Several years ago, in the immediate aftermath of the prolonged and heart-wrenching breakup that persisted in destroying my entire life over the course of many months, a friend sent me an essay she thought I should read. I was officially single and deeply ashamed. To me, my breakup had constituted a karmic injustice that I could have stopped—against my wonderful former partner, against our respective families, and against the scores of women throughout history who’d been denied the love and respect of a Good Man. My friend told me she looked at this must-read piece from time to time, whenever she was feeling scared about the future. I still wasn’t sure if I would have one.
Go, even though you love him.
Go, even though he’s kind and faithful and dear to you.
Go, even though he’s your best friend and you’re his.
Go, even though you can’t imagine your life without him.
Go, even though he adores you and your leaving will devastate him.
Go, even though your friends will be disappointed or surprised or pissed off or all three.
Go, even though you once said you would stay.
Go, even though you’re afraid of being alone.
Go, even though you’re sure no one will ever love you as well as he does.
Go, even though there is nowhere to go.
Go, even though you don’t know exactly why you can’t stay.
Go, because you want to.
Because wanting to leave is enough.
She copied and pasted the excerpt—a block of beatitudes for the guilty heart—into the chat window so that I could read it first. The piece, “The Truth That Lives There,” was actually an entry in an ongoing advice column, answered by a then anonymous woman addressed only as Dear Sugar.
This column had been written by Cheryl Strayed, about a year before she unmasked herself and released the bestselling 2012 memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. Wild is a chronicle of dissolution: the death of a parent, the destruction of a marriage, a stint of addiction, and the author’s self-redemption by way of a gruelling physical quest. Throughout, Strayed offers a narrative trajectory that might sound familiar to the unhappy women plaintively seeking answers to counterintuitive romantic predicaments from advice columns, Reddit boards, and the stereotypically pinker quadrants of the internet.
In Wild, Strayed encounters marital demise as the consequence of crisis, the final punctuating snap after a tailspin in the years immediately after her mother’s death. The trauma of her grief, of her life, renders her crazy; it is crazy to push away a Good Man. The advice column offers a condensed version of this narrative, with the crazy turned down and centred, instead, on an empathic urgency. “There was nothing wrong with my ex-husband. He wasn’t perfect, but he was pretty close,” Strayed’s Sugar writes. From the very beginning of their whirlwind courtship and marriage, Strayed recalls something nagging inside of her: “a tiny clear voice that would not, no matter what I did, stop saying go.”
Sugar offers permission to follow your instincts, and, with that, validation that listening to one’s instinct is the exact opposite of insane. There is nothing pretty or interesting, after all, in coming spectacularly undone—nor in internalizing that as your fate. It is not crazy to leave even a Good Man, and it will not ruin you.
I‘ve long suspected that women subconsciously accept some version of the belief that we’re supposed to want secure romantic relationships more than anything in the world. The logical extension of that is an expectation that we should want to stay, to make it work, the moment we find ourselves with a partner who is decent and willing. It’s still a broadly accepted facet of collective pseudoscience that while men are biologically compelled to spread their seed, we women are wired to be bond formers, family builders, nature’s natural nurturers.
You could say that our cultural understanding of women’s autonomy isn’t totally in sync with the logistics of twenty-first-century partnership, and the internet would appear to agree. A 2015 thread on Reddit’s TwoXChromosomes board opens with a PSA: “You can break up with someone for any reason, or for no reason at all,” it reads. “You don’t have to have a ‘good reason’ to end a relationship.”
Posting under the handle MissPredicament, the writer muses over the observation that an astonishing number of women in Reddit’s relationships forum seem to be mired in the same existential conundrum. They are unhappy in relationships that don’t really have anything wrong with them. “I wish someone had told me when I was much younger that I didn’t have to have an airtight legal case for a breakup—all I had to have was a desire to no longer be in that relationship,” she writes. “I would have saved myself a lot of time.” The post received over 1,000 replies.
There are others like it. “Have you ever broken up with a good guy? Or have you ever broken up with a good girl”’ reads one, on Reddit’s AskWomen board, a plaintive call for some proof of precedent. An essay on the website HelloGiggles sketches the author’s toughest breakup, with a “nice guy” she calls Sam. She steels herself to complete the deed, only to realize that her nice guy wants to stay together. “My guilt ran around inside me, beating every organ like a gong,” she writes.
“The problem with some guys is they’re not a problem at all,” reads another essay, this time on mtv.com. When women end partnerships, it seems that the emotion we feel perhaps more acutely than the eviscerating grief of love lost is the guilt of having pushed it away.
