“Cutoff Culture” And the Myth of Closure

Every once in a while, the universe likes to drop a subject in my lap. Last week, several of my readers forwarded me an article on Medium called “Shining Light on Cutoff Culture“, a think piece by one Jeff Reifman, about closure and communication. Evidently, Reifman’s heart was broken by “Emma” when she not only callously dumped him but engaged in what I call “The Nuclear Option” and he never got the closure he was hoping for.

"We're gonna test that  'not if you were the last man on earth' stance of yours, Mabel..."

“We’re gonna test that ‘not if you were the last man on earth’ stance of yours, Mabel…”

To Reifman, this is a crime beyond imagining. To him, “cutoff culture” is a horrendous violation of the rules of love, a callous disregard for the emotional well-being of another person (specifically… him) and should never ever be performed except under stringent circumstances.

Needless to say: I’ve got some opinions on this. Reifman’s rant about Emma’s cruelty is something I see fairly often from guys – and it’s almost always guys – who rant about how women owe them an explanation and why they need “closure” on the relationship. But we’ll get to all that in a second. Let’s take a look at what Reifman had to say, in his own words.

The “Violence” of Cutoff Culture

Reifman’s piece starts off pretty much as you’d expect: begging for sympathy by explaining just how much it hurts to be cut off by one’s ex:

Most of us don’t blink when a friend says they’ve cut off an ex. But if you’ve ever been cut off by someone you care deeply for, then you know how distinctly painful an experience it can be. While it may be socially acceptable to cut off communication with our exes, we’re not always cognizant of the impacts on ourselves and our former partners. When we cut off, we may do so from anger but often we may be avoiding feelings of discomfort. Furthermore, if the person being cut off has trauma in their background, the psychological impacts can be devastating.

Got that? He wants you to realize that this isn’t just about him – he’s concerned about the potential psychic damage to the cut-off-er as well.

I’m not talking about distancing ourselves from those we casually date or asking for space after a breakup or simply choosing not to be friends with our exes. I’m talking about breaking off all contact with the most intimate person in our lives without civility — refusing to answer the phone, reply to emails, or acknowledge any aspect of their communication or needs — often without explanation.

Remember this paragraph. It’s going to be important later on. Especially that “without explanation” part, something that he is going to emphasize over and over again.

Now, to set the stage: Emma, Reifman’s ex, was a (much younger – this is going to be important, too) woman he met in a New Media class. The writing’s a bit unclear as to whether he was TA’ing the class or not (which is potentially a tricky issue in and of itself) but long and short: they had a whirlwind affair of four months, after which she ended things, an ending that he insists he foresaw because of the vast differences in their ages. As they were ending things, Emma gave him the traditional softening-the-breakup line: “we can still be friends.”

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Pillow Talk

 

Following our breakup, she continued to say she wanted to be friends. At the last minute, she canceled our first night out as friends and tearfully said she needed a week of space. I left the ball in her court and didn’t hear back from her. She completely withdrew. It was a very painful time for me, and she later acknowledged that it was for her as well.

After nearly a year of silence, I reached out to her and we began a series of conversations toward repairing our friendship. She said she had recently begun dating someone new and I think it was difficult for her to talk to me about our relationship. Her response was to withdraw again. There were misunderstandings and miscommunication.

She stopped responding to my email and when I called to inquire she blocked my number and emailed me to stop contacting her. Over a space of nine months, I wrote her two kind emails in the spirit of healing. Finally, she replied, “I do not want to see or hear from you ever again” and threatened to file an anti-harassment order against me. The open, thoughtful, communicative Emma I knew had vanished.

This, evidently, is a crime too great to be borne. One simply does not break up with Jeff Reifman and not explain themselves!

Emma once told me, “You’re the first one to want me for me,” but her abrupt about-face might make you think I ran off with her best friend or boiled her rabbit … I did neither. In fact, to this day, I have only guesses to make sense of her hostility to me.

Because Emma’s withdrawal and eventual cutoff surprised me so much, I had a lot of intense emotions and questions about what she’d experienced and the choices she’d made. Rather than face my need for explanation and desire for resolution, she chose to withdraw.

Face his need, Emma! Face it!

