Why Don’t We Have Gift Registries for Breakups?

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Photo: Ali Goldstein/NBC/Getty Images

Two Saturdays ago, I crawled out of bed through a hangover to push a cart through Ikea for a friend who, if things had gone differently, might have been shopping for her wedding registry. Instead, Holly and her boyfriend had broken up. She was plodding now through Ikea’s signature neon-lit maze of shopping fatigue in search of affordable furniture and housewares for her new apartment. It was smaller than the old one, but since she’d be paying rent by herself, the daily cost of her life had jumped. As Holly extricated herself from the relationship and started rebuilding, money came up again and again. Could she afford a neighborhood she liked? Should she rent a car for a day of errands, or order UberXL? Should she mount the TV by herself, or hire a handyman? As she inspected a pile of $0.79 tea towels, Holly mused, “You should be able to register a breakup the same way you register a wedding.”

I stopped in my tracks, the Färgrik plates in our cart shuddering to a halt: “Wait, why aren’t breakup registries a thing?” I didn’t mean Carrie Bradshaw registering a pair of Manolo Blahniks to get payback from her married-with-kids friends — this wasn’t about evening the score or pretending everyday is a celebration. This was about rallying the troops to support a friend in need: organizing the process by which we haul a down-in-the-dumps friend out of the muck, or wish her well as she enters a new phase of life. How strange, I thought, that if Holly’s boyfriend had proposed, I would be paying for the tea towels, and she’d be squeezing them into the already-full apartment she’d shared for years with a man I despised.

“At least half of what makes a breakup so awful is this, going to Ikea,” she commented later. “But that’s why you have friends,” I said at the time, but, even then, I wondered whether I should be expanding my friendship duties. What if, instead of merely accompanying Holly to Ikea, I organized our friends to throw her some single-girl version of a bridal shower? Maybe best friends of the world should accept a new duty: throwing breakup showers. Don’t just show up at your newly single friend’s home with a tub of ice cream — show up with ice cream and a new set of spoons so she has something to put in her kitchen.

But how would the logistics of a breakup shower or registry work? Would you need to throw a party? Is it possible to pull this off without seeming pushy, bitter, and greedy? Yes, I recognize that the mere mention of yet another gift-registered event is probably making your skin crawl, but hear me out — I probably won’t change your mind, but it’ll be a nice thing to rant about next time you take a single friend to Ikea.

“We’ve seen a bit of this kind of registry,” Dana Ostomel, founder of cash-registry website Deposit a Gift, told me by phone when I asked about breakup registries. “But not a lot. People don’t like to pay your bills or clean up your messes.” Even though everyone experiences this type of hardship, “there’s a perception of, ‘That’s your mess and you’re asking us to help you clean it up.’ ” Not that there aren’t ways to get around that stigma: “If you’re in crisis and your friends set something up for you, it feels totally different.” She gave the example of medical hardship funds, which are usually set up by a friend or family member, so they come across as charity instead of begging. “I had a friend maybe ten years ago who threw a party that was like a post-divorce shower,” Ostomel recalled. A different friend had suggested throwing the party, and then solicited a list of items the newly single woman needed, which she then distributed to their mutual friends. A lot, Ostomel argued, depended on the friends and their attitudes. “Especially if you assume she’s going to find someone else and marry him.” This was a good point, I conceded. What if Holly meets a new guy so quickly that her breakup shower turns into a bridal shower? I might get shower fatigue. Ostomel recommended pushing for more of a housewarming-type party.

Others in the wedding-registry industry were more bullish. “It’s really fascinating that you bring this up, because we were actually planning on launching divorce registries this April,” Honeyfund co-founder Sara Margulis told me by phone. Whereas Honeyfund allows newlyweds to raise funds for their honeymoons in lieu of other wedding gifts, its multi-purpose sister site, Plumfund, powers gift-centric fund-raising for any number of life events: retirements, memorials, anniversaries, baby showers, church renovations, children’s sports leagues. The idea to add divorces to Plumfund’s repertoire came from  Arianna Huffington. “Maybe five months ago I was sitting in Arianna Huffington’s office, and she was telling me about HuffPost Divorce, how it’s a huge category for them, and she could see it as a category on Plumfund,” Margulis recalls. She’d already seen people using Plumfund to raise money during breakups — although most were pretty heartbreaking, like the woman who was raising money to go to rehab so she could win back custody of her kids. As Margulis points out, the moments when registries make sense are “the times in life when your closest friends and family — the people who would be at your wedding — rally around to help you.” Sometimes the reason is sad, like recovering from disaster. Other times it’s celebratory, like a milestone birthday or golden anniversary. It only follows that breakups — which are often sad and celebratory at the same time — would be ripe for registration. Plumfund debuted its “divorce” category on a Monday after we spoke. On Tuesday, there were 98 divorce registries.

