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Dating: The Soft Breakup

Technology encourages ambiguous endings, but that can make finding new love a lot harder.

Dating is a lot like science. At the very least, trial and error are an essential part of the process. And the outcome is not always the hoped-for one.

Breakups are in fact inevitable—you imagine a final, decisive moment when two strained sweethearts go their separate ways. They throw out the snapshots and souvenirs, mourn and mope for a while, dig into the ice cream, and sooner or later, resume the search for a suitable mate. The exes might never see each other again. Out of sight, eventually out of mind.

But it's 2014, and it's not so easy to erase an ex from your life. The newly decoupled might not call each other or meet up—that could be too direct—but there are other ways they stay connected. When you have 100 numbers in your cellphone and 700 friends on Facebook, links linger.

Deleting an ex's number or clicking "Unfriend" takes work. Worse, it can feel like salt in a wound. An ex's words and smiles may continue to float across Facebook feeds or pop up in chat windows. It's easy to keep tabs on a former partner. In ways that weren't even imagined before the advent of instant messages and status updates, broken-up partners remain, for better or worse, a part of each other's lives.

By impeding a definitive ending, technology has created what relationship researcher Scott Stanley dubs the "soft breakup." "There are so many easy, cheap ways to stay in contact now," says Stanley, a professor of psychology at the University of Denver. "Social media have completely transformed" the chances of persistent connection.

Compared with a wall of silence, a friendly text message here and an email there can take the edge off a breakup. "The soft breakup gives us a new way of saying 'I don't want to date you, but let's try to be friends,'" says Galena Rhoades, a clinical psychologist who frequently collaborates with Stanley on research. "Having the option to do a soft breakup might motivate people to get out of a relationship they know is a dead end."

But lingering ties come with big emotional risks. They facilitate on-again, off-again relationships even when the coupling was not ideal and needed to end.

Breakups are painful, and continuing connections can reinforce an impulse to turn to the ex for comfort, says Sarah Halpern-Meekin of the University of Wisconsin. Every flicker of reconnection can obscure the very sensible reasons a relationship ended.

At a minimum, electronic ties tempt exes to look backward. By offering a perpetual gaze into the lives of former partners, social media platforms enable exes to hang on to hope. Yet every hour spent monitoring an ex is an hour not spent searching for a better match.

The blurriness of breakups can undermine new relationships as well. The next partner may have a hard time tolerating any vestiges of a prior romance. "Exes may no longer be so ex," says Stanley, but jealousy is still jealousy.

Lingering links can also fuel anxiety in a new partner. Rhoades hears clients voice fears of being left for the ex who hovers electronically. Not every concern is so dire, but it's worrisome enough to feel that "your partner may be sharing things that are not shared with you."

"We really don't like giving up options," Rhoades says, "but not giving up options makes it harder to commit to any particular option." In other words: It's harder to step into a new relationship when one foot is stuck in the past.

Given the drawbacks of soft breakups, wouldn't it be easier for exes to sever all ties, analog and digital? Often, prior partners are people who merit respect and whose opinions we value. We prefer to think that they view us favorably despite the unhappy ending. "If we're deleting somebody from our life, chances are the other person is doing the same, and that's uncomfortable," Rhoades says.

However much soft breakups blur the boundaries of romantic attachments, the new acceptance of post-breakup connection reflects a more generalized change in relationships: an increase in ambiguity at all stages of mating. Stanley points out that early in a relationship it's not uncommon for one or both individuals to wonder whether they are just hanging out or actually on a date.

Ambiguity can be frustrating, but it's anchored in modern fears that love will not last. It offers the illusion of emotional safety. Lack of clarity about when a relationship begins or how serious it is fosters the perception that there will be less pain when it ends, Stanley explains.

Ardor is harder. As a relationship unfolds, laying feelings on the line or pushing for clarity—Are we serious? Is this a long-term thing?—can seem to threaten whatever relationship exists. Romantic ambiguity is downright dangerous as relationships proceed, Stanley says. It allows one partner to make a heavy emotional investment in another who may be unwilling or unable to commit.

Even if social life is far more ambiguous than it used to be, "you don't have to be ambiguous in your head about what you're doing and what you want," Stanley advises. He urges the recently separated to ask themselves: "What are my bottom lines? What are the things I absolutely need in a partner, and what are the things I couldn't or shouldn't accept?"

Answering the questions can make it easier to let go of those who aren't for us—so we can get to know the ones who are.

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