Breakups suck, but the word “breakup” is wonderful

Going your separate ways.
Going your separate ways.
Image: Reuters/Torsten Blackwood/Pool
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What is broken in a breakup? The relationship? Each individual person?

The word “breakup” is a metaphor based on a physical phenomenon. This is true of many words we use to express complex emotions, like feeling “low,” “torn,” or “adrift.” In the physical sense, breaking something up means chopping, cracking, or dividing it into many small pieces. The phrase was first used to describe plowland. Break up the soil, break up into small groups, break up the party because the cops are here.

There is something apt in the description of a “breakup” resulting in many tiny bits. Further metaphors extend this image. One feels “shattered,” one’s heart is “in a million pieces,” one strives to “put things back together.” In this picture, emotions are a 10,000-piece puzzle, held together by the relationship, which the breakup, like a mischievous nephew, has dismantled and mixed up. The end of a relationship has been shown to alter a person’s very sense of self, which they must reconstruct using some, but certainly not all, of the pieces available the last time around.

Yet in the context of the modern monogamous relationship, a breakup means something different. One thing becomes exactly two, not many, and each is left on its own. In this sense, a more accurate metaphor might be a “rift.” The surface of the earth, once seamlessly connected, is now separated by a chasm, passable by bridge but, without lots of time, force, and luck, never to be unified again.

At the beginning of any relationship there is already a rift. Separated by unfamiliarity and uncertainty, the two sides inch closer with shared experiences, trustworthy behavior, good sex, mutual respect, laughter, affection, and emotional support. The nearer those two sides become—including those life-affirming moments when they have fused completely, creating a swathe of land greater than the sum of the parts—the more painful it is to separate them once again. But that pain is even greater if the geological/emotional event that caused the rift has also led one or another side to crumble and break apart internally, or indeed if it was like that to begin with.

This is what makes the word “breakup” so good. Because neither the “rift” nor the “into many pieces” metaphors are satisfactory on their own; instead they work together to provide images of both the brokenness of the self and of the relationship. “Breakup” not only captures the feeling of drifting away from what was once so near, of looking at the other person standing across the gulf, getting smaller in the distance. So small that you are no longer sure whether they are facing you or looking away. It also captures the feeling that you are picking yourself up off the ground, like a window that has had a brick thrown at it.

The relationship is breaking up, and so are you. There is some comfort, at least, in knowing that there is a good way to talk about it.

It’s Breakup Week at Quartz! Here are more stories on breakups, breaking up, and heartbreak:

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