For a while, my friend was dating a man whose name I can’t remember. But she, and by extension I, called him Trashfire Daddy. During the salad days, his nickname was Snapchat Daddy, as the app was the main way they communicated. But after he blew off a date only to show up drunk at her door in athleisure at 3 a.m for the tenth time, she’d finally had enough. And so, he was downgraded to burning garbagio.
I always thought his nickname was just between friends until she revealed that she’d changed his real name to Trashfire Daddy in her iPhone, too, the millennial paper of record. This particular crush de-escalation tactic is popular and comes in many forms. For some, it’s insulting (I’m A Fucking Hot Mess Lunatic Wishy Washy Fickle Fuck); for others, it’s sad (He Doesn’t Love You); and for everyone else, it’s clever (Tinman, Doesn’t Have a Heart). Pick your poison with regards to tone, but the digital name-change — like a self-cock block — remains a tried-and-true (if new-ish) break-up strategy that’s designed to discourage contact — but also so much more.
In an attempt to rid my friend of a spreading Trashfire, a bunch of us went on a beach trip that summer. The first line of defense was simple: into her phone we went. There’s a false tendency to see our digital lives as separate from our IRL ones: the interactions less meaningful and connections less strong. Nowhere is that fallacy more evident than in matters of the heart. Thankfully, a 2015 study of 72 millennials at Indiana University debunked the idea that face-to-face communication is more powerful than any other kind. “People who sent romantic emails were more emotionally aroused and used stronger and more thoughtful language than those who left voicemails,” researchers found.
Technology, they offer, is like “an umbilical cord” — the pull of which is perhaps strongest when you’re navigating the waters of love or lust or whatever you like to call sending someone a picture of your butt. That means your phone can become, depending on who you’re talking to, not a source of comfort but your “biggest enemy,” as my friend once referred to hers. Basically, they’re ticking time bombs ready to blow with the light of just one risky text.
Back, though, to my friend and our beachside intervention. To help her become less of a messy bitch who loves drama, we searched her phone for Trashfire Daddy so we could block and delete the contact — the only real way to ensure an end to the relationship. To our surprise, though, our search revealed numerous other Daddies. (The next time a woman calls you daddy, consider the likely possibility you’re not even close to the only one — and I’m not talking about her literal father.) In addition to the Trashfire, there was…
- Asshole Daddy: 2016, ran a food truck, inappropriate text messages about ass eating.
- Other Asshole Daddy: 2014, surfer/bartender, on-and-off for years, pre-Trashfire Trashfire.
- Pot Daddy: 2014, drug dealer from Queens.
- Skater Daddy: Year unknown, 40-year-old who lived with his mother, worked at Foot Locker.
- Coke Daddy: Details not available.
Not all the Daddies had overtly negative modifiers like Trashfire, but they were nonetheless designed to defang and reframe relationships as maybe-just-sexual and meaningless. “It served as a reminder of who they are and why I didn’t like them,” my friend says now. “There was a piece of it where they had power over my life in some way, and it wasn’t an influence I was happy about. It was a toxic relationship with a shitty guy. There are men in my life I have good relationships with, but they aren’t in my phone as Daddy. This isn’t someone I’m gonna date in a serious way; it was a dig at them and an acknowledgment of deep psychological warfare between us and very fucked-up power dynamics.”
This clever distancing from pain is the peak of what writer Leslie Jamison once called “post-wounded” in describing the behavior in Lena Dunham’s Girls. “Their hurt has a new native language spoken in several dialects: sarcastic, jaded, opaque; cool and clever,” Jamison wrote. “They guard against those moments when melodrama or self-pity might split their careful seams of intellect, expose the shame of self-absorption without self-awareness.”
The reason for doing so is simple enough on its face: to cut off the relationship. (Though, in the case of my gay male friend, it’s to keep a record of what sex stuff went down and where, i.e. Tenjune Fingered Me.) In fact, some of the Daddies in my friend’s phone are so old now she can’t even recall their real names, which is exactly the point. “It’s funny that it started as a joke, like you’re not even serious enough for me to remember you,” my friend says. “But the language of daddy gave me the tools to talk about this in a way that was honest, and all my friend’s understood it because relationships like this are a shared experience.”
