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The Myth of the Mutual Breakup

If press releases are to be believed, all breakups are mutual. Recent exhibit: Lena Dunham and her boyfriend of five years Jack Antonoff have apparently split up, and a source close to the couple fed the party line to E! Online, saying it was “mutual and it just made sense for them to end their relationship where it was,” then added, “they want the best for each other no matter what.”

Translation: We broke up because one of us did not want to get married or have children and ended it, and I am a celebrity so I want to look evolved and gracious. Of course, we have no way of knowing what really went on between the couple other than reading the tea leaves of a Twitter account, but anyone who has ever been in a relationship knows that someone — and one person alone — must initiate the pulling of the lever that signals the end. Like the myth of the simultaneous marriage proposal, never have two people in history walked into their home, put their keys down on the hall table, looked at each other and said in unison, “We have to break up.”

Because there is no such thing as a truly mutual breakup, and celebrities, and now normals, need to stop perpetuating this. Best-case scenario? One person says it’s not working out, and the other person is not angry, but relieved. “I’m so glad you said so,” they exclaim in gratitude. “I just lacked the courage to say it first.” Another possibility is that one person says it’s time to move on, and the other person goes along with it to save face. And yet another option is that they are both sad to end it, but after talking or arguing or being told there’s no other way to make it work, the technical dumpee eventually comes around to the fact that it’s over, and maybe even sees that a breakup makes some kind of sense.

I am willing to believe such so-called mutual breakups have happened a handful of times in human history. So why do we insist, as part of our personal branding, on claiming that everyone in a split has lived, laughed and loved, consciously uncoupled, and wants only the best for the other person? Research on this is scant, but according to one survey, only about 22 percent of breakups are mutual. I believe this number is insanely exaggerated by people who, even anonymously, simply could not bring themselves to admit they were dumped.

Still, the other 80 percent of us know the reality: One person ends it, and the other person leaves quietly, argues, fights, sobs, cries, storms out, tries to win them back or fucks their best friend. It’s not that I can’t believe that people don’t accept breakups graciously — I do, they do, and we hate those people, because they remind us of our own shortcomings. It’s just that even that scenario still doesn’t make it “mutual.” Typically, breakups are hard and shitty and they take a while to get over. That’s true even when you initiate it. It’s extra true when you don’t. That is totally fine. There is no need to make this into a gross phony lie of evolved existence.

While we can definitely blame Lena Dunham and her boyfriend, they’re just the latest in a long line of celebrities who use this move. Glancing at a quick roundup of 2017 couples who split, we find that they too almost always peddle the “difficult mutual decision” story. But sometimes, they really sell us a whopper, such as when model Ashley Hart penned a ball-trippingly weird poem to her husband Buck Palmer about the split:

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The Infinite Dance. We danced as we moved to life's perfect beat, Here where we always meet, Not needing to think about the steps of our feet. Where it lead us, we Perceived we achieved, Yet it came a time Unable to hear the music we once believed. Spun around and dipped down, Innocent smiles turned to darken frowns. Shattering dreams of how it's 'supposed' to be, I tried to make it work with every part of me. Lessons, Growth and Explanation of heart, To encompass the fear, hurt and what felt like Tearing us apart. Letting go in complete surrender, Allowing ourselves to be moved again, Separate ways may be perceived with pain, Yet it is this undeniable expansion of love we forever Gain, I feel this Beat, this movement, Truly never stop, Forever Infinitely dancing, like us now, on this Hill top. Here I am, Love, known deeper than ever Before, Like you say baby, it's just taken another form. Always with me, never apart, Forever you @buckpalmer are in my Heart. #Infinitelove #infiniteDance #Omkara music 🎶 #Completesurrender #letGoLetLove

A post shared by Ashley Hart (@ashleyhart) on

Infinite dance? Infinite barf. If only a breakup were the actual equivalent of losing the beat. I’m all for letting go of anger and not holding a grudge, but there is no real need to go completely batshit and describe breaking up as gaining an “undeniable expansion of love we forever Gain.” Really not trying to be a party pooper, but the thing that actually stops and shrinks and goes away when you break up is the love part — which is why you’re not together.

No one owes us a personal story. Yes, of course, it’s a publicity act, a performance. If celebrity people didn’t announce their breakups like they were having the classiest ayahuasca trip possible, how would we know they were more evolved than us and able to live their lives, as one commenter put it on Hart’s Instagram post, “literally on another plane.”

I do not expect on any level to be told the real reason a celebrity couple has split — like everyone, I’ll wait for the divorce filing to go public — but there’s a kind of strange psychosis in treating relationships that don’t work out as a religious personal experience where your main concern is that the other person get everything they ever wanted with someone who is definitely not you. It doesn’t mean you wish them ill, but hey, maybe you do! Or maybe at best you’re neutral.

These are the least likely people to handle conflict well. Research finds that the wealthier you are, the less likely you’ll be good at managing conflict in relationships. And most likely, it seems, you’ll be full of shit. Jack White and Karen Elson, for instance, had a divorce party in 2011 in Nashville to tell the world what great, terrific wonderful close friends they were even though they were splitting. The restraining order she took out against him, of course, told a slightly different story.

But this act isn’t the sole province of fame-hungry narcissists. Regular people announce their breakups on social media and with the same cloying, aspirational language of personal self-actualization. In one anecdote on the trend, a woman, her husband and son staged a divorce ceremony and dove into the ocean together at the end.

I can certainly understand heading off nosy questions by making one main announcement. And of course you’re not going to point fingers unless you’re crazy, unless you point them at yourself. But there’s an idea! Speaking of which, Gwyneth Paltrow and Coldplay’s Chris Martin forever changed our conversation about splitting when they announced their decision to consciously uncouple in 2014, borrowing an alternative to splitting coined in the 1990s to indicate an attempt to maintain mutual respect after divorce, especially if there are kids. The main tenet is to keep it no-drama.

They are actually responsible for the most cringe-worthy aspect of these performances laid out here, but upon closer examination, they didn’t actually pretend it was mutual. They just said they were committed to handling the breakup in a certain way. In the ensuing months, Martin admitted the breakup was his fault and that he needed to do some personal work to grow up. Paltrow admitted it sucked to get divorced—that she “felt like a failure” and wondered what it said about her that she wasn’t able to stay married to the father of her children.

In other words, she dumped him. And then they just tried to not make it too shitty for their family. The absolute juiciest tidbit I can scrounge up about their breakup is that he was depressed for a year after the split and stopped being a vegetarian. They met other people each of them dated while continuing to co-parent and even take vacations together after the split.

Recently Paltrow has decided to “consciously recouple,” to producer Brad Falchuk. Falchuk and Martin are, of course, also friends and actually get along.

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Sunday brunch #modernfamily

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As cheesy and performative as that is in its own way — Paltrow herself called this new chance at love “soul-stretching” — ironically, it’s a lot more like a normal breakup than we ever imagined. So the next time you decide to announce your fake mutual breakup, maybe go stretch your soul somewhere offline and decide against it.