Breaking Up in Small Communities

knots-and-bends

A few months ago, I reached out across my social network and posed the question: How do you find the space and time to heal after ending a romantic relationship in a tight-knit community?

I wanted breakup stories from people who shared hobbies, close friends, a gaming group, or a cooperative venture with a former partner. Following are the five stories I received from people who have experienced breakups in small communities. Some names have been changed for anonymity.

Eva – Gaming Community

“It’s a fundamental geek flaw to think that everyone should be together having fun, and that’s just not how broken hearts work.”

When asked how being part of a small community helped her through the breakup, Eva, a member of the gaming community, expressed that her community was unwilling to support her—at a time when she most needed support. When Eva reached out, she discovered that her community identified more closely with her ex. “While I thought of them as my friends,” she wrote, “they primarily thought of my ex as their friend and not me. It was a pretty brutal wake up call for someone who was in a very bad place. Because I hadn’t branched out and made many friends outside the community, I was in deep trouble.”

During the breakup, Eva found that the inclusivity of her community posed certain challenges. She felt like she needed space in order to heal, but her former partner was present at every gaming event. Because of his close ties within the community, asking for space didn’t feel like a viable option.

She wrote: “I had watched other people in the community break up and they had generally stuck with the community’s ‘rules’ by either dropping out of sight for a while or torturing themselves and attending events they shouldn’t have been at. I knew that wasn’t going to work for me.”

Eva didn’t feel ready to spend time around her ex and his new significant other, but when she talked about these feelings, some members of the community decided she was a “bad sport” and stopped inviting Eva to events.

Ultimately, Eva ended up leaving her gaming community and joining a different sub-community of gamers—people who weren’t closely connected to her old friends. “I identified that I needed space in order to heal and they weren’t going to allow me to have it.”

When asked about strategies that helped her heal and move on, Eva expressed the importance of making connections outside of the community. “One thing I learned is that it’s a bad idea to rely on one community for all your social support. If there is discord in the community, things may or may not shake out the way you need them to.” Reflecting back on the experience, she wrote: “It’s a fundamental geek flaw to think that everyone should be together having fun, and that’s just not how broken hearts work.”

Tadashi – Community Organizer

“I’d tell someone, ‘You should get in touch with my colleague… But you probably shouldn’t tell her I’m the one who referred you.’”

Tadashi, a community organizer and activist, wrote about his brief relationship—and subsequent breakup—with another member of his organization.

While Tadashi never felt ostracized by his community, he and his former partner experienced difficulties reaching an agreement about boundaries, post-breakup. Tadashi felt that he needed space and time to process, and wanted to limit personal interactions. Unfortunately, his former partner read this as an attempt to shut her out of the organization.

Ultimately, Tadashi and his former partner called on a mutual friend and community leader to mediate a sit-down conversation. He wrote, “I think both my ex and I felt somewhat humiliated and frustrated that the post-break-up had devolved to such a point that we needed to call in a third party to hear out what we considered our personal business, for the sake of our organizational work.”

When asked how the community was impacted by the breakup, Tadashi wrote: “I imagine people may have felt uncomfortable or wary of discussing the matter. I also imagine that, had my ex and I not pursued our relationship (as we’d both initially acknowledged it wasn’t a good idea), our colleagueship and our mutual work would not have been disrupted by a multi-year period of being out of touch. We both often refer people to other relevant people, for our work—but there was a period during which we only referred people to each other indirectly. There was many a time when I’d tell someone, ‘You should get in touch with my colleague, X, she’d be great for your work or you for hers. But you probably shouldn’t tell her I’m the one who referred you.’”

Because Tadashi and his ex had overlapping friends and colleagues, the community was able to offer support from a distance without choosing sides. This differs from Eva’s experience, in which overlapping friends  went one way or the other.

Though it may not have been the most amicable breakup, the professionalism of their colleagues allowed both Tadashi and his former partner to continue their community work.

Jamie – Gaming Community

“I think it’s important to let people make their own decisions about friendships and relationships… I do not think that I was given the same respect.”

One question that I asked contributors was, In what ways did being a part of a small community feel difficult or challenging during the breakup?

Jamie, a contributor from the gaming community, struggled with members of the community spreading gossip—and picking sides.

“I am not the type of person to gossip or spread rumors,” Jamie wrote. “I talk things to death with my friends, I try to get a full scope on the situation, to understand where everyone is coming from…but I don’t go around telling people, ‘Hey, Jamie is an asshole and you shouldn’t be friends with them!’ I think it’s important to let people make their own decisions about friendships and relationships. However, I do not think that I was given the same respect.”

Jamie felt ostracized after the breakup—not from the entire gaming community, but from a large portion of it, including well-known leaders and organizers. While still a member of the community at large, Jamie often feels unwelcome at public events, and is less likely to attend.

More than anything, Jamie felt hurt by secrecy and poor communication within the community. After learning about a secretive private party, Jamie asked the organizer about the event. “The organizer was very defensive,” Jamie wrote, “and indignant that I’d even asked.” The sudden secrecy within the community felt confusing and hurtful.

