Breakups by the Book

The curious popularity of guides for the brokenhearted.

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How do people behave when they get dumped? Hollywood—or at least those individuals in Hollywood responsible for The Break-Up, the thin new romantic comedy starring Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughn—would have us believe that the broken heart is prone to showy, cinematic behavior. The hurling-across-the-room of the former lover’s belongings. The blasting of Alanis Morissette. Pensive runs along the waterfront. That sort of thing.

Apparently, though, when regular Americans get dumped, they curl quietly up with their reading. Or at least that’s what you would suppose from a visit to Borders, where the self-help aisle has been overrun with a peculiar animal: the breakup book. These guides, offering advice on how to cope when a relationship ends, are legion. You can learn How To Heal a Broken Heart in 30 Days or (if you’re feeling pokey) pick up Letting Go: A 12-Week Personal Action Program To Overcome a Broken Heart. Can’t bear to clutter your calendar with Xs? There are plenty of untimed options, among them not one but two books called It’s Not Me, It’s You, and a third called It’s Not You, It’s Him   (which is more of a guide to dating). Apart from the slight mortification entailed in purchasing one of these titles (or, in my case, purchasing 13 of these titles, which prompted the cashier to ask with some concern, “Are those … all for you?”), these books have no obvious downsides. But it’s not clear how they comfort their readers. Can they really do more for America’s lovelorn than, say, staring idly out a rain-streaked window? 

A brisk survey of the literature reveals at least one thing these books have to offer: metaphors. Apt, tortured, elegant, clunky—metaphors are apparently indispensable tools of the breakup guru’s trade. Going through a breakup, we learn, is like having a hangover, except when it’s like having broken ribs or a very bad cold. The trouble with you and your ex? You became “intertwined, like two saplings that are planted in the same pot.” Either that or you were like two race cars that “weren’t driving the same speed anymore, one of you was always trying to catch up, and eventually you crashed and totaled the cars.”

These analogies are bewildering in their variety, and they point up the rhetorical problem inherent to breakup guides—the writer knows nothing about his reader’s life but must speak with authority about it anyway. Some books confront this challenge with a taxonomical approach, listing all of the things that might conceivably have been wrong with your relationship. A book called Bittergirl will help you determine whether you’ve been dumped by the Coward, the Magic Man, Man Solo, or the Mountie; Exorcising Your Ex offers an alphabetical catalog of emotions you could hypothetically feel (Anger, Blame, the urge to Clean, etc.). Other books take a more prescriptive tack, offering best practices for lonely-hearts—although these vary from title to title. Stalking, for example, is universally denounced; the jury’s out on drastic haircuts. (The books also tend to assume that you are a straight woman and that you’ve been dumped, although you’ll find an occasional sidebar on how to break things off, or a “Bonus Chapter” with tips for lovesick men.)

Whatever the approach, though, the advice seems generic, inferior to what you could undoubtedly drum up with the help of understanding friends. Some books try to close this gap with slang and nicknames, unorthodox punctuation, and chatty asides. It’s Called a Breakup Because It’s Broken a sensible if exceedingly chummy guide from the people behind the best-selling dating book He’s Just Not That Into You—persistently addresses its reader as “Superfox.”Another book prefers the term “sassy diva.” In breakup guides like these, all true emotional succor gets capitalized, as in “HEY SUPERFOX, YOU ARE HEADED SOMEWHERE FABULOUS AND THERE ARE GREAT POSSIBILITIES AHEAD.” But such assurances don’t mean much coming from a pile of ink and pulp.

The breakup book is in some sense a modern response to a modern problem. The average age at which Americans marry has been rising steadily for decades, so it stands to reason that the average number of serious breakups they endure is climbing, too. In my 1926 copy of The Complete Book of Etiquette, for example, there is no mention of how to handle a breakup, although there are brief instructions for a broken engagement: “The less said the better,” although the girl’s mother “may send a dignified item to the newspapers.” These days, though, even Miss Manners offers advice on calling it quits.

The breakup book is enticing, then, because it proffers an active solution to an inherently passive problem. Don’t just sit there and cry! Read this book, which will tell you when to cry, and for how long. Still, it’s not entirely clear who buys these things. The best ones seem to circulate like bootlegs. When a good friend of mine was once in the throes of a particularly bad breakup, somebody gave him a venomous little volume called How To Heal the Hurt by Hating. (The subhead: “My boyfriend, Mitchell, whom I dated for three and a half years, left me for a woman named Heather, and, to get even, I have devoted my entire career to humiliating him in public. Enjoy the book.“) By the time it reached my friend the tome had belonged to five people, and he soon passed it off to a heartsick pal. Although it contained, he said, “nothing insightful,” the title gave him something funny to talk about when busybodies quizzed him at cocktail parties, and that, at the time, was enough.

Where breakup books excel, however, is in detailing breakups worse than yours. In Love Hangover: Tips for Christian Singles, for example, the author describes being dumped by a pastor who explained only, “God told me to do this.” Other books recount tales of people left at the altar, or, literally, at the side of the road. And it’s these horror stories that drive home the true appeal of the breakup book: It provides not illumination, but context—evidence that breakups are universal and that everybody survives.

So, what could the couple in The Break-Up have learned if they’d consulted a few of these titles? Vaughn’s character might have opted not to drink so much, and Aniston’s, not to talk her friend’s ear off. But the one rule most breakup books agree on is the one the pair seem poised to violate as the credits roll: Don’t, under any circumstances, get back together with your ex.