The Endless Breakup

By Lisa A. Phillips, published May 7, 2019 – last reviewed on May 17, 2019

From ghosting to orbiting and submarining, technology keeps elaborating on new ways for people to avoid the emotional labor of breakups. But that only keeps them stuck in anxiety and self-doubt.

I want someone I can talk to, create art with, and bounce ideas off,” Alice, an active member of the New Orleans arts community, told a friend one day. “I want us to be each other’s critic and support. I want somebody I love to dance with, someone I love to touch and be around.”  “That’s a tall order,” the friend replied.

Within days, at a meeting about a new theater project, Alice was introduced to Jonah, who had just moved to town and was looking to join the art scene. That very night, she took him to the closing party of a film festival, the first event of many they attended together. Not long out of a rough divorce, Jonah feared he would fall into a recent pattern of getting quickly obsessed, then putting up walls. “This doesn’t seem to be happening with you,” he confided.

Months later, a potential pregnancy prompted Alice to announce that if it were true, she would have the baby: At 40, she felt it might be her only chance. A pregnancy test proved negative, and when, the next morning, she reached for Jonah, he turned decisively away. Long, wrought emails followed. He wanted to cut the intensity without cutting her out but didn’t know-how.

Then they literally danced into each other at Mardi Gras and were a couple again by morning. But she always felt that he held her off. They broke up again, but he kept reaching out to her online, for advice, for perspective. She felt she was the most important woman in his life.

The gravitational pull of the relationship moved to Alice’s Facebook feed. Jonah tagged her on Game of Thrones updates; he shared articles about theater and social justice and others that tapped private jokes. He “made me feel that everything was all right, that he still needed me,” she recalls. When she tried to break off contact, he boosted the bytes of affection. She curated her own online presence around him. “Everything I posted, I thought, What would he think of this?” she says. “A picture of me looking fabulous, climbing a mountain, on some adventure.” She wanted him to see her moving on—the one thing she wasn’t doing.

Alice and Jonah were lovers for just a few months, but the long half-life of digital attention from a distance—”orbiting,” in today’s parlance—kept her hanging onto the hope of rekindling the romance for four years. She finally blocked him to purge him from her psyche and begin the search for a more palpable relationship.

Alice is scarcely unique. Increasingly, men and women find themselves stuck in a virtual spiderweb of contact, connected by keystroke, with exes lingering electronically, not merely visible through intertwined networks of friends but monitoring their online presence, sending off pale signals through likes and tags on social media posts—but not engaging directly. In this newest iteration of interest, rejection is both more continuous and more amorphous, difficult to define, difficult to get beyond.

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