Breakups are like hideous snowflakes. Everyone is unique; and there are infinite shades of ugly. On the less ugly end of the spectrum are breakups that feel like really challenging life transitions. There are adjustments to make, tears to cry, Chardonnay to drink and ice cream to eat. It may not be a pretty ride, but no one’s car gets attacked with a baseball bat. On the other end of the spectrum, there’s Britney Spears and K-Fed.
Various factors influence how hard a breakup will hit those involved. For example, a 25-year marriage between two empty nesters that ends after decades of drifting apart might not feel so terrible to those involved. But a six-year marriage that produced an adorable four-year-old daughter and a colicky two-month-old son that ends when the husband knocks up his administrative assistant? That one’s going to leave a scar.
In each of those examples, the reactions of those affected are understandable. The empty nesters had spent years emotionally detaching from one another and had already built separate lives; whereas the woman with the two-month-old baby got blindsided. But what about reactions that make no sense at all? Take Emily, the young doctor who looks like a supermodel, and Stone, the shower-challenged musician whose day job is delivering pizza, for example. Why was Emily so enraged over their breakup — especially given that she had been saying for months that she needed to pull the plug and move on? You’d expect Stone to be the one to take it hard — he’ll probably never date anyone close to Emily’s caliber again. Yet Stone was fine and Emily was outraged. (Note that I said outraged, not devastated.)
The explanation is simple: Emily was experiencing a special kind of breakup known as a deliberate under-dating breakup. To understand a DUD breakup, you have to rewind the story of the person suffering from it — because behind every person suffering from a DUD breakup, there’s usually an earlier breakup that set the stage. Emily is no exception.
Four years ago when Emily was in her residency, she fell hard for another young doctor, Jonathan. Emily thought Jonathan was “the one” and expected that they would marry. But two years later, Jonathan took a job across the country and broke up with her. Emily was devastated. (Note that I said devastated, not outraged.)
Months later Emily was ready to resume dating, but she didn’t want to risk getting hurt again. So she deliberately dated down, so to speak, choosing someone she deemed to be safely beneath her in every way. That someone was Stone. This subconscious strategy was her attempt to be in complete control of the relationship thereby insulating herself from emotional injury.
From Stone’s perspective, dating Emily was a windfall. His last girlfriend was an aspiring playwright who worked at Starbucks. He never expected the relationship with Emily to be a long-term thing — and he was cool with that. He wasn’t really a planner, so he was comfortable not knowing what the future held. He rarely thought beyond how he was going to make next month’s rent, anyway. Stone was happy to roll with Emily for as long as it lasted. Stone’s confidence and reputation were enhanced as a result of his association with Emily. The effect on Emily’s confidence and reputation, however, was exactly the opposite.
When Emily finally did break up with Stone, he accepted it and moved on. He started dating again and before long he settled in with an acupuncturist named Skye who lived in an Airstream trailer. Some might not consider an acupuncturist to be as impressive as a doctor; but most would agree that it was better than a barista. (And everyone agrees that Airstream trailers are cool.) All in all, the relationship with Emily was a net gain for Stone. He accepted the breakup and moved forward. The more Stone was okay, the more Emily was not.
And that was exactly what triggered Emily’s rage. If Stone had been devastated, Emily would have been fine. But he wasn’t and that really ticked her off. For the second breakup in a row, she was the most aggrieved party — and that ticked her off even more!
In Emily’s breakup-crazed mind, Stone’s happiness with Skye made her look bad. It somehow put all of them — Stone, Emily, and Skye — on the same level. But Stone and Skye were inferior to her and she wanted everyone to get that. Dating down had totally backfired on her. Rather than insulating her from a bad breakup, it engineered a bitter one instead. And that, in a nutshell, is a DUD breakup.
The more Emily obsessed over Stone, the more she hurt her reputation. It was puzzling enough to her friends when Emily took up with Stone in the first place, but they were willing to chalk it up to being a rebound thing that would run its course. Once they broke up, Emily began acting like a woman scorned rather than doing the logical thing — moving on and pretending that the whole lowmance* never happened. Her irrational reaction to the breakup was making her friends question her judgment, sanity and maturity more than the relationship itself had.
DUD breakups don’t just happen to insecure and egotistical young doctors. Even celebrities can fall victim. A mega pop star gets dumped by her mega pop star boyfriend, then takes up with one of her backup dancers. When that relationship goes south, she goes far crazier than she ever did over the first breakup. If it can happen to Britney Spears, it can happen to you, too. A chilling thought, I know.
If you are wondering whether you are experiencing a DUD breakup, here are two questions that can help you figure it out:
1. Are you sad and/or angry over your breakup, or are you bitter and/or outraged? Sadness and anger are normal feelings associated with a garden-variety breakup. Bitterness and outrage, on the other hand, are leading indicators of a DUD breakup. The difference between these emotions can be subtle, but a good way to think about it is this: Anger generally feels fresh and straightforward; while bitterness tends to feel stale and twisted. The former makes you want to vent at top volume to your sister; the latter makes you want to pick up a baseball bat and smash up a car.
2. Do you sometimes think about getting back together with your ex? Without commenting on the merits of that idea, if in the immediate wake of a breakup you occasionally wonder if you should or could get back together, you’re probably going through a garden-variety breakup. By contrast, if you have absolutely no interest in reuniting with that clown because he is a complete embarrassment to you, yet you still actively obsess over him, chances are you’re suffering from a DUD breakup.
If you recognize that you’re suffering from a DUD breakup, don’t fret. If you can see it, you can stop it. The first key is to learn how to feel good about yourself on your own rather than relying on the crutch of comparison. Dividing people into classes and viewing yourself as being superior to some and inferior to others is exactly what is making you feel miserable and look insecure. The second key is to understand that real relationships and emotional vulnerability are a package deal. There is no way to have a healthy relationship without accepting this fact. If you can’t get comfortable with some degree of emotional exposure, you’re not ready to get into a relationship. Once you master this mindset you will be in a much better position to have both healthier relationships and more bearable breakups.
*Lowmance: noun. a romantic relationship with someone you feel is somehow beneath you.