In the chorus of the 1977 super-hit “Cocaine,” Eric Clapton sings a line that has since become synonymous with America’s favorite scheduled powder: “She don’t lie, she don’t lie, she don’t lie.”
But, does she? Cocaine has been regarded as a truth serum by everyone from Freud to the CIA, but does that mean everything you say on it is an accurate reflection of how you really feel inside? That’s a question I’ve been asking myself in the months since I watched my friend and her girlfriend go through a very public, very popcorn-worthy breakup during a night of cocaine and tequila-fueled debauchery. I was pretty certain they were donezo after one of them called the other a “fire-breathing pissant,” but the next day, they were back at it, holding hands and drinking beers together at the park like nothing ever happened. They reminded me of the buff dude and the crying girl from Jersey Shore (don’t make me look up their names). How many times did those two break up in a drunken rage, only to be found GTL-ing together again in the next episode?
That made me wonder: When you break up with someone while you’re fucked up, does it actually count? Should the sloppy, ridiculous things people say while they’re drunk or high be taken seriously, or should they just be brushed off as a side effect of a substance?
“I have two very different answers for that,” says Athena Lennon, a counselor at Passages Addiction Treatment Center in Malibu. “The first is no — breaking up when you’re drunk or high absolutely does not count. How many of us wake up from a crazy night, and the first thing we do is grab our phones and say, ‘What the hell did I do last night?’ People do things they didn’t mean to do while they’re fucked up all the time.”
Okay, and the other option? “Sometimes, drugs or alcohol give people the courage to say something they’ve been meaning to say for a long time,” she explains. “At times, they really do help the truth come out. Both answers to your question are correct, and there’s no way to tell which one describes your own situation until you get some clarity when you’re sober. Whether it counts or not really is a great debate.”
She’s not lying about the debate part. I interviewed a dating site VP, a relationship expert, an advice columnist and an addiction specialist for this article, and every one of them had a different opinion about whether fucked-up breakups actually count. However, rather than explain each one in painstaking detail, I’m just going to pit them against each other in an epic battle royale!
Let’s start with the “it counts” people.
In the red corner, we have S. Bear Bergman, an author and advice columnist, who feels, rather resolutely, that breaking up while you’re drunk or high is as legitimate a breakup as any. “I don’t agree with the idea that something doesn’t count because you were drunk or high when it happened,” he says. “Anything you would do drunk, you would do sober. Substances don’t make you a different person, they just change what you feel comfortable doing around other people.”
In Bergman’s opinion, breaking up with someone while you’re drunk is just an outward expression of things you’ve been feeling (or that your partner has been feeling about you). “If somebody is drunk and says, ‘I don’t want to be in this relationship anymore,’ that’s probably their real feelings minus the filter that drugs or alcohol have stripped away,” he says. “It’s a pretty obvious sign that one of you wanted out of the relationship; you just needed some liquid — or powdered — courage to say it.”
Susan Winter, a relationship expert and author of the best-selling book Breakup Triage; The Cure for Heartache, agrees. “It’s been said that being drunk is like a truth serum,” she says. “If you broke up with someone while drunk or high, there’s logic lurking beneath the surface of what appears as sloppy irrationality. You may have been repressing your true feelings in daily life, and now the discontent has found its way to expression.”
In other words, drugs and alcohol provide the lubrication to propel your thoughts down the Slip ‘N Slide of life (and the audacity to write bullshit like that… I had vodka earlier). In both their opinions, a drunken breakup should be taken as a real breakup, and substances shouldn’t be used as an excuse for shitty behavior.
“It Doesn’t Count”
In the red corner, we have Dating.com VP Maria Sullivan, who believes drugs and alcohol can lead us to make decisions we’d otherwise regret. “Technically, it doesn’t count if you break up with someone while you’re under the influence, because often you make irrational decisions that you may regret the next morning,” she says. “While some people say that inebriated thoughts are sober feelings, that just isn’t always the case. If you wake up the next morning with a pit in your stomach and that awful feeling of regret, it’s pretty clear that you made a dumb decision.”