This sub-genre of women’s-advice-cum-confessional writing appears to confront what is so often perceived to be the dominant expectation of men—that far too many are unwilling or unable to commit to a relationship. Women and men are raised to believe that boys will be boys and men will be scoundrels, a truism reinforced by headlines and hashtags that are testaments to bad male behaviour. We call it toxic masculinity and are taught to search for a prince among all the warty frogs. In the face of perceived scarcity, opting out of a stable partnership with a Good Man carries a weight of ethical frivolity. Breaking up with a man who actually wants to be there, and who is good and decent, seems irresponsible at best. It’s like scoring big in the lottery and torching your winnings for sport.
Of course, the perception of scarcity is just that: a perception, a myth. It is facile and essentializing to paint any gender as more or less willing than others to engage in the labour of a relationship. Yet for women who date men, in the context of a patriarchal society, life isn’t short on reminders that a Good Man can be hard to find.
Despite the advice of so many personal essays and Reddit threads, the Family Relationships category of Amazon’s self-help section is conspicuously short on books that speak to a woman’s right to call it quits, let alone her desire to. When I looked, it appeared that even the most reasoned, professional-counsellor-authored tomes on twenty-first-century romantic dissolution hinted in some way that breakups with men were the result of fundamental brokenness: in men’s behaviour and in women’s selection criteria. It might not shock you to learn that there is no self-help book marketed at straight women titled Trust Me: Lose the Nice Guy.
The bulk of relationship guidance aimed at women who date men is presented as some variation of a fuckboy recovery manual, which, by process of elimination, leaves the elusive Good Man as the secret to romantic success. The dynamics of communication, care, and personal agency that so heavily figure into any type of interpersonal relationship are touched upon only in service to the hypothesis that most men are trash but you probably still want them anyway. You idiot, you.
The women in these books tend to share the burden of big hearts and low standards. In her introduction to It’s Called a Breakup Because it’s Broken, Amiira Ruotola-Behrendt (whose husband and co-author had previously co-authored the bestselling “advice” manual He’s Just Not That into You) assures her female readers: “I’ve been the girl who not only suffers through an unhealthy, demoralizing relationship but then goes back to it in hopes that time spent apart has inspired him to love me enough to change . . . or even try.”
Licensed New York City relationship counsellor Rachel Sussman admits, in her foreword to The Breakup Bible: The Smart Woman’s Guide to Healing from a Breakup or Divorce, that her own rocky history with relationships came from having made “decisions that weren’t always in my best interest, that chipped away at my self-esteem, and that kept me in a state of suspended melancholy.” Those decisions, she goes on to imply, had to do with choosing the wrong type of partner. She writes that it wasn’t until a (male) friend pulled her aside and expressed concern over her “constant” decision to date “toxic men when so many nice guys ask you out” that she began to re-evaluate her approach to the game of love. The book received many positive reviews, at least from Amazon users.
Even the misleadingly promising How to Dump a Guy: A Coward’s Manual seems not to treat the endeavour of breaking up with total seriousness, inviting its would-be dumper to fill out a tongue-in-cheek worksheet that catalogues the dumpee’s particular flaw (“e.g. Cling-on, Sexual Savant, etc.”), the “[d]ate you first realized you had to dump him,” breakup outfit, and so forth. It’s as though the book’s female authors viewed the exercise of ending a relationship as nothing more than a future curio to gab about, à la Carrie Bradshaw, over a three-mimosa brunch with girlfriends.
I didn’t see much of my own romantic experience reflected in Amazon’s recommendations. I’ve only dated a few men in my life, all of whom were great. Each relationship lasted at least a year; every time, I’d been the one to end it. Maybe a Good Man is hard to find, but I seem to have a knack for it.
I’m lucky, though; many of the women I know can attest to some experience that validates the condescending black-and-white of self-help rationale. Many have been ghosted—dumped without word or warning by way of total silence. Others have found themselves growing attached to men who refuse monogamy yet remain resolute in their distaste for the ethics of communication that successful polyamorous arrangements seem to be founded on.
We all know the reasons—be they stereotypes or kernels of truth—for why a woman might be inclined to fall for the “wrong” kind of man, one who seems rakish or noncommittal. Players have an irritating tendency to make for better lovers. Maybe there’s an appeal in imagining oneself as the woman who can “tame” a fuckboy’s ways—or, alternatively, to have a bit of fun with them. The tropes are tired and trite, but they aren’t totally wrong.
