When I moved out from the apartment I shared with my husband, two dogs and a cat, it hurt really badly, but it hurt in a way that I fully expected. There was nothing surprising about the feelings that accompanied the dissolution of a 10-year relationship; I was devastated, but it would be weird if I hadn’t been. Entire movie plots are dedicated to big, proper, capital-B Breakups, but not much attention is paid to the smaller, seemingly less significant “micro-breakups”, a term used by Britany Robinson to describe the end of something that never really was.
Illustration by Jim Cooke
This may be why I was very cavalier when I first returned to world of dating. Not only were my expectations fairly low — based on everything I had read and watched about dating in the internet age, this was going to suck — but I felt fairly invincible, hurt feelings-wise. I had lost my husband, so I wasn’t about to get all weepy over what the kids were referring to as “fuckboys”.
So imagine my surprise when I reacted very poorly to my first micro-breakup. I had only gone on a couple of dates with this guy, and I thought he was nice enough (and looked like the lead singer of The National), but I certainly wasn’t in love with him, and reacted disproportionately to his “I’m not feeling this” text. I didn’t cry, but I had this sinking, terrible feeling in my chest that wouldn’t go away, and I felt stupid for having it.
Basically, going through a “real” breakup is like losing a limb. Everyone is properly upset for you, no one expects you to heal super quickly, and your mindset becomes, “Well, I guess I better adjust to life without this arm, because it’s not coming back.” The micro-breakup is like a paper cut. No one gives a damn, and you know it will eventually work itself out, but it’s really, distractingly annoying — maybe even infuriating — in the moment. I’ve gone through a few of these and, though they still smart, I have developed a few strategies for soothing the sting of these emotional paper cuts.
Try and Identify Why You’re Actually Upset
Chances are, your feelings of sadness have less to do with the loss of a person, and more to do with rejection, wounded pride and the frustration of dating in general. When Matt Berninger’s doppelganger called it off, I was more upset about him not liking me than I was about his sudden absence in my life. Even though our dates had consisted of him bitterly complaining about his ex over whiskey, I was excited that a good-looking dude seemed interested in me, and the sudden lack of that interest made me feel bad about myself. Realising that my ego was bruised but my heart wasn’t even a little broken didn’t immediately put a smile on my face, but it encouraged me to practise some self-care and be nice to myself, which helped build my self-esteem back up.
If you’re having a hard time identifying exactly why you’re upset, I recommend going the Morning Pages route, and writing three pages longhand, stream-of-consciousness style, filling those pages with whatever pops into your head. Don’t think; just write. You may be surprised with what comes up. Once you have a handle on why you’re really upset, you can process it and move on.
Remember the Micro-Bad
The thing about long-term relationships is that you’ve had a good long while to see the good, the bad and the really ugly. The bad and ugly are obviously not good, but at least you can frame them in a pleasing “ugh, at least I don’t have to deal with that crap any more” light. You don’t have that exact luxury with micro-breakups, but you can adopt a similar strategy by remembering all the little things that gave you pause on the first couple of encounters.
I was seeing a dude who was pretty perfect on paper. He was a writer who made me laugh and responded to my texts quickly and said he enjoyed my company. I thought I was very into him, even though I never felt like I could relax and totally be myself in his presence. I chalked up my anxious feelings surrounding him to “butterflies”, when in actuality he just made me ill at ease. But when he texted me to tell me that a wedding had “made him think about love”, and he couldn’t see me any more, I was bummed. (After all, this guy had given me a book on our second date. How romantic is that?)
But a few hours later I noticed I felt something else besides “bummed”. I felt relieved. Not only did this generalised anxiety I had been carrying around with me for a couple of weeks start to fade, but I could finally admit to myself that I was only pretending to enjoy the book he gave me. Reminding yourself of the things you don’t like about someone may seem slightly “sour grapes”, but remembering little things you may have ignored in an effort to “give them a chance” can be very freeing. Annoying table manners, shark tooth necklaces and dissimilar taste in music may not be deal breakers, but isn’t it nice that you don’t have to deal with them?
Use It As Fodder
More than one man has ended our interactions with, “Please don’t write about me,” and I have always responded with a blank stare until they add, “At least change my name if you do.” I am of the opinion that, as long as you don’t provide any identifying information, no one can tell you how to use your own experiences. Turning any amount of pain into art — whether you publish it or not — can be deeply cathartic. I’m not saying every little non-breakup is worth an epic poem; I’ve experienced great relief from writing a dumb, darkly humorous tweet about romantic disappointment. Not only does it let you laugh at yourself and the situation, but others will most likely commiserate, and it’s always nice to feel less alone.
Move Around a Bit
As much as I hate running, there are times when nothing else will do, and I have gone on many post-not-quite-breakup rage runs. The endorphins are great and all, but there’s something about angrily hitting the pavement with my feet that is very good for my wounded pride, if not my knees. It also helps to have a rage run playlist. Two of my must-have songs for such a list are this one and this one. Of course, you don’t have to run. Any kind of highly physical activity will help, though I recommend something fairly intense. A bit of physical pain can really distract from a spot of emotional anguish.
Don’t Commit If No One Is Asking You To
This may seem like a cynical approach, but having a few balls in the air prevents you from getting too focused on one ball. Put simply: If no one has asked you to be in a relationship, you’re not in one. This means you can (and should) keep seeing other people until someone asks you not to. This keeps you from putting all of your emotional eggs in one basket and, if one of those baskets gets overturned, it won’t hurt as much because you still have some eggs in other, different baskets. If these metaphors about balls and eggs are getting a bit much, think of it this way: The worst part of the micro-breakup — assuming you haven’t actually fallen in love — is the sudden withdrawal of interest and attention. If you are getting interest and attention from a few sources, the loss of one source sucks less.
I actually received the “I went to a wedding and as a result wish to end our non-relationship” text while on date with another dude. I must have made a frowny face, because the dude asked me what was wrong. “Oh,” I said, “a guy I was seeing just texted to tell me he doesn’t want to see me any more.” (I am nothing if not an honest oversharer.) “What an idiot,” Dude-I-Was-on-a-Date-With replied. That simple sentence provided just enough of an ego boost to soothe the micro-breakup sting, and I then turned my attention to Dude-I-Was-on-a-Date-With, who was genuinely thrilled to be hanging out with me. (That dude is now Dude-Who-Has-a-Toothbrush-at-my-Place.)
Dating can be super-dehumanising, and sometimes you need to just quit doing it for a while. Dating apps aren’t going anywhere, and you’re most likely not going to miss out on your soulmate if you delete Tinder for a few weeks. (I have personally deleted Tinder a total of five times, and each time was extremely cathartic.) Though it’s very nice to feel liked and desired by other people, whether or not someone you interacted with a few times wants to date you or buy you drinks or sleep with you does not define your value as a human, and sometimes a break from the brutal world of dating is necessary to remind yourself of that.
If you find yourself feeling disproportionately dejected, or just plain exhausted by the demise of a not-quite-relationship, consider deleting the apps, and spending that time, energy and money doing things you know, without a doubt, will bring you joy. Hang out with your best friends and biggest fans, and let those connections build you back up. Take yourself out on dates, and go to concerts, movies, restaurants and museums alone. (Seriously, a solo art museum trip is pure heaven; you can spend as much time as you like with the works you enjoy and skip those you don’t.) The great thing about being single is having complete authority over every bit of your free time, and you shouldn’t let the disappointment of a micro-breakup prevent you from enjoying it.