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It’s Not that You’re Splitting Up, it’s That You’re_______ : Four Different and Consoling Ways to Think Your Way Out of a Break-Up

I recently participated in a “relationship summit” on break ups.


I don’t know how wise or helpful I was. When it comes to break-up and heartache recovery, I’m not sure that anyone’s improved appreciably on the old strategy of “tears, shots of tequila, sleeping on your friend’s ratty sofa, and hours of perseverative conversation about the ex and the relationship until you bore even yourself, to say nothing of your friends, who pray that you won’t sit next to them, and put on a conversational Screen Saver function if you do.”

I’m joking. We’ve all been there. And if we were lucky, we had friends who selflessly talked us down from the ledge.

But I’ve had a few weeks to think further about how to deploy our big brains to subdue the heart’s agonies and mess-ups, and I’ve gone back to the timeless sources—not self-improvement books, therapists, or counselors, per se, but the fiction writers and poets who can turn the theme on a surprising angle.

Much of how we feel about anything depends on how we tell the story.

So here are four different narrations of a break-up that might be useful (or at least less trite) if you or your friend is going through one.

It’s Not That You Failed at Marriage. It’s That Marriage Failed You. A major theme of my book is that maybe the problem’s not your spouse, and it’s not you. Maybe it really is marriage, the institution itself, and what it demands of us. Our first impulse is to assign blame for the break up, often to ourselves. We tell friends that we failed as partners, or that our partners failed us. But we should go easy on each other. Being married asks a lot of us, and our expectations for lifelong, committed relationships haven’t necessarily kept pace with 21st century realities.

For example, could we really have expected each other to fulfill so many different roles in life, a la the romantic ideal?

The incomparable Kurt Vonnegut looked at it this way: No matter what the causes of the break up, there’s really only one. Two people at the end of a marriage should say, “I’m sorry. You, being human, need a hundred affectionate and like-minded companions. I’m only one person. I tried, but I could never be a hundred people to you. You tried, but you could never be a hundred people to me. Too bad. Good-bye.”

 

It’s Not That Your Relationship Ended. It Just Came To “The End Of Its Triumph.” This lovely twist on failure comes from Jack Gilbert’s poem, “Failing and Flying.” It begins, “Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew./It’s the same when love comes to an end.” Then he describes lovely, fleeting moments from an ended marriage and questions, how can they say the marriage failed? “I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell, but just coming to the end of his triumph.”

Does an intimate relationship need to be forever, or ever after, to be successful? Maybe a “successful” relationship can be for a decade. We’ve done what we can for each other, and gone as far as we can together. The relationship comes to the end of its natural life. Break ups have a pungent residue of failure, but they don’t need to be hostile—or even a failure.

It’s Not the End of the Book. It’s The End of a Chapter. Every relationship that doesn’t end in marriage or lifetime commitment will end with a break up, and roughly half that end in marriage will end with a break up, as well. The problem with the “It’s over. We’re done.” narrative is its rapier finality. You can hear the door slamming shut, with no other door (that is, a new love) in sight.

It’s not the end of your book, though, just a chapter. “What I thought was an end turned out to be a middle,” writes Tony Hoagland, “What I thought was a brick wall turned out to be a tunnel. What I thought was an injustice turned out to be a color of the sky.” It’s true, but hard to see in the fog of fresh heartache.

It’s especially true if you’ve got children, because you’ll be in each other’s lives as co-parents forever. And maybe your post-divorce life will gel into a rich friendship, or partnership, and the divorce will be a sad middle chapter in a longer, happier story. Not a fairy tale, but a happier story.

You Didn’t “Break Up.” You “Let Go.”  Maybe this is a vernacular Zen approach. Love and attachment are impermanent by nature—and ideally so.  “The end of desire is the end of sorrow;” “Life is easy if you have no preferences.” It’s only our possessive preferences that break our hearts and cloud our wisdom. Easier said than done, of course.

I was chatting with an acquaintance one night, about whether a “mutual break-up” can really happen. “It can’t,” he commented, “unless the two people say, ‘I want to break up with you’ at exactly the same moment, out loud.”

He has a point. Usually, one feels like the ditch-ee; the other like the ditch-er. Telling the story as a “break-up” almost requires this, because breaking and “splitting up” evoke violent, sudden actions, and are usually done by a person to a thing.  Break is a transitive verb. It requires subject and object.

But it’s so often the case that there’s a lot of genuine ambivalence in a relationship, and hidden reciprocity in the break up. We get to thinking that we want the person back, once we’re ditched, so we forget our own misgivings.

“Letting things drift” and “Letting it go” are metaphors that let us down so much more gently, and they’re often more accurate and honest assessments of a relationship. In these situations, did we really break up, or did we both, together, let it go—regardless of who said it first?

Finally… if all else fails? You might just have to go Bob Dylan on the situation:  “I don’t mind leaving, baby. I’d just like it to be my idea.”

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Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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