Don Aucoin, New York Times
New York: It was the middle of a workday two weeks ago, and Larry was deep into a meeting when a text-message began scrolling across his cellphone screen. He glanced at it and thought: “You can't be serious.”
It was no joke. His girlfriend was breaking up with him ... again. And she was doing it by e-mail ... again.
For the sixth time in eight months, she had ended their relationship electronically rather than face-to-face. He had sensed trouble — he had been opening his e-mail with trepidation for weeks — so the previous day he had suggested that they meet in person to talk things over. But she nixed that, instead choosing to send the latest in what Larry had begun to consider part of a virtual genre: “the goodbye e-mail.”
Understandably, he'd like to say his own goodbye to that genre. “E-mail is horrible,” says Larry, 36, an Air Force sergeant from New Hampshire who asked that his last name not be used. “You just get to the point where you hate it. You can't have dialogue. You don't have that person in front of you. You just have that black-and-white text. It's a very cold way of communicating.”
Cold, maybe. Popular, for sure. The use of e-mail and instant-messaging to end intimate relationships is gaining popularity because instantaneous communication makes it easy — some say too easy — to just call the whole thing off. Want to avoid one of those squirmy, awkward breakup scenes? Want to control the dialogue while removing facial expressions, vocal inflections, and body language from the equation? A solution is as near as your keyboard or cellphone.
Take Emily, a 44-year-old high-tech worker who lives north of Boston and who has been on both the sending and the receiving end of breakup e-mails. The sending usually happens at night, when her work is done and the house is quiet. Her thoughts will turn to the relationship she’s in at the moment, and she will ask herself: Is this thing going anywhere, or not?
If she decides the answer is “not,” she sits at her computer and begins to type. One click on “Send,” and the deed is done. Her boyfriend (who might not actually read the e-mail until the next morning) is now her ex-boyfriend. “You don't have to face them,” explains Emily, who also asked that her last name not be used. “It’s definitely the easy way out. It's not the grownup thing to do.”
Yet this might be an inevitable chapter in the short but eventful life of the Internet. A key aspect of the Web has been that it provides a shortcut for so many of life's duties, from shopping to networking (like MySpace.com) or computer dating services (like eHarmony,) that it makes sense that their endings would take place online as well.
None of which is any comfort to people like Kip Sundquist. A systems analyst from Eagan, Minn., Sundquist is now happily married to Betsy Sundquist, a Web editor, whom he met online. But he still has a few emotional scars from the time another woman dumped him by e-mail. He had been seriously involved with the woman in question for six months. They spent so much time together that each had some belongings in the other's apartment. They had even discussed marriage.
Then one day Sundquist got an instant message from her that read: “I can't continue this relationship. Please bring my things from your apartment to me. We’ll meet somewhere.”
Sundquist, 44, was stunned that she chose an impersonal medium for that most personal of messages. “I thought that was harsh,” he says. They met at a parking lot, where he gave her back her belongings and she gave his back to him. “But she never gave me an explanation of why she wanted to break up,” he says.
But perhaps she felt no explanation was necessary, since it has become so common. Meredith Cailler of North Reading has been with her husband since they instant-messaged each other in an AOL chat room in 1999, but she has seen plenty of others use the same technology to opt out of relationships via e-mail.
“I have some single friends who are about my age. They’ll meet people, go on a couple dates, and sort of drop them,” says Cailler, 28. “I have friends who have dumped people via e-mail or have been dumped by e-mail. It’s hard to have those conversations face to face. It’s probably not the best thing to do, but it’s probably easier to e-mail somebody ‘I don’t want to see you anymore’ than to have to look them in the face and say it.”
Sometimes there is a legitimate reason for wanting to avoid personal contact. Tara, a 32-year-old woman who lives near Boston, says her ex-husband was intimidating and emotionally abusive during their marriage.
So when she wanted to end the marriage several years ago, she felt more comfortable doing so by sending a text message.
Tara says that since then she has ended several other relationships by e-mail. “I’m a softie, and I hate hurting people's feelings,” she says. Recently she laid the groundwork for breaking her engagement with a series of e-mails to her fiance. After ending the engagement last week, she reached a moment of truth, she says, and has decided that from now on, if she wants to call it quits, “The e-mail option is out.”
This sort of back-and-forth might reflect what Lee Rainey, director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project, sees as a blurring of the boundaries in modern romance between the real and virtual realms.
“People are living, in many respects, with a foot in both worlds,” Rainey says. “They’ve got virtual stuff sitting next to real-world stuff. But we haven’t worked out the social norms yet. For some people, this will feel really callous. Others feel that, ‘This is how I communicate these days, and why shouldn’t I break up with someone by e-mail?’”
It’s safe to put Larry in the former camp. To him, it was “a kick in the gut” to get those breakup e-mails from his girlfriend — especially, he says, because they enjoyed their time together, did not argue, and were in love. (That’s why he kept taking her back, he says, when she would initiate contact with him shortly after each breakup — again, by e-mail).
The emergence of e-mail as a breakup tool, he says, has made it more likely that people will end relationships on an impulse rather than try to work out their issues. In his ex-girlfriend's case, he says, she would write that she didn't think she was ready for a commitment, or that they lived too far apart, or that their personal situations (each is divorced, with children from previous marriages) made their relationship too complicated. But the one-sided nature of a breakup e-mail meant those issues couldn’t be fully discussed.
The result was that he could never relax in the relationship, always anxious about when the next breakup e-mail would come. And when it did indeed come, he says, “I always envisioned her sitting at that computer and nonchalantly hitting ‘Send.’”
Still, he says he feels no bitterness toward his ex-girlfriend. But after six breakups and eight dizzying months on the e-mail rollercoaster, Larry does admit to some feelings of envy toward her previous boyfriend.
Why? “He didn't have a computer,” he says.