Breaking up with someone is never easy. Even when it’s a break up that had to happen, you’re going to end up with complicated feelings towards your ex. No matter how bad the relationship was – or how badly it ended – it’s natural that you’d have questions and doubts. You may wonder if you did the right thing. You may think that maybe you made a mistake.
And you may think about trying to get your ex back.
It’s entirely understandable that you might want your ex back in your life. For some, it’s the fear of being alone and the belief that even a bad relationship is better than no relationship. For others, it’s the comfort of the familiar, the ease of settling back into old routines. Part of what makes a breakup so traumatic is the way that it shatters your life. Being with someone, especially in a long-term relationship, means that you’ve restructured your life around being part of a couple. You’ve developed habits and routines based on your shared your life with another person. The end of that relationship throws your life into chaos, leaving you to have to relearn how to be single again.
And there are times when you just still love your ex and aren’t ready to let them go.
But getting your ex back – if you even should – is a tricky situation. There are right ways to approach trying to rekindle a faded romance… and there are wrong ones.
And then there are utterly, mind-fuckingly, bad ones.
Like this one:
One More Try
Last Saturday morning, Bristol native Luke Howard set up a piano in the middle of College Green, arranged some hand-written signs and began to play. And he won’t stop playing until his ex comes back to him. This was, in Howard’s words, “a last throw of the dice,” in his attempt to win back the heart of his “Rapunzel”. They had recently broken up and he couldn’t take it. He wasn’t ready to let her go and so, he decided to plead his case. But since Rapunzel wasn’t talking to him, he decided to take his heartbreak public.
According to Howard:
“It wasn’t anything nasty or bad, it was just life getting in the way. If it was anything bad why we split up then I wouldn’t be doing this, but it’s the only thing I can think of doing,”
Rather than text or write – ” that only ever seems to make things worse…” according to Howard – he has decided to take his case in as public a fashion as he possibly can. And so, to show just how much he loves her, he’s vowed to play – for hours, days, or weeks – until either she comes back to him or he simply can’t play any longer.
It sounds sweetly romantic, doesn’t it? You can almost see this as being the climax of a romantic movie by John Carney – maybe something involving a suitably, soulfully dishevelled Charlie Cox, pouring his heart out into his playing. The skies darken and thunder rolls, a booming counterpoint to his piano. Lit only by the street lights on the sidewalk in the park, he’s soaked to the skin, his hair plastered flat by rain. His eyes are wild and his skin sallow; he clearly hasn’t stopped or slept in days. And then, just as the last of his energy fades, his fingers falter and he begins to collapse… a hand touches his, pulling them off the keys. He turns and his ex, played by Haley Bennet, takes him into her arms. The music swells and audiences leave happy, feeling as though love has triumphed.
If it were a movie, it might work. But this isn’t a movie. This is real life.
Instead, Howard is providing an excellent example of how not to get your ex back.
What Howard is attempting is a classic Grand Romantic Gesture. It’s a staple of romantic movies: by the second act, the hero has lost his lover. Whether through circumstance, opposition from others or his own bone-headed mistakes, he has managed to ruin what was an otherwise great relationship. Now, if he wants to win her back, he has to show just how much he loves her. And there’s no greater way to prove how much you care than by showing everyone the depth of your love. Don’t worry about how far you need to go; the more disruptive it may be, then the more it means that you love her. And if that means humiliating her in front of her friends and family, then that’s just a small price to pay, isn’t it?
And so his lover, so impressed by the sheer depth of his feelings for her, realizes that she can’t live without him either. How could she resist someone who loves her that much?
But what works in movie logic doesn’t play out so well in real life. In movie logic, the strength of your love is all you need to rekindle love in someone else. Their hearts are so moved by the depth of your devotion that they can’t help but love you back. But romance doesn’t work like that in real life.
The fact that you love someone so very, very hard, doesn’t change how that someone feels. Nor does it change the reasons why you broke up. It may be great that you got a marching band to parade past your ex’s house or you convinced a park full of people to perform a coordinated song and dance number to demonstrate just how much you care about her… but you never addressed the fact that you don’t respect her or her career. You never made up for the ways you insulted or belittled her, the fundamental lifestyle incompatibilities or even just unwillingness to do your share of the emotional labor.