Or as one longtime single man put it: “Wedding registries are an example of how we help people who are already doing ‘well,’ while pushing those who are ‘falling behind’ further behind by ignoring them and forcing them to fend for themselves. Why would we only give money and gifts to people who just doubled their incomes and lowered their taxes via marriage? It makes no sense.” Maybe, I replied, weddings should offer the option to donate to a recently dumped guest of choice. In lieu of gifts, we ask for donations to the following charitable foundations and/or the bride’s chronically lonely little brother, who is saving up to hire a matchmaker. (Anyone capable of withstanding that level of humiliation deserves everyone’s money. And should be on reality television.) All this registering can, of course, add up to a sort of grimly materialistic view of life, the turning points of which seem to be understood only through the kitchen upgrades they trigger. (Then again, that strategy always works in Nancy Meyers movies.) Our ideal selves aren’t that greedy. Our ideal loved ones don’t need registries, because they are perfectly attuned to our need and tastes. We want to be more than the sum of the things we own, and our lives more meaningful than the things we leave behind.

And yet, our imperfect, real selves have material needs. When your spouse kicks you out, you need a moving truck and cash for a security deposit on a new place. Like every other social institution, marriage and marriage-adjacent rituals reflect our values and norms. We live in a capitalist society that prizes monogamous relationships; failing, or opting out, means taking a capital loss. “You don’t want to think that those material factors influenced the breakup,” a newly single man reflected, “but at some point you sort of are deciding which fights are literally worth it to you.” Three months after moving out of the outrageously affordable Park Slope floor-through he shared with his ex, he went through his receipts to estimate the total cost of the breakup. He would be spending $750 more on rent each month. He’d spent $300 on moving his old stuff to the new place. He bought a new bed, sofa, cookware, the works. All told, the breakup had cost nearly $4,000. If he stays in the new apartment for a year, then he’ll spend roughly $10,000 more than he would have if he’d stayed with his ex — and that’s not even counting all the drinks he’ll be buying at bars while summoning the courage to talk to someone new. These are fees that he is, of course, happy to pay. It’s the price of freedom. Life is expensive and breakup expenses, at least, are ones that signal new beginnings and potentially brighter futures. (After talking to Dana Ostomel about medical hardship funds, it’s hard to complain about dividing the silverware.) But it’s still a drag.

There was a moment at Ikea when Holly had picked up a set of margarita glasses, and had decided to buy them. “Buying something whimsical really helps keep the Ikea experience from becoming too demoralizing,” she said. I advised her to buy four: not so many as to waste precious cabinet space, but enough to justify a margarita-themed party. A few days later, she bought a blender and sent out a save-the-date notice for her margarita party. Seeing an opportunity for some grade-A friend-meddling, I jumped.

“What if we test this breakup registry idea at the margarita party?” I texted. “Like if I email the group with a suggestion that, instead of or in addition to bringing snacks to the party, we bring cute kitchenware to put the snacks INTO?” Instead of bringing a bowl of guacamole, maybe I could just bring a bowl? “If you still haven’t bought a salad bowl, I’ll bring one to put the chips in!”

Her reply, though polite, came down to: If you hijack my party and turn it into a breakup shower, I will absolutely disown you.

“I feel our culture is not ready for this,” she informed me delicately. (For the record, Holly has always been, and remains, enthusiastic about participating in bridal and baby showers. “Holly” is also a pseudonym, if it wasn’t apparent.) “Even though I want a salad bowl, I don’t have the temerity to ask for it.” I didn’t force the issue. She needs to save her temerity for the day I force her to download Tinder.