Is Staying Together the New Breaking Up?

To break up or not to break up: That is the question. Faced with the traditional options of getting plastered, pigging out on heartbreak ice cream, or drastically changing your hairstyle, it’s no wonder that many young couples are forgoing the trauma of breaking up and choosing instead to stay together in unconventional ways. But what if you really want out of a relationship quick and and don’t want to cope with the fallout? Kim Beeler suggests breaking up in an unconventional way–throwing a party, opening a bottle of wine with your ex, celebrating both the union and the dissolution. Which would you choose? —The Editors

I got up to pee the other night at 1 a.m. and passed my housemate Sarah in the living room with her date, Eli. I interpreted her closed-mouth smile as impending sex and kept moving. Apparently, I’d made a sleepy-eyed blunder, missing her silent plea for interruption. The next morning over coffee, Sarah told me she just wanted help setting up Eli’s bed on the couch. When I asked her why, she said she was reluctant to get more involved with him because he still lives with his ex-girlfriend, even though they’ve been broken up for over a year. He even called her to say he was sleeping at his friend Jake’s house and not to worry when he didn’t come home.

I don’t know why I was surprised. I’m 29 and I know a number of couples who are allegedly broken up but still staying together in curious ways: living together (three couples I know), spending time together regularly (another two), trysting for months at a time (you know who you are), working together (three), or just calling and e-mailing enough to keep one another hooked (too many to count). “I think we’re too old to ‘successfully’ break up,” Sarah declares. Many of us met soon out of college, struggled through career choices, family deaths, moldy apartments, late-night attempts to read annoying French theorists, empty bank accounts, random crushes, and then turned around one morning to find a friend at the kitchen table, but not a life partner.

I decided to call my friend Parker, who recently attended an ex-boyfriend’s wedding and loves to analyze everything. “I’m suspicious of people who list a series of partners and have no friends to show for it,” she says. “It makes sense for a person to sever ties with someone who has hurt them to the core in that brutal, heart-lacerating type of way. But if you haven’t been abused or your partner hasn’t started bombing abortion clinics, how do you cut them from your life after spending years together, after they’ve become family?”

I think we find it difficult to let go because, relatively unburdened by the pressure to marry, we weigh relationships differently than our parents and grandparents did. Our generation, privy to the woes of our divorced parents and benefactors of the feminist and gay rights movements, has found itself at liberty to shed ideals of traditional marriage–or at least very seriously question its merits. With relationships no longer clearly defined as courting, dating, engaged, married, or divorced, we have a certain autonomy that has changed the way we look at potential partners, and how we construct and inhabit relationships.

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