But what kind of post-breakup relationship, exactly, was Reifman hoping for from Emma? Well…

The friend who was told to break up via “JSC” told me another story. One of her friends chose to have sex with a lover after breaking up with him; she said even in the midst of ending the relationship, she wanted to “be generous in spirit.” While I don’t necessarily advocate taking things that far (in part because it can create confusion), I embrace the sentiment.

nope

Because of course he would.

Now, as tempted as I am to just repost his article and comment line by line, I want to get down into the meat of some of what he’s talking about here with regards to “cutoff culture”, closure and the psychic toll of breaking up with someone.

You Aren’t Owed Anything

One thing that’s impossible to miss – as the always-excellent Captain Awkward points out – is that this entire rant is dripping with entitlement. There are occasional concern-troll-y musings about how this is bad for the one doing the cut-off as well – the subtitle, after all is “Cutting off exes not only hurts our former partners but limits our own growth as well.”1 – but let’s be honest: this is all about what Reifman believes he’s owed by Emma and, by extension, all his other exes ever. He wants her back in his life  (on his terms). He wants closure. He wants her to heal his pain because he’s had a shitty childhood! But – and this is critical – he is completely out of fucks to give when it comes to Emma‘s needs or wants. It is literally all about him. Case in point:

Cutoff culture is violent in its own ways. The person cutting ties gets what they want, but the person getting cut off is left in a situation where what they need or want doesn’t matter.

Emma’s last note included the phrase, “Apparently, what I want seems irrelevant to you.” She didn’t realize the irony that what I wanted had long been irrelevant to her. Being on the receiving end of a cutoff, surrounded by friends and culture that just expect you to get over it, can leave you feeling utterly powerless.

 

 

DeanWhat

 

The mind scarcely has the courage to boggle. In fact, I’m fairly sure the mind just curled up in the corner, making “buh-buh-buh” sounds as it flicks its finger over its lips.

First of all: I’m sorry but no, not wanting to talk to somebody is not “violent“. Dear God…

Secondly: This is from someone who has repeatedly ignored the fact that Emma has indicated that she didn’t want to talk to him again, ever. Who “coincidentally” took a date to the restaurant where she worked. And yet, he’s complaining that she is not conforming to his desires about how she should behave after they break up.

But not to put too fine a point on it: no, your wants or needs don’t matter. Does that sounds harsh? That’s because it is. But that’s how break-ups work. You don’t have to justify them and you sure as shit don’t get to dictate terms afterwards. Break-ups are the ending of relationships, the cutting of ties. Once you’ve broken up with somebody, they don’t owe you anything except giving your shit back. They aren’t required to hold your hand as you process your issues. They don’t need to be “generous of spirit [and vagina]” while you’re trying to get over them. Saying “I want to stay friends”  ((In those moments where they’re being serious rather than trying to make the break-up less awkward)) is a goal, not a sacred blood-oath bound under the all-seeing eye of Shuma-Gorath.

If, if, someone wants to make an effort to make sure you’re ok afterwards, that’s very sweet of them. They’ve got a good heart. But it’s not a requirement. 

(And before anyone brings it up: yes, I talk about requirements when you’re dumping someone. I consider not causing someone unnecessary pain to be key part of being a good man rather than an asshole. Now stop trying to out-clever me and pay attention.)

And – importantly – you’re not owed an explanation and you’re not owned a “resolution”. Why? Well that’s because:

You Make Your Own Closure

Over and over again, Reifman insists that everything happened without explanation and that he needs “closure” and that he deserves some sort of “resolution” to the end of their (again: four month) relationship. This is something I see over and over again – mostly from men, but from women too – people complaining that they can’t get over someone because they need “closure”. In theory, the idea behind closure is that either by confronting the issues that ended the relationship or having a final airing of grievances, the afflicted party will finally be able to tie their relationship up in a neat bow and sail off into the sunset. Except… that’s not only not how things work but that’s usually not what they want in the first place. Nine times out of ten, when someone’s looking for “closure”, what they’re really looking for is vindication. They want an explanation that they can accept – preferably one that explains why they’re the wronged party. But here’s the thing: you don’t really want the truth because the truth is ugly. The truth is unpleasant. And frankly, the truth isn’t going to satisfy you because the truth is messy. It’s not always going to be something you can understand or wrap your head around. Sometimes it’s going to be “you make my vagina cry”. How, exactly, is that going to help you “get over things”? What resolution is that going to give you?