It’s far easier to show up at her graduation to make a heart-felt speech about love and never giving up on someone than it is to examine what went wrong. There is never any self-examination, no reflection about why you broke up. That shit takes work. It’s unpleasant and it’s rarely pretty. You have to come face to face with the things that you did and that your partner did and find some way to make things right… if that’s even possible.
But buying all the sterling roses in the tri-state area and filling her car with them? That makes you a hero.
That’s why people love Grand Romantic Gestures. They’re the short-cut to a reconciliation. You don’t need to fix things; you make an over-the-top display to distract them and get your way. You’ve papered over the problem and now you can get back to the status quo without having to put in the work to solve that problem.
It’s selfish behavior dressed up in romance drag.
Just as troubling, however, is how manipulative the mindset behind Grand Romantic Gestures can be…
The Heart Needs A Second Chance
While Howard’s trying to show the depth of his love through sheer, self-destructive endurance, the romantic shell crumbles away to reveal something uglier: Howard’s determination to take control of the story of his relationship with “Rapunzel”. Let’s look at what Howard said about why they broke up and why he’s doing this:
It wasn’t anything nasty or bad, it was just life getting in the way. If it was anything bad why we split up then I wouldn’t be doing this, but it’s the only thing I can think of doing. It just seems life just got in our way.
The fact that “if it was anything bad why we split up,” he wouldn’t be in College Park, making a spectacle of himself is significant. Howard is dictating terms about why he won’t accept the break up. It wasn’t “bad” enough to justify ending things. Life just got in the way. It just isn’t fair that things ended like this, not when Howard still feels so strongly. Surely that means that he deserves a second chance, right?
Here’s the thing, though: you don’t need things to be “bad enough” to end a relationship. The only “reason” you need to break up with someone is you don’t want to be dating them anymore. Relationships require everybody to agree that they want to be part of it. If one partner wants to end things… well, that’s it. One partner doesn’t get to veto the break up if there isn’t a sufficiently compelling cause.
But Howard isn’t willing to accept this. Notice that he doesn’t say that circumstances have changed or that he’s done things differently. Just that he really, really wants her back. Which leads us to the next quote:
I know people in my situation will send flowers or text or write letters but that only ever seems to make things worse. I wanted to do something that she might see, to let her know how much I love her, that she can see it and then take it or leave it,
This part is important because of what it says. First: this isn’t the first time he’s dealt with an ex who wants nothing to do with him. The line “that only ever seems to make things worse” is a pretty strong indication that he’s tried other means of getting in contact with someone and it didn’t go well. That alone is indicative that Howard is at the center of his drama, even if it’s not terribly damning. But the next part – “I wanted to do something that she might see” is very important indeed. This is telling us that Howard isn’t in contact with “Rapunzel” any more.
That sentence is a critical part of why Howard is doing this. Flowers can get thrown away, letters can be returned unopened, texts can be ignored or blocked. By making his display so public, she can’t ignore him. By hijacking Bristol’s largest public protest and getting media attention, he helps ensure that there’s no way that “Rapunzel” doesn’t hear about this. He’s not contacting her privately and saying “Hey, I know things between us ended, but I miss you and things are different now.” He’s declaring to the world that he’s going to hold his breath until he turns blue and maybe he’ll get sick and have to go to the hospital and then won’t she be sorry?
To put it another way: “I WON’T BE IGNORED, RAPUNZEL.”
This is what we in the dating advice biz call a “red flag”. Fundamentally speaking, there’s very little difference between Howard and Brandon Vezmer suing his date for ditching him. One is framed as “fighting for love”, the other for “fighting against a threat to civilized society”1, but at the end of the day, the message is the same. He didn’t like or agree to how his relationship ended and now he’s determined to have the final word.
And that’s what makes this behavior troubling: he isn’t just trying to control the terms of their break up. He’s trying to control his ex.
