I remember my mother’s gasp of dismay when she heard the news, the cry that brought me running in from the next room to find out what was wrong: "Brooke and Andre broke up!" she hissed, then returned to her phone call to get all the details. We were sad about that, my mother and I, though in retrospect it was probably for the best: they seem happier now, with Chris and Steffi and their beautiful children. Celebrity break-ups are never exactly surprising, and yet there are certain couples whose demise seems unfortunate, preventable; I’m still not convinced, for instance, that Prince Andrew and Fergie should ever have divorced, and when Tom left Nicole, I deliberately chose not to see Vanilla Sky as punishment (a lesson I hope he took to heart, though I have grave, grave doubts).
Thus, when I learned last night that Reese Witherspoon and Ryan Philippe had gone their separate ways I was saddened, as I always am when young children are involved, and it reminded me of a conversation hubby and I once had in those early days of dating, when every conversation gets branded on one’s brain, to be replayed endlessly for post-analysis in the weeks to come. We were sitting at Williams Coffee Pub, sipping mochaccinos and categorizing all the break-ups we could think of. (It was the kind of conversation that convinced me he was Mr. Right – not only did he share my penchant for analyzing relationships, but he did so with a flair for categorization that has never failed to amuse and entertain me.) When a break-up occurs, the attendant explanations are usually designed to conceal more than they reveal: "We grew apart." "It was a mutual decision." "It’s not you, it’s me." These statements are, by and large, never true. The real reasons for a break-up generally fall into one of the following categories:
- The False Start Break-Up: This one occurs when someone finally gets the nerve to write the death certificate for a relationship that never really got off the ground in the first place. A few awkward dates, a pretense of romance where there’s barely even a friendship, a long-distance phone call or two, and then it’s time to play the Last Post and call it a day.
- Religious Conversion Break-Up: More common than you’d think, this one occurs when a guy gets saved, or a girl renews her commitment to her faith, and then they divest themselves of the unsaved heathen who’ve been masquerading as their significant others. If there’s one thing that’s guaranteed to turn someone against Christianity, in my observation, it’s being dumped for not being Christian enough.
- The Third-Party Break-Up: I once read that marriages only ever end for one reason: a new relationship. Yes, there are always flaws in the marriage that can be used to justify divorce, but pure inertia will usually keep people in a bad marriage unless there’s somebody waiting in the get-away car. I don’t know that I’d go so far as to say that all break-ups involve a third-party, but certainly the most immediately pressing reason to break up with someone is that other someone lurking on the horizon. It’s debatable, I suppose, how far things have to progress before the third-party factor kicks in: as far as Brad and Angie are concerned, apparently, it’s not home-wrecking if no bodily fluids are exchanged. Before he and Jen split up, they claim, Angelina was nothing more than a good friend to Brad. Maybe so – but I suspect there are few things more destructive to a marriage than a beautiful woman with a sympathetic listening ear (especially if this woman makes it clear that she’s willing to bear the man’s biological child). Setting aside the definition of adultery, however, the third-party categorization applies even if the prospective third party is no more than a twinkle in the breaker-upper’s eye: it’s motive that matters here, not history.
- The At-Fault Break-Up: In this category, the precipitating event is usually a discovery: your husband has been sleeping with your best friend; your boyfriend has been "borrowing" your ATM card and using it to steal from your bank account, $20 here, $40 there (not that anyone does that, or did it to my sister). Whether or not the couple was happy before, a line has been crossed, the unforgivable has occurred, and the relationship ends – usually with no half-hearted reunions or secret assignations.
- The Trial Separation: This is the category with which I have the least experience, and I’m not entirely sure how it works – why a trial separation begins, how it ends, or what it indicates about a relationship. I’m an all-or-nothing girl – one reason I like marriage better than dating is that I don’t have to work so hard to hold back, to retain some objectivity (a doomed effort for me, at best). One reason for a trial separation might be a discovery that falls just short of the at-fault break-up threshold: something serious enough to warrant a good step back, but not entirely a deal-breaker. Conversely, a trial separation also seems likely to occur when a couple has been dating for years, possibly since high school, and they need to be apart for awhile to figure out whether the relationship is more than just a comfortable habit. My gut instinct would say that if you feel the need for a trial separation even before marriage and children have sucked the passion and romance out of your life, the relationship may not be worth saving. But there’s plenty of empirical evidence to suggest that my gut instinct, in this case, is full of crap.
- The Can’t-Handle-It Break-Up: Everything is going great, and then suddenly life dishes up something really awful: cancer, rape, injury. You would think that under those circumstances even a troubled couple would pull together and weather the crisis, because who wants to be the guy who dumped his girlfriend because she had cancer? A surprising number of losers, apparently, is the answer to that question.
- The Marriage Avoidance Break-Up: In the most common version of this break-up, she wants to get married and he doesn’t. (I’m sure there are cases where the man wants to get married and the woman shies away; I just don’t know of any such scenario among my personal acquaintance.) "I’m not ready to get married," he typically explains: "There’s nothing wrong with you; it’s just that I’m happy with things the way they are." The Marriage Avoidance break-up usually pans out one of two ways: (1) The marriage-seeker dumps the guy, then she takes him back, and then he finally coughs up the ring and they live happily ever after; or (2) The marriage-avoider dumps the girl, toys with her emotions for awhile with various secret and not-so-secret reunions, then finds somebody else and marries her within six months.
Okay, you guys, it’s your turn. What break-ups have I missed?