousin the text breakup) has its place. Last year, Pew’s study on dating and the internet found that one in six Americans have dumped somebody by email, text, or “other online message.” The behavior tends to have a bad reputation, owing to how impersonal and abrupt it can seem. Being told you do not deserve the love you want is already a mildly dehumanizing situation; revoking human contact during the delivery of that message can be brutal.

Being good at dumping means being good at selecting the lesser of various evils. (And also not really something to brag about, as far as things to be “good at” go.) Breakups are moments of necessary selfishness, when you take away the thing someone else wants, because the thing they want is you, but you are an independent human who has her own desires. By necessity and evolutionary design, you must prioritize yourself. Breakup etiquette exists to make that unavoidable emotional brutality slightly less brutal — and in some situations, the least brutal choice is the medium widely considered to be the most glib. The following breakup situations are, to my eye, reasonable ones for emails, texts, even Facebook messages or the occasional (dare I say it?) Twitter DM:

1. When the Dumper Is So, So Bad at Dumping

To soften the necessary selfishness of dumping, an ethical dumper will accept some burdens to lighten those inflicted on the dumpee. If the dumpee doesn’t want them to run into each other, the dumper will skip a party or two. If the dumpee wants her stuff returned by mail, the dumper will go to the post office. But in some situations, the dumper cannot oblige. If the party in question is occurring at the dumper's house, she does not need to flee. If the dumper is too broke to pay for shipping, she can deliver the goods in person.

And if the dumper and dumpee are in the kind of relationship where they cannot resist emotional extortion, unhealthy dependence, or that thing where the dumpee is like, “Please don’t break up with me,” and the dumper is weak and says, “Okay,” and then has start dumping all over again, and again, and again? Cut it off by any means necessary. When you’re that bad at dumping, you’re going to horrify your dumpee no matter what; accept that you’re the villain and just try not to be the worst villain. Take it from the man who drove one of my friends to a lifetime of dental-hygiene paranoia when he blurted, “And your breath is bad!” while dumping her. If you’re that bad at staying on script, consider scrapping the live performance.

The moment you dump someone, you lose the right to ask anything of them. The era of mutual reliance is over. You’re the one who wanted it this way. Thus, you must not rely on your dumpee for a shoulder to cry on, the bill for the final dinner, or a “sounding board” for the “next phase” of your life. And you certainly cannot expect a dumpee to explain why she is being dumped while you’re dumping her. We must all pray that, should a weeping man ever break up for two hours while crying from behind his hand, we will have the willpower necessary to walk away with dignity.

2. When the Dumpee Won’t Get the Message

Sometimes dumpees refuse to be dumped, and the only way to get the message across is with clear, concise written words. These are the people who ask for so many postmortem coffee dates that you’re spending more time together than before; the ones who demand explanations after only one date; the ones who refuse to be ghosted upon. When a dumpee’s needs exceed that which she is owed, you may extricate yourself by any means necessary. The breakup should not take more time or effort than the relationship itself did.

“But I need closure,” this kind of dumpee sometimes says. And while I respect this sentiment the same way I respect any survival instinct, seeking closure from the person who dumped you is impossible. Nobody ever gives you closure the way you want it. The relationship will be closed when both parties have moved on. If the dumpee needs the dumper to grant permission for her to be over him, then by definition, she is not and she won’t be until she does it on her own.

3. When There Is No Other Way

“Is it ever okay to dump someone by email?” I asked a female friend. “Maybe if you have laryngitis?” she offered. Crippling germophobia, acute agoraphobia, and post-apocalyptic zombie situations where everyone is dying but access to Wi-Fi has somehow been preserved also made sense, we agreed. But so did a few run-of-the-mill long-distance dating situations, like that excruciating, too-common situation where a couple on its last legs feels obligated to use their vacation days and spend hundreds of dollars flying across continents just to get dumped — and then hang out awkwardly in the ex’s apartment, engaging in various emotionally unhealthy behaviors, because what else are you going to do? Go sightseeing in the bumblefuck college town where he’s getting an MFA? (Iowa Writers’ Workshop breakups, I’m looking at you.) In an ideal situation, you only break up once. The whole point is that once it’s over, it’s over forever, and you will never have to endure this particular breakup, with this particular person, ever again.