Pixelated Heartbreak: The Unparalleled Pain of a Digital Breakup

February 13, 2015 9:08 a.m.

When Anaïs Nin broke up with C.L. Baldwin by letter in 1945, the feisty author laid it all out on the page.

I am in no need of “insisting” upon being loved. I’m immersed and flooded in this. That is why I am happy and full of power and find friendship pale by comparison.

But in the middle of this fiery and marvelous give and take, going out with you was like going out with a priest. The contrast in temperature was too great. So I waited for my first chance to break.

Nin’s words point to that peculiar quality of breakups: Despite feeling totally singular and unique when going through your own, that “contrast in temperature” between two lovers is one of the most universal experiences humans share. Even when two lovers are separated by distance, as Nin and Baldwin were, that emotional discrepancy is impossible to ignore once detected.

Indeed, the why of why we break up has changed little since Nin’s day; it’s the how that has transformed. Whereas once a long-distance romance ended with postmarks and pens, it’s now done with drawn-out WhatsApp conversations or spotty Skype calls. And at the risk of romanticizing the analog relationships of yore, I would argue that the modern method is unparalleled in its brutality.

Of course, learning why your once-lover no longer wishes to call you their own is unpleasant in any form, be it written, spoken or typed. However, watching a pixelated version of yourself react to such devastating news in real time is a product of the modern era that I doubt Nin would’ve inflicted upon even her worst enemy. It is, in its very nature—instantaneous, impersonal, internet-dependent—the opposite of what we feel when connecting with another human the old-fashioned way.

He will forever be “that dude who broke up with me on Skype.”

As my reader might have deduced by now, I speak from experience. Several years ago, when I woke up to a text that said “Talk when you wake up?” from a boyfriend in a time zone eight hours ahead of my own, I had not the slightest inkling of the fate I was logging into. Having just traveled back to the U.S. from a six-week trip during which he asked me to move in with him, I was preparing to do just that after spending a month elsewhere. He, on the other hand, had other plans. The jetlag from when I’d said goodbye to him had yet to wear off, but apparently for him, our relationship had. Unlike his own words in our IRL interactions, the pixels didn’t lie.

When I look back on this, all I see is myself in that little box at the bottom right hand corner of the Skype window, face going from unsuspecting happiness to contorted disbelief as the words fell out of his mouth. To this day, the entirety of that relationship is overshadowed by the way it ended. I don’t speak to him now—nor do I wish to—and thus, he will forever be “that dude who broke up with me on Skype.”

A few years and a healthy dose of wounded pride later, I’ve noticed that for the increasing number of people in geographically complicated or long distance relationships (and even friendships), the Skype breakup is a bit of an unavoidable conundrum. There’s the practical utility of it, which allows the party who knows the relationship must end to not wait until the next scheduled long weekend to get on a plane and divulge the news face-to-face. But then there’s the emotional brutality of it: Once it’s said, the geographical distance between the two parties finalizes the decision even more. The person broken up with, often caught off-guard, gets one chance to respond. Thus, there is diminished possibility for recourse, closure or understanding. Then, a click of that little red button means hanging up on that person, perhaps forever.

Somewhat perversely, research suggests that when two lovers are still in a state of commingled bliss, modern means of communication over long distance can be a boon to happiness. A study published in 2013 in the Journal of Communication found that in terms of intimacy, long distance couples tend to fare better than their geographically close counterparts. The researchers credited this to the fact that long distance lovers used modern means of communication to “engage in more adaptive self-disclosures and form more idealized relationship perceptions.” Perhaps that points to why the opposite is also true: Just as it’s easy to idealize our partner’s qualities when we’re in love over wifi, we don’t feel as bad digitally brutalizing their feelings from from three time zones away once the relationship ends.

In the age of Tinder and texting, it may seem that the Skype breakup is more courteous compared to other far more verbally curt forms of heartbreak, namely texting. But Skype breakups tend to serve as punctuation on relationships where both parties have put some effort—through the likes of planes, trains and automobiles—to make things work. Because it’s not a “he-didn’t-text-me-back-so-I-guess-he’s-just-not-that-into-me” vibe, it feels as though some measure of human decency should compel one to go through the logistical trouble.

If a digital hack exists for something as painful and awful as a breakup, why wouldn’t we use it?

When Nin wrote her empassioned letter, she undoubtedly gave it thought, perhaps felt a sense of guilt as it made its way through the post, and then waited out the anxiety of not knowing whether or not a response would arrive from Baldwin; indeed, he had the choice of whether he wanted to. When my ex-boyfriend did the deed over Skype, it was in the middle of his workday, in his office. I was largely speechless, and he ended the call to go into a meeting after no more than 15 minutes. For him, I imagine it was the emotional equivalent of ripping off a Band-Aid: No muss, no fuss.

Given our obsession with convenience and the instantaneous nature of our digital lives, it’s easy to see why the Skype breakup has become accepted, even expected. We swipe left when we don’t like someone, hail an Uber instead of walking to the curb for a taxi, and text our dinner host thank you instead of calling or writing a card. If a digital hack exists for something as painful and awful as a breakup, why wouldn’t we use it? Especially when the alternative is going to the expense and hassle of mustering up the courage to do the deed over a long weekend visit.

In the years since my own pixelated heartbreak, I have found myself on the other end of the spectrum. I decided to end things the old-fashioned way; resorting to Skype felt disrespectful, and since I had respect for the heart I was about to break, I decided to inconvenience myself to do it. This was neither cheap nor pretty.

But alas, logistics are the enemy of love. Try as we might to find it, there really is no ideal way to break up with someone. Even if Nin had the means to break up with her lover IRL and deliver her riposte in person, we’ll never know if she would have. But if there’s one area in our lives where we ought to not take the digitized easy road, I would argue that it’s for the people we once loved. After all, there is every likelihood that one day, we could be on the other end of the call.

Rosie Spinks is a freelance journalist and editor. Her work appears in publications including The Guardian, Slate, Marie Claire, GOOD, Outside, Sierra Magazine, The Ecologist, Dwell, Fest300 and others. In possession of two passports and nomadic tendencies, she grew up in L.A. and has reported and lived in cities in Europe and Africa.

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