So Jamie sought healing in reconnection. “I reached out to my ex in an effort to make peace, knowing full well that we had many mutual friends and often attended the same events. We ended on a very fake upnote, but I thought it was better than feeling as though they were my enemy; if I see them I can say hello instead of glaring at them. It was more to keep peace within the community than for myself, and to make these events less awkward for people who were friends with both of us.”

Jamie was able to move on and developed new interests outside of the community, which helped put space and time between the pain of the breakup. “Having time apart was definitely helpful to me in moving on and being able to see the big picture,” Jamie wrote.

8D – Poly Community

“Not only had I lost my lover, but I lost most of my support network.”

8D, a contributor from the poly community, had trouble finding community support after his breakup. He wrote: “Being part of a small community was terribly difficult, because when I felt I had to put myself in time-out and withdraw from my partner, I also had to withdraw from most of our small community too. Not only had I lost my lover, but I lost most of my support network.”

For 8D, the post-breakup fallout was so bad, that he chose to voluntarily remove himself from the community. Later, when he sought to reconnect, the community was unwilling to welcome him back. “I hear that the chemistry of the community has not recovered,” he wrote. “They are still dealing with a lot of anger.”

8D also wrote about breakdowns in communication, particularly related to electronic communication. “We’ve had several threads get out of control and hurtful. Ultimately, I’ve just deleted a lot of people’s contact information from my address book to give a safety buffer before being able to communicate with them.” He also warned against relying too heavily on one person’s advice, or one person’s vision of healing.

Kelly – Dance Community

“We didn’t want to miss out because of one another.”

Kelly, a contributor from the dance community, wrote that she experienced an overwhelming amount of support from her community during and after the breakup. As her relationship came to a close, Kelly reached out to community members for suggestions and support.

As a way of honoring their time together, Kelly and her former partner decided to host a breakup party, or a “disembarkation celebration.” Members of the community helped host the party, organized a ceremony, and contributed stories and blessing. “Most importantly,” Kelly wrote, “[they] held us.”

Kelly and her former partner were worried about being disinvited to community gatherings, so they made a point of telling their friends that it was okay to invite both of them to the same events. “We didn’t want to miss out because of one another,” she wrote.

During this time, many community members reached out to Kelly, expressing their appreciation for the breakup party invitation. People felt inspired by Kelly and her former partner’s choice to honor their love and their hurt together—and their choice to mutually ask for support. Kelly wrote: “Several community members said that we had inspired them to be more open about their own struggles and wanting to break up, and seek support in doing so.”

The breakup party also inspired people to reconsider the shame of breaking up, where (in Kelly’s words) one person is accused of being “wrong,” “bad,” or “broken.”

“I think the party was a positive experience for all involved,” Kelly wrote, “and that it made us all more resilient humans.”

On the other hand, Kelly found that the least useful responses to her breakup were comments that involved negative framing, or put-downs, of her ex. Comments like, “You were too good for him” or “Good riddance.” She also didn’t benefit from advice that rushed the healing process, such as, “You should go have a rebound hook up!”
Kelly says that the breakup party was vital to her healing, though she’s still got healing left to do. “My heart still hurts a lot,” she wrote. “My ex and I see one another regularly and talk openly about how we’re doing. I seek a lot of support. The community members who were involved in our breakup party keep asking me how we’re doing, which they were asked to do at the party. The best advice [I got] was to give myself a lot of time to heal, and not rush it. Most helpful—simple compassion.”

Closing Remarks

I ended the survey by asking contributors if they had any thoughts, advice, or words of wisdom for helping small communities weather relationship changes.

Eva reiterated her experiences with her gaming community, in which the community’s reluctance to make space for healing ultimately hurt everyone involved. She wrote: “Communities need to be flexible enough to support people with emotional or physical problems and understanding enough not to harm them. Yes, people do maladaptive things when they’re hurt sometimes, but you need to give them the tools that allow them to do what they need in order to heal instead of making them pariahs when they most need support.”

“Communities need to be flexible enough to support people with emotional or physical problems and understanding enough not to harm them.”

Tadashi wrote that he’s not one to give advice without knowing more about an individual person’s situation, but he shared a few thoughts: take time to introspect about one’s own feelings and experiences, and seek the feedback of a few trusted friends to help expand one’s perspectives.

Tadashi, like Kelly, wrote about humanizing one’s former partner, rather than demonizing them. “Demons have more power than people and are are harder to reconcile with,” he wrote. “That said, I don’t mean to suggest that understanding is the same thing as endorsement or forgiveness.”

Jamie’s parting words were, “When you know something is falling apart, let it go before it gets worse. Try to end things amicably, rather than holding on ‘til every last shred of the relationship is ruined.” Jamie also expressed the importance of not pressuring friends in the community to take sides, as well as the importance of not poisoning a former partner’s reputation—strategies that may help foster community resilience in the face of a major change.

Contributors described a variety of strategies they used to heal. Some found healing in distance, others found closure in attempts to reconnect. 8D has found therapy useful, as well as getting out and simply doing other things. He suggests the book A Guide to Rational Living (A. Ellis) for breaking out of cycles of despair.

Lastly, Kelly expressed warm appreciation for the support she received from her community. “Though I’m not sure how to begin to date or how to love again,” she wrote, “I feel like my community’s got my back, sees me in that fragile state, and is ready to send me someone wonderful and continue to support me—both of us—in growing and walking our respective life paths.”