Breakup Parties

A little over three years ago, my girlfriend and I decided our relationship was not going the way we had hoped. After some discussion and a few drinks, we decided upon a solution: we would have a breakup party.

We planned it for four months in the future, when our lease was up, and in the interim we both figured out what our new lives, post-party, would look like. Lives in which neither one of us would need to sacrifice or put things off for the good of the relationship.

We figured the breakup party concept should work in theory, but we were uncertain as to whether it would work in practice. Whether something so non-traditional could be successful in real life.

Turns out it could. And it did.

We had a bunch of friends over, drank, danced, and played Twister. At midnight, we changed our Facebook statuses to ‘Single.’ Both of our lives changed after that. And in both cases, it was for the better.

I should tell you now that a breakup party can be considered socially unacceptable. My ex and I, despite having been artsy twenty-somethings living the liberal land of Los Angeles had no shortage of pushback from people who heard about what we were doing.

A relationship, many detractors informed us, should be about holding on to the bitter end. You grit your teeth and make it work, regardless of how difficult that might be sometimes.

I understand the sentiment behind those concerns, but I also disagree. To say one must give up so much for a relationship that may or may not be optimal is a gross overstep, and even more so to make it an absolute. What about horrible relationships? Should one stay in it to win it? Fight the good fight to maintain the mediocre status quo?

Most people would say no, and what I’m asking is a slight twist on the same question: what if the relationship isn’t horrible, but isn’t everything you want? What if, rather than holding on to something headed downhill just because, you ended it to pursue something more ideal?

To me, the arguments for doing so are many and strong.

Ending a relationship before things get excruciatingly bad makes it more likely you and your partner will continue your friendship, long term. It may be difficult at first, but it beats the hell out of clinging to your dying relationship until you can’t stand each other.

Having a party also sets a great precedent for the renewed friendship you’re beginning with the person you love. It says to the world, “I want this person in my life, and though the nature of our relationship is evolving, we still matter to each other.” It also tells your friends loud and clear they needn’t choose sides.

Breakup parties seem to go most smoothly if both people have something to look forward to, and plan for, after the breakup. A new goal. A new direction in which to walk.

‘Living the dream’ once meant something very different than it does today. For a very long time it entailed a loving partner, 2.5 kids, a white picket fence, a minivan, a dog, and a trampoline out back. The economy, society, and our expectations for ourselves have changed a lot. For many people this traditional dream simply doesn’t hold the same appeal it once did.

Look around and you’ll find all kinds of people breaking molds and trying new things. Folks doing business in ways it’s never done before. Building things that have never before been dreamed of. Communicating in ways that would have science fiction writers living only a few decades ago at a loss for words.

Relationships are changing, too. There’s still a place for the traditional ‘date, marry, have kids’ model, but there are also other options available that we’re just now starting to talk about in mainstream conversation. Sometimes the order in which we do things is rearranged. Sometimes there are steps added or taken away. Sometimes there are more people involved, and sometimes there’s no desire for a relationship at all.

To me, a breakup party represents something fundamental about how relationships are evolving: the idea that we needn’t adhere to tradition for tradition’s sake. That by breaking away we aren’t declaring war on everything else out there, but rather giving ourselves the opportunity to sample all available options before settling on one, if we do, in fact, decide to do so someday. It’s an expression of the idea that a person is defined not by the labels slapped on them by society, but by how they treat others, especially those they care or have cared about greatly.

Since I first wrote about breakup parties over three years ago, I’ve received hundreds of emails from people who have had their own, and all, including a few dozen divorce parties, have worked out wonderfully.

That said, I can’t emphasize enough that this is just one option of many. If you’re not getting what you want out of life, or if your relationship has peaked and is spiraling downward, there are many paths you can take, and all are equally viable if approached intentionally.

I personally like the idea of a breakup party in particular, though, because it’s a fond farewell that has many of the same attributes of a healthy relationship: it’s fun, it’s participatory, and it’s memorable for all the right reasons.

Update: February 20, 2017

I still get a few emails each month from people who have had breakup parties and divorce parties, in almost every case telling me that it was exactly what they needed to do, and that it allowed them to maintain their friendship post-breakup, against all odds.

In the years I’ve been traveling I’ve approached relationships from a different angle, which has negated the need for such parties, but it’s been fun hearing about other people’s experiences with them, and how they’re customized the concept for their specific needs and situations.