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Uncoupled: Podcast Transcript

Anita Rao
He described us once as trapeze swingers: two people aiming toward one another, reaching out for connection but always missing...and then flying in the exact opposite direction. After trying to think our way into a different pattern for the 100th time, it became clear that things were too broken to mend. We broke up. And just like that, a seven-year relationship was in the rearview mirror, and I was figuring out how to look forward.

My sister packed my stuff into boxes while he hung out at a coffee shop, and I lay facedown on the floor. My best friend made me a temporary sanctuary in her house, and I discovered for the first time that the term heartbreak is far from a metaphor. This is Embodied. I'm Anita Rao.

You've heard of Dear Abby, Ask Polly or maybe even have your own favorite go-to-advice columnist. Well, now we bring you Dear Embodied.

Paige Thomas
My last long term relationship I did get dumped after I moved to a brand new state in the middle of a global pandemic, and I was very sad.

Erika
It really came as a surprise to me. I was really devastated because I thought that this was the person I was going to marry.

Joey Allaire
So in a way, we kind of were coupling and uncoupling at the same time the entire time we were together.

Rose Bender
I had a romantic partnership, and after about six years — we lived together, and I would go to the library, go into an incognito window and kind of like look over my shoulder and furiously Google like: How do you know when it's time to break up?

Anita Rao
While I love giving advice, and I'm actually a pretty good armchair therapist, if I do say so myself — I wanted to bring in the actual professionals. But instead of Abby or Polly, let me introduce Stacia and Meredith.

Meredith Goldstein
Hey.

Stacia Brown
Thank you for having me.

Anita Rao
You'll see Meredith's byline in the Boston Globe column and accompanying podcast, Love Letters. Stacia's is found in Slate magazines' parenting advice column "Care and Feeding." So before we share a bunch of your advice, I need to ask you all about how you got into the business of giving advice in the first place — get your qualifications here. So Meredith, you have been writing a love advice column for more than a decade, but you actually got into it in the wake of your own breakup — so take us to that moment and what was going on?

Meredith Goldstein
I had long been interested in the grief of breakups, because we don't really talk about — at least when I was growing up — there wasn't really language for that grief. To me it meant someone died, but to grieve someone who was perhaps two blocks away and just didn't want to be with you anymore was a special kind of heartache. It was a very strange time to start this column. I was like telling people: Oh, it'll be okay, but I was lying on the floor and saying: Will it be okay?

Anita Rao
And like eating frozen waffles as you say...

Meredith Goldstein
Oh, my God. Eating literally everything. But it was therapy for me in that sense. When you have to validate the world for other people, you remember that there is a path forward.

Anita Rao
Stacia, you have a parenting column, so not explicitly about romance and breakups, but you do talk about romantic relationships a lot. And the way you give advice is so graceful and attentive, and I'd love to hear you kind of describe your advice philosophy that got you into the biz.

Stacia Brown
Mostly, I've been writing about my own relationships. My relationship with my daughter since she was born, and she's 11 now. And one of the things that I knew I wanted to write about a lot was co-parenting letters. People who are writing in about how to navigate their relationships with someone that they're no longer with but still have to be in community with, because if your actual relationship didn't work out, your parenting must, or it should if you both share that goal — which means that you have to kind of start from zero and rebuild something that didn't exist before or rebuild something from the rubble of what once existed and kind of detonated.

Anita Rao
With these two on deck to share their reflections, here's the first listener story in our "Dear Embodied" column. This one we're calling: How to Break Up from Rose Bender in Brooklyn.

Rose Bender
I had a romantic partnership end after about six years. We lived together, and I was in grad school at the time, and I would go to the library, go into an incognito window and kind of like look over my shoulder and furiously Google: How do you know when it's time to break up? Hint, when you're Googling it. So this is kind of like my lessons learned. You don't have to follow any guidelines for a breakup, but one of the ones that I found very helpful was stating right at the top: I think that we need to break up, and I would like to read you something. I read what I wanted to say, which was the reasons I was comfortable giving. Your reasons are very personal. You can share what you want. One of the things that helped me was to think about when I'm talking to this person, what is the very best version of this person that I've ever seen? And let me talk to that person. Do what you need to do, so that you're going to be in a good space afterwards. So I went to a good friend's house, and I just think the number one thing is like prioritizing yourself. You do not have to stay in a relationship with somebody because you've been in a relationship with them for a long time — because you went through major life events together. You deserve to be over the moon happy in your romantic partnership every day.