Alcohol and drugs make it pretty easy to do that, too. When you’re faded, your brain floods with dopamine, a neurotransmitter that helps regulate your emotional response. Too much dopamine can make you feel pretty euphoric, but it can also block your responses to stress, fear and anxiety. This can give you the feeling that you can do anything; like you’re untouchable, you can feel no pain and there are no consequences for your actions. In a very real way, it’s like your brain is on a joy ride with the heavy foot of dopamine flooring the gas.
That’s why, when I tell Lennon she has to choose a side because my article depends on it, she decidedly joins team “doesn’t count.” “People always wonder if your drunk self (or your high self) is your real self,” she says. “And it is — but only to an extent.” As Lennon explains, there’s a point when you’re fucked up on certain substances where you’re no longer in control of yourself and your actions are the result of the aforementioned dopamine (and a host of other chemicals) altering the wiring of your brain. Sometimes, those chemicals cause your brain to fire in ways it wouldn’t had it not been under the influence of something.
“I see this all the time when I work with addicts,” she says. “They do things they never thought they would, and it’s not always because they secretly wanted to or they were expressing some repressed desire. I mean, do you honestly believe that that guy who ate someone’s face off on bath salts would have done that if he wasn’t on bath salts? I sure as hell don’t. Drugs and alcohol make you do crazy, irrational shit.” If you’ve ever taken ecstasy and fallen in love with a particularly good-looking tree trunk — or a human being you’d otherwise disdain — you know what she means.
That’s not to say drinking or doing drugs is an excuse for anything, or that being drunk or high gives you some sort of “pass” to be an asshole. You’re still responsible for what you did when you were faded, even if faded you was temporarily possessed by the ruinous spirit of brain-altering street molly. No matter what happened and what you were on, it’s on you to try to piece it together, reflect on whether or not it felt honest, then approach your partner accordingly.
However, Lennon advises her clients at Passages not to have big conversations or make any impactful decisions like these until they have a solid foundation of sobriety. “You really have to have sober clarity if you’re going to break up with someone,” she says. “Otherwise you’ll doubt yourself, and your partner won’t know whether you really meant it.”
Sorry, guys — no easy answers here. Fucked up or not, breakups are complicated, and the factors that influence their finality are rarely cut-and-dry. What is cut-and-dry and mutually agreed upon, however, is that wasted breakups merit a particular day-after procedure that sober, more pre-planned breakups don’t. “Reviewing your actions the day after a drunk [or high] breakup is essential protocol,” says Winter. “But before you approach your mate to talk, it’s important to tie together all the events you can remember. Ask yourself the following questions: Were you out of line? In a black out? Were you being provoked by others, or swayed by external factors? Do you really want to break up? As a good rule of thumb, it’s best to remember what happened, then assess how you feel. This allows you to either reach out for closure, or to make amends if you said something you didn’t mean.”
If you meant to breakup and the decision is sitting well with you, Winter recommends apologizing for the methodology and having a closure discussion with your (now ex) partner in which you make it clear that it wasn’t just the booze or mushroom-whippets mixture talking.
On the other hand, if 12 shots of tequila and a line of coke caused you to make the worst decision of your life, be prepared to give what Bergman describes as a “very compelling case for exactly why you don’t want to be broken up.”
Ironically, however, the same substances that got you into this mess might be able to get you out of it. “The good news about doing a drunk breakup is that you can probably talk your way out of it, should you regret your decision,” says Winter. “It would take work (and need to hinge upon a plausible grievance), but most likely you can salvage your relationship because being inebriated is a well-accepted excuse for poor decision making.” To be clear, that doesn’t mean it should be — it’s just that Jersey Shore situations happen frequently enough that many people are willing to overlook the fuckery of a crapulous uncoupling.
That said, it’s still important to address the issues that lead to the breakup in the first place. Winter says you should state your reasons for your outburst, and highlight the fact that you’ll need to address its underlying causes if you’re going to stay together.
Don’t assume your partner will take you back, though. As Bergman says, “It’s perfectly reasonable to be like, ‘No, actually, when your defenses were down and you were telling the truth, the truth you told was that you wanted to breakup. So as far as I’m concerned, we’re broken up.’” Yep — even though a tab of acid and a couple of Zimas will make you feel like there are no consequences, you might have another thing coming.
If that’s the case, I guess you’ll have your answer to the titular question — a fucked-up breakup really only counts if you stay broken up.