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Love, breakups, and the language of postmodern relationships

Photo illustration of dating app Tinder shown on an Apple iPhone
Reuters/Mike Blake
Parting is such sweet sorrow.
  • Ephrat Livni
By Ephrat Livni

Senior reporter, law & politics, DC.

Published Last updated on This article is more than 2 years old.

Finding a true love was never easy, and neither was leaving someone who proved not to be that elusive creature.

Still, relating does seem to have gotten more complicated in the social media age. The more modes of communication and theoretical partners available, the harder it seems to date, fall in love, and break up in a way that seems humane. What’s the postmodern romantic to do?

For one, get a good mobile data plan and sign up for a bunch of apps on which to advertise yourself and meet your match. Not only that, but be a decent marketer, able to formulate your qualities, desires, and interests in brief. Also, have an eye for design and alluring imagery that make you look cute. And most of all, develop a thick skin. Know that though it all feels personal, much of the inevitable rejection that results from so much choice isn’t about you. No, really, it’s not.

The medium is the message

In his 1964 book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (pdf), philosopher and media theorist Marshall McLuhan argued that the medium is the message. What he meant was that the form in which information is conveyed signals something, just as much as the information itself. Thus, medium and message are intertwined.

The internet age has proven McLuhan right if ever there was a question. Dating platforms and social media have dictated a different mode of romantic communication. And online dating has changed human behavior. It’s transformed expectations about everything from falling in love to breaking up.

As Indiana University anthropology professor Ilana Gershon notes in her 2010 book, The Breakup 2.0: Disconnecting Over New Media, it used to be that when people spoke about terrible breakups, they typically described physical encounters, devastating and weepy final conversations, say, or discovering their lover in bed with another. But her research in the 2000s showed that the digital age offered so many modes of communication that what makes a breakup nightmarish is the medium on which the final message is delivered.

Gershon was surprised to discover the extent to which the 72 subjects she interviewed for her book judged the severity of their breakups by form—that is, platform—rather than substance. Getting dumped sucks no matter what. But getting dumped via text message was worse than a face-to-face heart-to-heart about wanting to be apart, it turned out. A one-paragraph email is not much better, according to Lisa Bonos’ 2012 Washington Post (paywall) article about “the art of the digital breakup.”

Ghost town

Since then, far worse has come.

Ending affairs by text or terse mail isn’t the nicest but the last few years have taught us that no breakup at all—no medium, no message, unless absence of a thing proves its existence—is even more problematic. New modes of disengagement have developed, most notably, ghosting, also known as “the ultimate silent treatment” (paywall).

For the blessedly uninitiated, ghosting is when someone drops out of your life altogether, stops sending or answering messages, disappearing with no explanation. It wasn’t impossible to do in the past but it was a lot harder when the people you dated were humans whose paths you likely crossed regularly, rather than online entities whose lives would never intersect with yours except for becoming intertwined when you both swiped right on Tinder.

Ghosting is the most impersonal and arguably cowardly way to break up. The point is to avoid awkward exchanges, and it works mostly in the ghost’s favor. The ghosted, of course, usually ends up distraught over the lingering worry prompted by the sudden disappearance of their object of affection.

In a 2014 HuffPost/YouGov study of 1,000 subjects, only 13% of respondents had been ghosted and 11% had ghosted someone. That same year, Elle covered the growing phenomenon. By 2015, the New York Times was explaining ghosting. And by 2019, ghosting had spawned its own new vocabulary, as LA Magazine explained last month, including “benching,” which is occasional check-ins to keep options open without actually meeting and “zombieing,” which marks the return of a ghost with a short message that ignores the fact that they previously disappeared. And there’s orbiting, the latest in non-message messaging made possible by new media.

Orbiting

The quiet cousin of the ghost is the orbiter, master of peripheral activity,  who hangs around your internet presence without committing or even directly announcing themselves.

As Rainesford Stauffer explains in The New York Times (paywall), “orbiting could not have existed before the dawn of social media. It is a behavior bound to the medium, and to an age in which people can be hyper-connected without ever speaking. Distant methods of digital observation—likes, views, etc.— are what binds the orbiter and the orbited.”

Anna Iovine in a 2018 article for Manrepeller argued that orbiting is the new ghosting:

I started dating a man—let’s call him Tyler—a few months ago. We met on Tinder, naturally, and after our first date, we added each other on Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram. After our second date, he stopped answering my texts. I soon gathered it was over, but in the ensuing days, I noticed he was watching every single one of my Instagram and Snapchat stories—and was often one of the first people to do so.

Two months later, Iovine unfollowed Tyler on social media but he was still liking everything she posted, while never saying a word. In discussing his behavior with friends, she discovered it was common. Iovine explains, “I dubbed it ‘orbiting’ during a conversation with my colleague Kara, when she poetically described this phenomenon as a former suitor ‘keeping you in their orbit’—close enough to see each other; far enough to never talk.”

Say…anything?

Breaking up has also changed for those who get through dating and marriage, and then end up divorcing. In a 2016 article in The New Statesman, comedian Rose Wilby examined the evolving language of marriage dissolution and what it says about the state of relationships, through the lens of actress Gwyneth Paltrow and musician Chris Martin. In 2014, Paltrow and Martin announced they were “consciously uncoupling” and everyone laughed at their phrasing. But the divorced celebrities with two children seemed to be capable of remaining friends and family and were seen vacationing together, smiling, and looking like they were having a good time; Wilby contends that they reflect a trend in more enlightened breaking up among those with committed relationships. She cites a male comedian friend of hers who has remained friends with a a longtime partner and  explains, “Previously I’d have advised people not to flog a dead horse and just get out but recent events have changed my thinking.”

Perhaps because it’s become more difficult to forge true friendships involving actual engagement in a world where we collect online friends and followers with whom we exchange “likes” and retweets, those who have committed seem to be sticking together in their way, in stark contrast to the growing legion of ghosts and orbiters online. Increasingly, it seems those who do commit and then break up are choosing “living apart together,” sometimes referred to as LAT. This is the quintessential “we’re not in love but we love each other” point of view, updated for postmodernists. Wilby’s all for more of it. She argues that this sense of accountability to partners should extend to online dating as well, not just the end of long-term relationships. “In an era where we can download relationship agreements committing to a certain number of date days per week, perhaps the most important clause should be the one about negotiating an ethical ending,” Wilby writes.

But surely that’s an unromantic way to handle a breakup.

True romance

This Valentine’s Day, if you’re going to dump someone, whether they are a Tinder fling or the one you once thought was your true love, do it the old-timey way. Take them on a date to a public place, where they can sniffle into a drink while you feed them classic lines one last time, explaining how they’re really great and deserve someone better. Tell them, “It’s not you. It’s me.”

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

Breakups suck, but the word “breakup” is wonderful

Before you ghost your date, practice politely dumping our chatbot

A definitive guide to the best breakup movies since 1970

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