500DaysSummer

Demanding “closure” or “resolution” from your ex is usually less about healing from the relationship and more about adjudicating it. It quickly becomes denying the legitimacy of the reason for your break-up – as though this will somehow annul the break-up and magically make you get back together again. Other times it’s less about “resolution” and more about lashing outIn Reifman’s case, what is he going to talk about? That she’s not allowed to pull The Fade after she’s already broken up with him? That deciding she didn’t want to talk to him is a crime against something something TOUCH MY PENIS? That Emma is a shallow, horrible bitch because she didn’t handle his delicate fee-fees properly?

Reifman insists that by not letting other people know why you’re angry, you’re missing out on the ability to let them make amends. But there’s a point when “making amends” isn’t possible, nor is it even desirable. There’s a reason why there’s a codicil to AA’s 9th step: you attempt to make amends except when doing so will cause more harm. Sometimes that desire to make amends has absolutely nothing to do with actually fixing things and more about how you feel… and that’s only going to make things worse.

It doesn’t really matter why you broke up, only that it happened. Sometimes it’s something you can learn from and not repeat in the future. Sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes it’s just a matter of not being compatible. But rehashing the relationship isn’t going to fix things or magically make you get over it. The way you get closure is to learn to let it go. You accept that things are over and move the hell on.

Handle Your Shit

Among the many, many red flags and head-scratchers in Reifman’s piece is that he insists that Emma somehow had a duty to be gentle with him because he was abused by his mother and this break-up was incredibly triggering.

Cutoff for someone with attachment wounds can be especially painful. I was raised by an abusive, likely bipolar mother. She physically abused me from age seven to fourteen. After she’d hit me, I would often sit alone in my room in complete disbelief that this was continuing to happen to me while adults who knew, such as my father and uncle, chose not to intervene.

My mom regularly oscillated between loving and abusive behavior toward me but it took me nearly a year to realize exactly how Emma’s reversal had brought up my feelings of past trauma. After all she’d said about remaining friends, Emma’s withdrawal so shocked me that it reactivated my earlier experience of disbelief and suffering in isolation, essentially triggering episodes of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

While I sympathize with the fact that Reifman comes from an abusive background, I want to point out that all of this is from a relationship that lasted all of four months. If the break-up of  short-term relationship is enough to send Reifman into full-blown PTSD, then might I suggest that perhaps, he shouldn’t be dating for a while? Because quite frankly, if he can’t handle a break-up without having a break-down, then he’s not in any position to be dating. And that, is all on him.

It’s almost impossible to end a relationship without pain, and in an ideal world, we’d try to make sure we don’t cause unnecessary pain in the process. But not only is this not an ideal world, but it’s not her job to life-coach while you heal. For that matter, is also not her duty to provide you with an emergency vagina – hers, or somebody else’s – while you’re trying to get over her, “generous of spirit” or no.


It’s not that I don’t understand his pain; I’ve been there, done that and I have the angsty LiveJournal rants to prove it. One of the defining moments of my life, one that put me on the path to where I am today, was my getting fucked up by being dumped. It was only a six-month long relationship, but it took me more than a year to get over it. The difference between Reifman and me is that I’m willing to admit that this was kind of ridiculous. I spent all that time wallowing in how wronged I was instead of recognizing a) the relationship would never have worked out, because b) I didn’t have my shit together and c) I needed to let it go. Accepting that I was being an idiot was a key to my development as a person. After all, part of being a grown-ass man or woman is being able to take care of your shit, something Reifman seems to refuse to do. Instead, he puts the blame everywhere but on himself.

I believe that men are especially vulnerable to cutoff culture because of cultural expectations around masculinity. Women want us to be passionate, masculine lovers, yet we’re expected to turn off our emotions and let go the moment we’re dumped. If we persist in asking for communication from a woman who has cut us off, we may be considered a perpetrator, as exemplified by Emma’s threatening me with a court order.

