Breaking up by Email is Inappropriate

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Reader’s Question

I am a single, reasonably successful young male professional who has turned to internet dating due to a distaste for the usual means of meeting potential partners, and due to scheduling constraints. I recently was in a somewhat brief (5 weeks, 10 dates), yet intense dating relationship that involved increasing amounts of sexual activity up to the point of intercourse and other acts of intimacy such as cuddling and sleeping in the same bed at night. Additionally, my date initiated talk of moving on to the next step of physical intimacy and an exclusive relationship, of which I was in agreement.

Suddenly, a couple of days later, without warning, I received a short, nebulous email from her, saying that something had suddenly switched, and she no longer wished to date me. This greatly upset me, not so much because of the rejection, but because of the form in which the communication was made.

I have experienced plenty of rejections before, however, none has left me feeling like I did after this. Is it wrong for me to feel extra upset and belittled at receiving an email, especially from a woman in graduate school studying for a vocation that I believe should call for better behavior, rather than a phone call, or being told in person? Or is there a point where an email is still a perfectly acceptable means of breaking up?

Additionally, in light of increasing use of digital communication to break up, are there any different coping strategies that I could employ to recover from such a situation better? This experience has greatly discouraged me and has made me apprehensive about pursuing another relationship for fear of being on the receiving end of another email such as this, and being left scrambling to pick up the mess and find some sense of closure.

Psychologist’s Reply

I don’t blame you for being upset, because the way in which your former partner broke up with you is unacceptable. As far as I’m concerned (and I’m sure Miss Manners would agree), there is no point in which an email or a text would be an appropriate way to end a relationship. It is rude, disrespectful, and cowardly.

Unfortunately, it seems that many people are using digital communication unwisely. I’ve noticed more and more people immersed in their phones or computers instead of being fully present with the people who are around them. I’ve seen families at dinner all looking at their phones instead of talking with each other, and the places where people used to connect are now full of people ignoring their surroundings in favor of the internet or social media. I fear that this is an incredibly unhealthy trend that eventually leads to people feeling isolated because they’ve lost the skills to connect.

One of the worst aspects of having your relationship ended by email is that, as you pointed out, your former partner took away your opportunity for closure. You didn’t get the chance to observe her body language, get the answers you deserved or even say a proper goodbye. Although it was her choice, she also avoided an opportunity for her own personal growth by not having what was sure to be a difficult dialogue with you. These conversations are never fun but they do teach us the right and wrong ways to interact with people and, by breaking up digitally, she prevented that.

You are not wrong for feeling extra upset and belittled, but it is important to remember that she was the one at fault. The manner of your breakup was not your fault and most people would feel similarly should they be on the receiving end of such an email or text (and I know people who have been broken up with via text). Thus, I wouldn’t allow this one bad experience to prevent you from dating. However, you may want to have a conversation with your next partner about how you all can engage in difficult dialogues, and make a request upfront that the two of you talk face-to-face whenever something challenging occurs. It is tempting to take the easy way out but, in the long run, it is worth it to deal directly with each other.

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