Sarah, a 39-year-old from Australia, tells me how she’d “absolutely prefer” to be dumped by text message than in person. “I really hate confrontation, and I like to absorb information in my own time,” she explains. “The best way I got dumped was by a text [from a partner of four months] saying they didn’t think it was working out, listed some reasons and then said they were happy to catch up in person to discuss when I wanted. That was perfect!”
Kat, a 28-year-old in Washington D.C., is in the exact same boat. “Doing it in person seems needlessly inconvenient, and only makes the dumper feel like they did the right thing at the expense of the dumpee not having the ability to regulate their reaction,” she reasons. “Hypothetically speaking, if my husband texted me that he wanted a divorce, I would be upset, obviously, but not really because of the method of delivery.”
People who not only don’t mind being dumped by text message, but actively prefer it, confound me (“After four months? Your husband?!”). After more than a handful of dates, I’d prefer an in-person conversation; perhaps because, as a millennial, the early 2000s pop-culture environment I was raised in stressed that avoiding this is the height of cowardliness. The classic example is the Sex and the City episode from 2003 where Berger dumps Carrie by Post-it Note, a method of delivery Charlotte describes as “infuriating.” “I remember when breaking up over the phone was considered bad form,” Carrie seethes, resolving not to “dignify his behavior with a response.”
But as time marches on and digital technology becomes an unavoidable feature of our lives, it makes sense that our collective attitude toward text-message dumping might soften — and it looks like there is a shifting standard of etiquette occurring. “It seems like everything in the dating world is done via text now,” says Joe, a 46-year-old who lives in North Carolina. “Calling on the phone to talk now is so awkward — we’re not used to dedicating ourselves to one task anymore. Texting lets you give your attention to multiple things.” Joe isn’t one of the people who prefers to be dumped by text — he thinks there’s a one- to five-week window where that’s acceptable, otherwise an in-person chat is in order — but he says that, like it or not, a reduced stigma around text-message dumping is “what’s evolved.”
One factor shifting the Overton window of relationship etiquette in favor of text-message dumping seems to be the rise of ghosting as an alternative: Almost everyone agrees that’s a shitty way to end a relationship, but lots of people employ the method anyway, which makes a text-message dumping seem downright noble by comparison. “If you can say anything, literally anything, it doesn’t matter how — something is always better than nothing,” says Alex, a 26-year-old in L.A. “If for whatever reason you choose text as your preferred method, who am I to judge? At least you told me.”
Even people with opposing views on the subject tend to agree on a few crucial parameters: It’s considered more acceptable to dump someone by text if you were dating as opposed to in a serious relationship, and if the relationship is long distance or conducted primarily online, that’s generally considered a mitigating factor (although some still insist that a phone call or video chat is the bare minimum). That said, these variables can lead to even more confusion: When, for example, have you moved from “dating” to a “serious relationship”? Is it when you say “I love you,” or agree to be exclusive (if you agree to be exclusive)? Or is it after some set length of time?
It’s a highly subjective calculation, which again, renders it a dicey area of etiquette.
What makes this question even more fraught is that some people go so far as to say that in-person dumping is the more offensive option. “Doing it in person is super messed up,” says Allyn, a 33-year-old in Virginia. “The idea behind breaking up in person is that you should feel badly about it and it’s uncomfortable to break up in person, so it’s somehow a penance you should do? But eff that. I don’t want someone to see me cry over them, and they shouldn’t feel badly about ending a relationship that wasn’t working for them. So it makes the most sense to let everyone feel their feels on their own.”
My hypothesis, before I began these discussions, was that this would be an attitude that varies with age: I guessed that young people who grew up with smartphones would be more nonchalant about text-message dumping, whereas older generations would be averse to the idea. And while this does seem to be a broadly fair generalization, I don’t think it’s the factor with the most explanatory force. After all, some of the people I chatted with were young and terminally online but still considered it important to dump someone in person; whereas several of the people who preferred to be dumped by text message were older than 40.
Instead, I get the sense that the individual’s attitude toward breakups in general, and the value of a final, face-to-face conversation in particular, is more determinative than their age. Those who view being dumped as a potentially generative (albeit hurtful) experience seem to think an in-person discussion to hear the other person’s point-of-view and understand what has gone awry is worth the discomfort. On the other hand, those who see being dumped as an inevitably humiliating experience with little room for “closure” prefer text message because of the ability to compose themselves in private and not give the dumper the “satisfaction” of seeing them upset. There’s also the relative convenience; as Blake, a 28-year-old in Brooklyn, puts it, “It’s not like getting broken up with in person feels good. It feels bad, and then you have to drive or take the train home feeling bad.”
Given this drastic divergence in personal preference, what’s a prospective dumper to do? Either way you go, it seems there’s the potential for the dumpee to find your method of choice unforgivably rude. And while the best solution is probably to feel out your partner’s attitude to the question in advance, directly asking has the potential to set off awkward alarm bells. Thus, you’re probably going to need to take a gut-feeling approach, based on the nature and length of the relationship and your knowledge of your partner. “I suppose that’s the ideal,” Sarah muses. “Someone who cares enough to think about the way you’d want to receive the message, regardless of what other people thought.”
Or you could take Allyn’s advice, who remains hardline in their preference. “The dumpee will be hurt either way,” they say. “You’re not gonna win any brownie points for dumping someone in person, so it might as well be over text.”