Breaking up is just the worst.
Watching other people break up, on the other hand, holds a fascination for many, tinged with schadenfreude. Reality TV is a case in point: We can say we watch "The Bachelor" or "The Bachelorette" for the true love story, but proportionally there are a whole lot more breakup stories; for every proposal, there are, typically, 24 breakups aired. Twenty-four weeping women slinking to the limo, 24 sulking men storming off camera.
“Why am I never good enough for love?” a 23-year-old dental hygienist moans, her sobs shaking the wilting curls in her bottle-blond hair. “She’s really missing out,” blusters a 29-year-old fitness trainer, seething over his public rejection. “I have a ton to offer.” Sitting at home, we snort into our Pinot at these outsized, irrational reactions. Obviously the Bachelor or Bachelorette can’t marry ALL of the contestants -- why can’t the rejects leave gracefully?
When it comes to breaking up, though, we’re all set up to fail. Breaking up gracefully, or being broken up with gracefully, isn’t a skill that’s usually taught, nor is it one that our culture seems to treat with particular regard, aside from a few rom-com third wheels who generously step aside for the real hero.
Instead, we’re left to muddle through our breakups, flailing around our first big heartbreak, trying to argue our soon-to-be-ex out of the breakup or posting passive-aggressive Facebook statuses about the lost beloved. When we’re dumping, we try out ghosting, using thin lies ("I’m just really busy right now"), or brutal honesty ("you’ve gained weight and it kind of grosses me out"). Aziz Ansari’s recent book Modern Romance points out that there’s no real consensus on which tactic is best for ending things, and we often don’t even use the tactic we would want others to use to break up with us. It’s a general disaster.
Our socialization, of course, tends to affect how this disaster goes, as "The Bachelor" franchise comically demonstrates. Women, taught to fret, cry and cling and ask what we did wrong. Men, taught to toughen up, get angry and even a bit threatening -- or demonstrate their toughness through a studied act of carelessness, ending things with a barb about how little they cared the whole time. These reactions are far from universal, but "The Bachelor" reveals how rigorously men and women are socialized to handle rejection in diametrically opposed ways, neither of them very healthy.
On "The Bachelorette," of course, the star is media-trained and prepped. She sits down with each reject, at least later in the season, and gently tells him that she thinks he’s just wonderful, but their relationship wasn’t progressing quickly enough, or they didn’t have that spark. It’s honest, but not brutal. It’s on the other side that things tend to get ugly.
Even the best of breakups are unpleasant for the rejected one. They’re embarrassing, because we’re taught that our romantic desirability, in any context, is an indicator of our worth. Pretty much every piece of pop culture makes sure to give the identifiable hero or heroine a desirable romantic conquest, even if the protagonist isn’t traditionally sexy; we consume the message that the inherent worth of the protagonist earns them romantic love. Love isn’t a game of finding the right match in a population of billions; it’s a game of being the best, most lovable one. Being dumped means you’ve lost that game. You were the buffoonish third wheel in the rom-com of someone else’s life.
Of course, none of this excuses dreadful breakup etiquette, but not everyone can, as Jared did Monday night on "The Bachelorette," rise above our socialized behaviors and courteously accept a partner’s reasons for ending a relationship. (He even saved his pain and tears for the limo rather than make Kaitlyn feel worse! What a champ.) In the lowest moments, many turn to the deeply ingrained responses that bubble up immediately.
Most of us, if pressed to recall the most embarrassing lows in our lives, would probably think back to awful breakups. The end of first love, especially, can bring out some shocking behavior in immature dumpees. We poured bleach on our now-ex’s favorite old camp T-shirt, or we called sobbing five times a night for a week. We got pissed and told them they were never good enough for us anyway.
For men on "The Bachelorette," all too often, the immediate response is chilling anger. Again and again this season -- with Tony’s and Ian’s exits, as well as Joe’s goodbye on the most recent episode -- men on the show have responded to rejection and disappointment not with grace, but with rage and even cruelty.
Once might be a fluke. Three times is a trend. But does that surprise anyone? While women are socialized to turn their disappointment and hurt inward, as evidenced by the crying bachelorettes leaving the mansion wondering what they did wrong, men are often socialized to turn it into anger -- anger directed outward. Though the aggression has been limited to some nasty words, clenched jaws and cold stares -- there are, anyway, cameras everywhere -- Kaitlyn has clearly felt the fury in the atmosphere. She’s constantly asking the men if they’re upset with her, and the answer is often “Yes,” even if they say “No,” as they stalk off.
Watching these tense conversations, between tiny, bird-like Kaitlyn and the hulking men she’s dating, the mind drifts to that old saw, attributed to Margaret Atwood: “Men are afraid women will laugh at them; women are afraid men will kill them.” The worst the Bachelor ever has to fear is a particularly hysterical woman causing him a few uncomfortable minutes during a breakup. For the Bachelorette, however well-protected and -observed she may be, there’s still a submerged terror of actual violence from her rejected suitors, whose disappointment so quickly metastasizes into wrath.
Of course, none of these men would hurt Kaitlyn. Their clenched-jaw, contemptuous departures are just the sanitized, reality TV evidence of a cultural sickness, the kind of male socialization that makes women afraid to tell a man on the street to stop harassing her because he might stab her, afraid to refuse to give out her number because he might shoot her. Our society still teaches young men to get mad and get even, and until we find a better way for them to process pain and hurt, it’s going to be a scary world for women.
Even on "The Bachelorette," the supposedly empowering sister of "The Bachelor," we can’t escape reminders of that reality.