There are also plenty of unsurprising, age-old reasons for why the phenomenon of the fuckboy (or whatever we’re calling him at any given moment) is one that’s so unabashedly gendered. What is new, if anything, are the advances in communication and culture that have made sexual dalliances easier to come by and less of a potential liability to a person’s time, psyche, or reputation. People are freer than ever before to chase their romantic whims, to indefinitely pursue whatever arbitrary combination of attributes they’re sure will make them happy in the now. Prospective partners are commodities we can pick up then put back on the shelf. A warm body is only a screen swipe away.
Yet despite today’s freedoms and conveniences, men and women remain fundamentally unequal in our society. It’s common knowledge that men earn more, on average, than women do, even for the same types of work. Men are disproportionately represented in the upper echelons of influence and capital. They’re typically bigger and stronger than women, better equipped to have and take.
And therein lies the bind. No relationship is an island. They are socio-cultural units informed by the world at large. Even the most egalitarian partnerships must negotiate the power structures that threaten to reproduce themselves, on a micro level, within every marriage and romance and bed. And, because of this, the way women experience partnership cannot help but be fundamentally fraught in ways that men might never know, whether or not we admit it to ourselves.
While a person needn’t be male to be a challenging partner, Toronto journalist Sarah Ratchford has argued that most women are raised to be considerate of others’ feelings in ways that many men simply aren’t. The argument goes that this perceived communication gap—again, the result of asymmetrical ethics instilled during men’s and women’s respective upbringings—has produced a spate of men who altogether lack the tools necessary to be the kinds of partners that modern women want. Women who date men have, in turn, increasingly given up on the prospect of relationships. It’s worth mentioning that Ratchford’s article, published in 2017 in Canada’s Flare magazine, is titled “Why I’m Giving up Dating Men and Just Staying Home.”
Ratchford leans on the observations that boys are raised to value different things from girls and that men and women are socially rewarded for different behaviours, but the emotional inattentiveness she describes seems to be less the consequence of men’s conditioned inability to exercise consideration for others than their unjust possession of the upper hand—and the privilege to play it at will. Though it’s certainly possible that a deficiency in empathy can account for the sexual callousness of individual men, it stands to reason that in a romantic (and literal) marketplace where they are overvalued, their bad behaviour might remain unchecked (or at least tolerated) for years.
Women, on the other hand, face a labour market that values them less than men at the outset of their careers and goes even lower than that should they choose to begin families. This is compounded (for women who date men) by a relationship market that sees their worth rapidly deplete with the passage of time, thanks in large part to the baleful tick of our biological clock. Aspiring to gain a foothold in either marketplace threatens success in the other. In both, we’re at a clear disadvantage from the start.
The economic parallel is more than a convenient model for comparison. Corinne Low, a professor of business economics and public policy at the Wharton School, has gone so far as to chart women’s reproductive capital on the US marriage market. “Pricing the Biological Clock,” Low’s 2016 paper, argues that the differential impact of aging on women’s reproductive health negatively affects both a woman’s relationship prospects and her future socio-economic outcomes. This, Low writes, “is an inherent, biological asymmetry between men and women: whereas for men the reproductive system ages and declines in function at the same rate as other biological systems, for women this decline is much earlier and swifter than other aging processes.” Low finds evidence that this asymmetry has real economic consequences for women, affecting their willingness to invest in human capital, since such investments take time and may therefore limit their appeal on the marriage market.
To prove this, Low had set up an experiment that assigned a randomly generated age to an online dating profile as a means of determining whether men’s apparent preference for younger women has to do with aesthetic attraction or a valuation of her prospective fertility. From there, she collected information about participants’ conscious age preferences for a hypothetical partner, their levels of education, incomes, and the dating profiles they wound up choosing. She found that men have a strong preference for younger partners, even when beauty and other factors are controlled for, and that this preference is driven by men who have no children and have accurate knowledge of the age-fertility trade-off. Low concluded that each additional year of a woman’s age means she would need to earn an additional $7,000 for her potential partner to be indifferent—the market price of her fertility, a rapidly depreciating economic asset.
The figures paint a clear picture. It is not only emotionally fraught and potentially crazy but quite literally economically disadvantageous for women to end relationships with men who meet the requirements to be deemed “a catch.”
Excerpted from Hard To Do: The Surprising, Feminist History of Breaking Up with permission from Coach House Books. All rights reserved.