Breakup Etiquette: What Not To Do

Hopefully the person didn't hire someone to dump you.

Posted Dec 14, 2010

Most of us have been there: the end of the romantic relationship. Maybe the end was quick and clean, or maybe it dragged on. Perhaps it was mutual, maybe it was one-sided and you were the one who had to explain that it was over. There might have been a full disclosure about why the person was dumping you, or maybe they just drifted away without a word. Hopefully, though, no matter how the breakup went, the person didn't hire someone to dump you.

A friend of mine recently posted on Facebook about a new service where you can pay someone to dump your romantic partner for you. The service has a website ( and much to a potential audience's delight, you can actually hear a recording of someone being dumped. There is a brief description written about their relationship, and then you can listen to the horrible process of the "dump."

What an awful way to have one's romantic relationship end! Rather than meeting face-to-face, or even having some direct communication via the phone (or the increasingly common dumping via a text message), the dumper has completely removed her or himself from the situation. This person, the dumper, has paid someone to complete this task. Compared to other ways third parties enter interpersonal relationships, this one seems particularly nauseating. Why?

I think part of the reason it seems so unappealing is because it is obvious the dumper has little respect for the former partner (and one might argue, little respect for themselves). There is no chance for the person being dumped to explain her or his actions, or to even express any distress. The person being dumped is just "handled" by the service. Maybe that's the whole point though - a third party service like this allows one to avoid all those nuisances, like thinking about the other person's feelings.

Although there is a ton of research on relationship dissolution, one study that I think is particularly relevant is by Frazier and Cook (1993). Their work clearly suggests that services like the one I just mentioned have negative effects. They investigated how commitment towards one's relationship and how one copes with life stressors influenced initial distress and recovery. All of their respondents (51 women and 34 men) had endured a break-up within the past 6 months. The commitment part is obviously important, but it's how one copes with stressors that is especially relevant to my point. They measured the latter aspect by looking at how one perceived their control over the breakup, the degree of social support around them, and their self-esteem. If someone has just dumped you via a third party, I'd hazard a guess that you probably don't feel much control over the breakup. Your self-esteem is also going to take a hit because, after all, the person you feel in love with did not care about you enough to dump you first hand.

I guess I would understand the need for a service like this if dumping someone was one of the most horrible experiences a person can endure (and I don't doubt that some breakups are hideous - but compared to many other human experiences, ending a romantic relationship may not rank up there). Instead, researchers have discovered that it is actually a fairly straightforward process that follows a cultural script. Battaglia and colleagues (1998) found that, just like there are scripts for first dates, there is a 16-step script for ending a relationship. Breakups are certainly not always easy, and they are unlikely to be enjoyable, but they do follow a fairly routine pattern. Why then do people find it necessary to employ a third party to deal with their dirty work?

I think there are at least three reasons. First, perhaps these are simply lazy people, or time-hassled people, who believe they have better things to do than to sort out their romantic affairs properly. This is so disrespectful - at the very least, the person they are dumping deserves a moment of their time. Second, perhaps the person being dumped could become violent or abusive, in which case the person is worried about their personal safety. In this instance, perhaps there is some merit in having a third party help, but there are certainly better ways to go about it, such as having a friend (or legal representation) accompany them. Third, these might be individuals who are ashamed of the fact that they want to breakup. They might have very weak grounds for ending the relationship and are worried that they will be somehow coerced back into the spider's lair if they let the other person speak. Or, maybe they are too ashamed of something, and are projecting all the faults of the relationship on to the other person. I suspect the vast majority of people fall into this latter category - I'd expect that most people are hiring someone to do their dirty work because they are too ashamed to do it themselves. Remember, services such as this one are paid, so the dumper has shelled out cash. This leads me to predict that these are not angry people, otherwise they would likely just call the person being dumped and say how angry they were. (And yes, there are probably other reasons people hire these types of service - there will be some people who do it out of novelty, or because they think it's funny, or maybe out of spite.)

If my prediction is correct, though, that most people fall into that third category, then the situation is even more depressing if the breakup period represents an opportunity, rather than a closing door. Sometimes one enters into the scene with the intent of breaking up with the other person, but instead, they get into a meaningful discussion. Instead of slamming the door and saying, "It's over," they renegotiate. Maybe if the potential dumper says what is really the problem, and takes responsibility for their actions and behaviours, there is a chance that the other person will forgive them, rather than ending the relationship. Often I suspect not, but to entirely dismiss the possibility seems shortsighted. In other words, as the research shows, relationships are often negotiations that involve trade-offs, and breakups can sometimes represent a chance to renegotiate the deal.

What makes this situation even a little more interesting is that the reasons people breakup tend to be somewhat predictable. Baxter (1986) found that 157 people's breakup accounts could be reduced to 8 reasons. Overall, she showed women were more likely to mention issues of autonomy, lack of openness, and lack of equity, while men were more likely to mention that the relationship didn't have some inexplicable magic quality. Other reasons were the lack of similarity, lack of shared time together, and that the person wasn't supportive or loyal. Overall, women listed more reasons for the breakup than men.

So, if breakups tend to follow a script, and the reasons for breaking up tend to be predictable, what's the problem? Why do they make us feel so lousy that sometimes we might hire an outsider party to do it? I acknowledge that there is a big difference in being the dumper versus the person who is dumped - the latter has effectively been rejected.

But if services like this exist for dumpers, then that suggests that dumpers often have negative feelings as well. Regardless of which side of the relationship you've been on, maybe the breakup reminds us all that we failed at something, or that something we once valued has come to and end. Hopefully, though, we'd all have the courage to address it ourselves, rather than pay someone to end it for us.

Battaglia, D. M., Richard, F. D., Datteri, D. L. & Lord, C. G. (1998). Breaking up is (relatively) easy to do: A script for the dissolution of close relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 15(6), 829-845.
Baxter, L. (1986). Gender differences in the hetero-sexual relationship rules embedded in break-up accounts. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 3(3), 289-306.
Frazier, P. A., & Cook, S. W. (1993). Correlates of distress following heterosexual relationship dissolution. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 10(1), 55-67.