I was very familiar with this approach myself, though always too dramatic to give my ex-whatevers a funny name, preferring to stick with things like This Person Doesn’t Love You or Sociopath. My personal habit dates back to 2005, on the first cell phone I ever owned (a Nokia) with the first boyfriend I ever had (Biggest Asshole In The World). Years after we broke up and I long forgot about him and his rampant cheating, I ran into him on the main drag of our hometown neighborhood. Since this was before everyone had a cell phone, he asked to borrow mine and quickly call home. Imagine my horror/delight when he realized how I’d decided to rebrand him.
“I used to change numbers to funny things like Have Dignity so I’d remember the inevitable shitshow that answering or reaching out would cause,” says writer Alana Massey, who once named a guy Good Luck With Your Measles because he was revealed to be an anti-vaxxer. The idea is to “forget that contact was ever an option.” Similarly, when Alix McAlpine, a director of brand strategy, became single for the first time in five years, she found she had “no self-control when it came to running something into the ground. Sober Alix was trying to manage Drunk Alix’s bad texting impulses” with names like No Alix No and Bad Bad. MEL contributing writer Tierney Finster says she does it because she’s better at “setting boundaries than honoring them,” thus Don’t Fucking Respond.
Lest you think women are the only ones labelling their relationships with a coded Do Not Resuscitate, I found plenty of men who do the exact same thing. “I’d change their name to something repellent or discouraging,” says a guy who follows me on Instagram. “One ex became Boring Bloodless after she left me. A stalky type became Anonymous Caller. More recently, trying not to backslide for umpteenth time, I tried Never Again.”
Similarly, MEL video editor Ernest Crosby once went with DNA, short for Do Not Answer because “DNA staring you in the face makes you think about your choices,” he says. “You have to trust your past you. So I had to change the name because I couldn’t trust the future me.” There’s also the guy who changed a bad one-night-stand to Don’t Do It. “After some time passed, the details of who they were faded,” he explains. “Not at first, but if you asked me now what her name was or what she looked like, I couldn’t tell you.”
But name-changing isn’t only for those looking to entirely forget someone. I have a friend who after an incredibly fraught off-again, on-again love affair stayed with the guy, but she keeps him saved as a reminder of the worst thing he ever did to her as his middle name: John Bought His Ex-Wife A Car Doe. (I’ve obviously changed the first and last name here to protect the “innocent.”) I wondered how this works since they now live together. “Every time we interact, I keep boundaries in mind because I can’t forget this person betrayed me and fall for their shit again,” she says. “But there’s a downside, which is that it can also cement that pain forever so that it becomes the headline even when it should start to fade into the background.”
Which complicates the main question here: Does this behavior actually work in curbing interactions?
Some say yes. Others, no.
The most common takeaway is something along these lines: “Not sure it ever works — I’m a compulsive person — but it’s funny when it’s not terribly sad.”
Writer Grace Spelman, of the iconic name changes He Doesn’t Even Like You; Don’t Drunk Text This Number; and The More You Text Him The Harder It Will Get JUST CUT OFF THE BANDAID, admits that “changing the name is the second-to-last stop before I delete the number entirely. It does help! But also, I usually end up texting them at least once. Like, I’ll still probably text them because I’m weak, but I do it less if I change their contact name.”
We should probably define what we consider “working” in this case. Because the way I see it, if you really wanted to cease contact, you’d block them entirely or download one of the many apps that exist solely to curb drunk texting. “On some weird fucked-up level, when I do it, I’m probably still not ready to let go,” my friend with all the Daddies confesses. “A part of the toxicity is the inability to quit it.” In short, we change names because we wish we could change people.
On the upside, she continues, “I haven’t put a new daddy in my phone in a long time because I’ve made a new decision to not date assholes or people whose full names I don’t want in my phone. So in that sense at least, it’s freeing.”