Breaking-Up Shame

Is he really “a total asshole” if he’s trying to do the right thing?

12.26.16
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This piece was originally published on February 4, 2016.

This guy I know, Jeffrey, recently broke up with his girlfriend. They hadn’t been together too long — about a year, give or take some months — but it had been long enough to establish the kind of bond that really stings when it’s broken apart. She’d become a fixture in his family’s narrative and from what I understand, he was received as an extended member of her family, too.

The break up was elicited by nothing more or less than mediocrity. A looming sense of impartiality on the part of my friend Jeff. Nothing was especially wrong. She’s lovely and beautiful and inquisitive and therefore curious. Both involved parties are good people. He loved her and she loved him. I think I can actually say that in present tense.

The way he explains it, he woke up one morning and felt a little bit like things could go either way. They could stay together or they could break up. Que sera, sera. How he felt in the present, though, was seemingly stagnant. Like one of those dreams you have where everyone around you is moving and you want to take action too but your body just won’t let you.

Incidentally, she did not agree. Heart broken and shocked — as if forced to commit emotional vomit, she asked him over and over why he was doing it. And he didn’t really have an answer. The conversation ostensibly went like this: “You’re a wonderful girl, and I love you, but I don’t feel like I’m giving you what you deserve in a partner.”

When Jeff relayed the break up to me, although he’s my friend and she, a mere byproduct of that friendship, I felt intense empathy for her. If I’m being really honest, I even cried that night. Not because I felt bad for her, but because I felt bad with her. I had been there. When my husband broke up with me at a tender 18, he cited nothing but inactivity as the cause for our separation.

“It has run its course,” he told me of our relationship.

That tore me apart.

I thought about how my friends consoled me: He’s an asshole, you’ll forget about him in no time. He’s scum, he’s lame, you’re too good for him, etc. But were those things true? He was just doing what he believed was right: cutting me out of the equation of his own confusion and attempting to mitigate future romantic qualms between us. And ultimately, I did marry him, didn’t I? I wouldn’t have married scum. So I’ve been thinking about how Jeff’s ex-girlfriend’s friends are likely assuaging her heartbreak. They’ve no doubt called Jeff a piece of shit at least once. A bad boyfriend, a careless partner — an asshole. But why? What makes him an asshole? Doing the stand-up thing and ending a relationship because he didn’t feel as invested anymore?

We talk about shaming all the time — body-shaming, slut-shaming and so forth, but what about break-up-shaming? Is a guy really an asshole for doing what we, as women, would probably call The Noble Thing if we were in their positions, ending a relationship based on our feeling like were weren’t providing what the relationship deserved? I appreciate that often, the way to reconcile a broken heart (and bruised ego) is by placing all the fault in the grim demeanor of the opposite party, but I wonder: what if after we broke up with nice guys who just don’t want to be with us anymore, we confronted that reality head on?

Collage by Emily Zirimis.

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