Every Breath You Take (or: Controlling Your Ex By Controlling The Narrative)
Something that gets lost in the discussion of people like Howard is how profoundly manipulative their behavior is. To the general public, it’s a declaration of love: look how devoted he is to her! Look at how strongly he feels! In reality, however, these behaviors come with a very nasty message: “I love you so much that you owe me.” It presents love as a transaction: “I have done this for you and now you’re obligated to pay me back with your heart and body”.
But what makes it more sinister is that by making things this public, Howard enlists strangers into making his case for him… and overriding Rapunzel’s desires, not just to be quit of him, but for privacy.
One of the things that rom-coms never address is just how much pressure Grand Romantic Gestures put on the person on the receiving end of them. After all, once the world has seen your ex perform these extraordinary feats to get back into your good graces… how can you not take them back? What kind of monster wouldn’t have their heart stirred by such a rousing (and very, very public) demonstration of love?
Well… the kind who had perfectly good reasons for breaking up with them in the first place. And while it’s easy to say “well, he just wants to put this out there and she can take it or leave it,” the fact of the matter is: once the media caught hold of it, “taking it or leaving it” went out the window. Because where this was once just a private drama between two people, it’s become a phenomenon. It’s no longer just about them; the wider audience has become invested in the outcome. Her decision is no longer private or even hers any more.
Because this has caught the attention of the media, it’s started a timer. It’s just a matter of when, not if, someone outs “Rapunzel”. Once this happens, her control over her side of the story comes to an end. Now the pressure to respond becomes immense, almost to the point of impossibility. So now a private citizen, who ended a relationship, is forced to adjudicate her decision in front of the country, if not the world. And the big question that everyone will want to know is: “Will you take him back?”
And a very large number of people – people who now know who she is – are going to want to hear her say “yes”. People want to see the couple get back together because, hey, who doesn’t like to see True Love Win? Seeing the lovers reunited feeds our desire for a neat, satisfying narrative. They’re only going to see the “romance” of the situation, and will be very upset if she quite reasonably says “no” or “get the fuck away from me.”
As a result: now a formerly anonymous person isn’t “the woman with the crazy ex”. She’s the heartless bitch who threw away love. She’s the face of a dozen listicles proclaiming her “The reason why romance is dead”. She gets permanently connected to Howard, if only through Google… whether she wants it or not.
And there’s one more thing that makes this situation especially disturbing:
We Are Never Going To Get Back Together…
Something that is easily overlooked in the drama and production of this is that Howard and “Rapunzel” had only been dating for four months. Now, to be fair: to a high-school student, four months can feel like an eternity. But Howard is 34 years old. He’s a grown-ass man who is offering to break his body into pieces, to play until he can’t play any longer… for someone he’d dated for less time than the warranty on his phone.
That’s not a red flag. That’s multiple red flags. This is the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona. This is a military parade through Tiananmen Square on Chairman Mao’s birthday.
Even if they had been together for a decade or more, this behavior would be disturbing. But at four months, you barely know one another. You are still deep in the honeymoon period, where flaws don’t exist because you’re fuck-drunk on one another. You’re still at a point where you, in all likelihood won’t fart in front of one another, nevermind have the sort of relationship that will be a love for the ages. And here is Luke Howard, trying to break himself into pieces in order to win back his ex. A relationship that didn’t last as long as a can of Spaghetti-Os in the cupboard.
At best, Howard’s actions are signs of questionable emotional intelligence. At worst, they’re sinister.
He may well have been hurt by this break up. Possibly even devastated. But the way to handle a bad breakup is to have a cry, eat a pizza and move on, not try to relitigate it in as public and dramatic a fashion as possible. If he wanted to get back together with his ex, he could have texted her and tried to simply reconnect. But reopening lines of communication, taking things slow and showing that circumstances had changed is hard. It’s a long and not always pleasant process and there’s no guarantee that she’d even be amenable to talking. This way, he can at least force a response and if he can’t prove a lover, then he can at least try to position himself as a martyr of love.
This isn’t romance. This is someone who can’t get over a break up. He just decided to drag his relationship into the public square instead.
- No, for real. [↩]