The last person I dated broke up with me on a Thursday night in spring. He was a rugged Aussie import who had courted me over a round of mini golf and a Sunday afternoon trip to the zoo. We’d met a handful of times and I liked him, in the vague and mildly hopeful way you can like someone who you don’t know very well.
“He’s nice,” I told my best friend a couple of weeks after I met him. “In a kind of he’s-not-the-one way, but he’s good fun to be around.”
Then, a few days later, he broke up with me. It seems strange to use that expression to describe him awkwardly coming to my place and perching on the sofa as he explained why he couldn’t keep seeing me. In my mind, “breaking up” is a term reserved for the end of more long-term arrangements—the tangled complexities that come with unpacking months, or even years, of building something meaningful together. This wasn’t quite a breakup—more of a micro-breakup. A short foray into each other’s lives ended as swiftly as a left swipe.
The culture born from online dating has received a bad rap over the last few years. An entire dictionary of new language has provided us with ways to paraphrase some of the more troubling terrains of looking for love online. We can be ghosted or zombied or orbited or targeted by any of the similarly ghoulish terms that denote how disposable app dating has made us feel.
Interestingly, it seems the backlash against these dating behaviors has begun to elicit results. Mindful dating is a notable new trend, and singles are increasingly championing more old-fashioned methods—like meeting people slowly, or communicating face to face—as an antidote to what is perceived to be the symptoms of an increasingly disassociated mindset. It is perhaps this that sparked my date’s well-intentioned in-person breakup chat. We know now that ghosting is bad. It has been so vilified that we’ve been given no alternative but to speak now, or forever feel guilty about that person who we went on two dates with once and then never messaged back.
This has had a curious, if expected effect: Outright rejection is on the rise. And although your coupled-up friends might exclaim that, “You can’t be that upset, you hardly knew them!” the unique sting of the micro-breakup persists. We live in a time of multiple matches and dates scheduled so regularly that managing our Bumble inboxes can feel like a full-time job. When nothing is allowed to fizzle out anymore, you might be forced to confront the reasons why someone doesn’t want to be with you multiple times a month. Yes, each micro-breakup might be small, but a thousand tiny heartbreaks and disappointments can easily amount to something more profound—perhaps more painful, and certainly more intimate, than simply being ghosted and filling in the blanks yourself.
Healing from a micro-breakup doesn’t follow a typical breakup script, either. It’s hard to mourn a relationship, for instance, that never was. You don’t have a plethora of pictures to look back on, or places that remind you of them. You can’t tell your friends what you miss about someone you hardly knew, or call in sick because you didn’t get a fourth date. And yet, perhaps you really did like the person. Perhaps you’ve been dating around for years and this was the first person you’ve been excited about in a while. Or perhaps you’ve simply had enough of trying to tell yourself It’s not me, it’s them, while a small part of you thinks but just maybe it is me. When you look at it like that, even the most microscopic of breaks can veer into the existential.
But the question remains: Do I wish that some of my matches had simply ghosted me instead? Left a cold trail of unopened WhatsApps for me to figure out that they actually didn’t feel like we should have a third date at a karaoke bar? It’s difficult to decide. After all, ghosting leaves open innumerable possibilities for why someone doesn’t want to be with me, the kind that creep up on me at 2 a.m. and make me wonder whether they just weren’t looking for something serious or if my penchant for playing One Direction first thing in the morning put them off. But the micro-breakup might just confirm my fears—or at least make me face up to the fact that someone actively chose not to be with me and hasn’t simply dropped their phone down the toilet.
We are told that to find love we have to be vulnerable. We have to not play games. We have to put our cards out on the table. But by doing so we might be forced to face the parts of ourselves we find difficult and unloveable. The micro-breakup makes it all too easy to focus on these things. And yet, it’s also possible to see the good in them. The knowledge that there are people out there who are considerate and respectful of your feelings, even if you aren’t quite right for each other. The ability to move on to the next one with the knowledge that you gave it your best shot. The hope that someone will find your obsession with Zayn Malik endearing, eventually, if not right now.
But is ghosting really such poor form that we need each rejection presented to us on a platter, even for the most inconsequential of endings? It’s hard to say, and probably depends on the person, which only makes this social calculus more complicated. What do you think? Is a micro-heartbreaker always better than a ghost?