U R Dumped: Breaking Up in the Digital Age

Is it acceptable to break up via text message? Britney, PM of Finland think so.

January 8, 2009, 1:10 AM

Nov. 16, 2007 — -- A year ago this week, Britney Spears sent the text message heard round the world.

Her text to then-husband Kevin Federline succinctly let him know that he would soon go from K-Fed to Fed-Ex, and set off months of bitter custody battles, drunken jaunts and the unexpected apotheosis of Federline from punch line to father of the year.

But the message, received by Federline on his Sidekick in the midst of conducting a filmed interview, exemplified a wholly other social phenomenon. The text-message breakup, long the domain of caddish frat boys and drunken twenty somethings, had suddenly become a marriage buster -- a way to leave not just your regular booty call but your full-fledged spouse.

Within four short months of Spears' message, no less serious a grown-up than the prime minister of Finland thumbed his thumbs at his girlfriend and banished her from his sauna forever … from the safe distance of his Nokia.

"That's it," Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen reportedly texted to his longtime partner Susan Kuronen.

"When Britney Spears dumped Kevin Federline I thought doing it by text message was an abomination, that it was insensitive and without reason," said Kristina Grish, author of "The Joy of Text: Mating, Dating, and Techno-Relating." "But it has now come to the point where our cell phones and BlackBerries are an extension of ourselves and our personality. It's not unusual that people are breaking up this way so much."

Text messaging has become so ingrained that we even communicate our most romantic desires. The British, who, according to a recent poll of 2,000 adults by the trade publication Cellular News, send 235 million amorous text messages a month at a cost of $460 million, even have a word for flirtatious texting -- "flexting."

"There's always a lot of texting at the beginning of a relationship," said Victoria, 25, a law student from Brooklyn, N.Y., who sends 700 messages a month.

"It's great because when you want something it is so to the point, but when you don't know what you want you can be vague or subtle," she said.

Victoria was less than subtle when breaking up with a man she had been casually dating for three months. After the man stood her up once and then insisted she come to his place rather than meet her at her home, Victoria pressed "send" on their relationship.

"It's OK," she texted. "I didn't want to see you anyway. You're short and I'm dating someone hotter and taller."

His response: "Fine, have a nice life."

The phenomenon is not limited to cell phones. In a recent Associated Press/AOL poll on computer instant messaging, a medium not unlike text messaging, 43 percent of teenagers said they IM about things they wouldn't say in person. Twenty-two percent use IMs to ask people out on dates or accept them, and 13 percent use them to break up.

According to Grish, teenagers aren't the only ones using new media to douse old flames.

"Older people are texting more, but not with that same rapid speed or back and forth bantering. People under 38 definitely text faster and use more abbreviations and codes. But as BlackBerrys become more common for business communication, older people are using them to communicate in their social lives as well," she said.

Jessica, a 22-year-old nurse from Boston, was out last Saturday night and found herself in the midst of a rapid-fire argument with her boyfriend.

She said she and her boyfriend of nine months will typically send 10 to 15 texts a day to each other while at work, and sent at least that many while arguing over whether he would come to pick her up at a bar.

Usually, she said, the two would not argue via text, but her boyfriend Matt got so annoyed he shot off a quick message.

"This relationship is unhealthy. I can't do this any more. It's over," she read from her phone's inbox.

By the next day, however, Jessica had more than just a hangover. After a conversation -- in person -- she and Matt decided to stay together.

Grish said that in relationships in which texting is a standard form of communication, texting can be an appropriate way to break up.

"We all deserve to be dumped gently, and choosing the medium depends on how long you've been with a partner," she said. "If it is casual, and you only meet late at night or once a week, it is not so egregious to tell them the fun time is over using the same digital medium most of your meetings have been set up through anyway."

Relationships that are more serious, she said, deserve at least the courtesy of a phone call -- a medium that until the Digital Age was long considered too impersonal a means by which to dump someone.

But regardless of the medium or the amount of etiquette involved, one universal truth is unlikely to change, Grish said: "There is no nice way to dump someone. It always sucks."

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