[…]

Furthermore, and this will also be controversial, this particular realm of sexuality and breakups is one in which women wield more power; it’s easier in our culture for women to find emotional and physical intimacy when a relationship ends than it is for men.

I remember Emma described during our breakup that her housemate would cuddle with her as she cried; with no such support and few single friends, I was left to watch TV with my cats. It’s rare for men to have the rich emotional networks of support that women do.

First of all: holy fuck, yes, persisting on asking for communication from someone who doesn’t want it is absolutely grounds for a restraining order. That’s got nothing to do with “cutting off your emotions” and everything to do with not being a goddamn stalker. Jesus, the fact that I have to explain this…

But more to the point: yeah, it sucks that men are socialized to be detached from their emotions and we’re discouraged from having emotionally intimate platonic relationships. But that doesn’t mean that your ex is required to be your shoulder to cry on or to put up with your constant need to rehash the relationship until you get an answer you’re satisfied with. She’s not your girlfriend any more, nor is she your goddamn therapist. If you don’t have friends you can go to for support, well I feel bad for you son, but that’s not her problem. That’s entirely on you. You and you alone are responsible for your own healing.

This means that you can’t expect someone to be giving your emotions extra-special care and handling literally years after you broke up. If you’re thrown into full-blown PTSD after a break-up, it’s your job to get your ass the therapy you very clearly need. Yes, you should take care of yourself. Seek comfort. Practice self-healing. But don’t expect anyone else to do the job for you… especially your ex.

The Point of the Nuclear Option Is To Heal

A lot people seem to misunderstand the point of the Nuclear Option – what Reifman calls “cutoff culture”. It’s not about “hiding from consequences” or “not dealing with difficult emotions”, no matter how tempting it is to rationalize things that way. It’s about healing.

Breaking up with someone is rarely easy, regardless of whether you’re the dumpee or the dumper. And no matter which end of the break-up you were on, you’re going to need to recover… and you’re not going to be able to recover if someone keeps picking at the wounds.

The Nuclear Option goes both ways, you see. On the one hand, you need to not be continually torturing yourself by constantly flagellating yourself over your ex. Facebook-stalking her to see if she’s thinking of you (or, more realistically, if she’s dating someone else) and sending drunk texts at 3 AM are all ways that we deliberately poke our fingers into the holes and make ourselves feel worse. It’s the worst kind of self-indulgence – it serves absolutely no point except to keep the wounds open and makes it impossible to get over them. You’re not letting yourself move on because you’re making every day of your life about how You’ve Been Dumped. Getting over someone takes distance and perspective and you can’t have that if you’re not letting the past be the past.

At the same time, it’s impossible to move on from things when your ex refuses to let things go. When your ex doesn’t want to let things be over, when they’re constantly looking to rehash the relationship with you or making incessant demands for your attention and affection, you can’t move on. They’re acting like an anchor, holding you in place when all you want to do is move forward with your life. And so, as cold as it may be, you have to cut them loose. You absolutely have the right to set your own boundaries and to enforce them.

And if you’re the one being cut off? I feel bad for you son, but, well…

getoverit

You aren’t entitled to access to somebody just because you dated. Sometimes there’s no compromise, there are no answers and there’s no maintaining a relationship of any kind. They aren’t required to communicate with you if they don’t want to and they sure as fuck don’t need to justify their reasoning to you. Look at it this way: either their reasons make perfect sense – which you should respect – or they’re being a callous asshat, in which case you should be glad to be rid of them. Either way, the results are the same: all you do is pick yourself up, dust yourself off and move on because in the end, wallowing in your misery isn’t productive. Self-pity parties just prolong the pain and don’t get you anywhere and make you look pathetic.

(Also: “blocking people on Facebook causes stalking”? Blaming domestic violence on women making you feel helpless? JESUS FUCKING TAP-DANCING CHRIST, dude.)

Yes, it sucks. I’ve been there. We’ve all been there. But in the end, complaining about cutoff culture and begging for closure doesn’t help. In the end, you have two choices: you can cowboy up. Or you can lay there and bleed.

It’s up to you.

  1. Emphasis added []