A new study from the Pew Research Center shows that Americans are getting a lot more comfortable forging new relationships online. They’re also becoming quite adept at virtually ending them: Among Americans with recent dating experience, 17 percent have “broken up with someone they were dating by text message, email, or by sending a message online.” Among daters under 30, 22 percent have leveraged the Internet to end a relationship. And women are slightly more likely to shoot off a breakup email than men are—18 percent of them have done it, compared to 15 percent of men.
And yet, in Internet breakups aired publicly on the Internet, the typical sender is male. In a recent xoJane It Happened to Me, Aly Walansky worked through feelings of shock and despair after an on-again off-again boyfriend “dumped me via email after ten years together.” Nikki Metzgar mined similar territory in a How About We essay published last year. Jezebel’s Crap Email From a Dude series has highlighted the most offensive examples of the form for years. And before we texted our discontents, Carrie Bradshaw got dumped via a two-sentence Post-It note: "I'm sorry, I can't. Don't hate me."
As the new Pew numbers show, the breakup email is not a dude thing—it’s a human one. Women, after all, pioneered the Dear John genre. Both Britney Spears and Russell Brand have initiated divorces via text message. Perhaps we tend to hear more about male offenders because relationship writing is a rare online space dominated by straight women like me. Female writers have access to a host of women-branded platforms that prioritize introspective personal essays, while men have been typically conscribed to dissecting their relationship insights in Tucker Maxian venues. Meanwhile, in anonymous advice columns—where it’s perhaps easier for men to air their feels—straight men write in wondering how to cope with digital breakups, too. It’s important that women have venues where they can talk about their distinct experiences among other women. But the gender segregation of these spaces can make it seem like it’s mostly men wielding the most punishing tools in our breakups. It can actually be helpful to know that some aspects of relationships don’t pose a unique burden to women, and in many cases, women and men actually have a lot more in common than we think.
Now that we’re all on the same level: I'm not convinced that breaking up electronically is more traumatic than experiencing it in person. Getting dumped sucks, no matter the medium. We can blame technology, but the problem is usually a lot more human. Walansky’s essay is ostensibly about the pain of losing someone over email, but she lost her boyfriend well before he hit send: “Last year, I nearly died and he didn’t visit me in the hospital,” she wrote. “When I expressed my hurt over it, he accused me of ‘playing the death card’ to manipulate him and we didn’t talk for weeks.” (Talk about burying the lede). Walansky went on to write that the email breakup robbed her of her ability to communicate her own feelings about the situation to him, and “that’s possibly the worst part of all.” But airing your opinion to your all-of-a-sudden-ex in person doesn’t guarantee that he or she will actually listen—and if you’d still like to have that experience, you’re free to send off an email of your own.
Conversations about email breakups often focus on the feelings of the dumped, but dumpers have feelings, too. Cowardice is just one interpretation for why a person might prefer to put it in writing. In the context of some strained relationships, it’s perfectly reasonable to refuse to be alone with a person who you expect may become very angry at you in the near future. And even in more conciliatory breakups, it can be ultimately helpful for both parties to give the dumper a chance to fully assemble his or her thoughts in a message window before contending with the dumped’s demands and appeals. Having a breakup in writing can also help establish clear closure in the moment, and it can stick around as a useful artifact for reflecting on past relationships in the future—no matter who started the thread.