Anita Rao
So Meredith, how to break up in a delicate way is a huge question and one I'm sure you have thought about a lot, and how we don't really ever learn how to break up. There's no class. There's no formula. So talk about the advice you give to folks kind of to learn about how to do this, and maybe what advice you give to maybe teenagers — people in their first relationships who are like dealing with their first breakup: How do I break up with someone?

Meredith Goldstein
Well, one of the things I love about Boston is that within the Boston Public Health Department there is actually a program that runs a breakup summit for teens. One of the things I think about most for young people — and by young people I mean, anybody younger than me in my 40s — is that one, I think the discussion of boundaries. How are we going to do this? We are breaking up? What does that mean? Negotiating how contact remains, or if it remains at all. I think, again, that clarity of now that we're doing this, now that we've decided, even if it was a one-sided decision, and the other person is just coping, what does it mean? Are we allowed to talk? Are we ever going to reach out — knowing what the terms are? I think especially I have been guilty of being broken up with and then calling a lot to say: Are you sure? And that's just not okay, right? When I was younger, that's something I did, of trying to, as my sister says, lawyer my way out of rejection, and that's not okay. So it's accepting it, deciding what it means in the short term, and then also giving yourself permission to really remove that person from your life, so you remember what it's like without them.

Anita Rao
So Stacia, what do you think? I mean kind of rules to live by for the process of breaking up.

Stacia Brown
I think Rose was on the money when she said that you should start out as being direct. You definitely should say straight at the top: I think this is over and state your reasons why. Take it from there. Don't get into things that are in the weeds. Just talk about why you feel like it's over. I broke up with somebody I was dating for about a year, maybe six months ago — I mean, one of the things I was with myself was impatient — trying to get over it quickly. Like this is ridiculous. Get over this. Move past it, and I knew that thing about honoring grief and honoring your feelings. Feeling your feelings and not suppressing or repressing them, but I still was just like: I have things to do. I need to get past this, and it wasn't my decision to break up. So I think that matters. So you have to kind of figure out who you are again and things like that — and it's been quite an interesting thing. It was a unique relationship.

Anita Rao
Sometimes the decision to end a relationship happens abruptly, or if you're the one broken up with, it can feel like your former partner's choice came out of nowhere. But some couples choose to break up together, slowly. They plan for it, maybe even ritualize it. I once watched out the window as a former roommate had a conscious uncoupling ceremony in our backyard. She and her former partner journaled together about their relationship, wrote wishes for one another, cried together, and then burned it all in a fire including the snotty Kleenex. Conscious uncoupling is at the heart of this next story too — from Joey Allaire in Chicago.

Joey Allaire
Hi, my name is Joey Allaire. I live in Chicago, Illinois. So when my former partner and I got together, we spent a lot of time kind of imagining what the relationship could be. We felt even then, while there was so much that was bringing us together, we detected the ways in which we would grow apart over time. I was just finishing up graduate school, and they were just about to start. They were really excited by the city life, and I was inclined towards whatever the opposite of city life is. We just knew that there was some point in time that would come where ending our relationship as partners was going to make a lot of sense, and it was actually really liberating to acknowledge this, at least to me, and it raised the stakes of enjoyment on the time that we were together. We had decided that at the end of 2021, we would transition out of being a romantic and sexual relationship into being a friendship — and we worked with a therapist during those last few months, and it felt really good to look at the years we'd been together and to identify what was working and what was not. And it felt really good to take care of each other in the transition, and it still felt really hard. This was not easier. So on the night before New Year's Eve last year, we went to the lake by our apartment and built a fire. We burned some items that could only exist in our partnership. We drank some very strong homemade liquor, and then we went back home as friends, and we watched "Top Chef" all night, and we ordered dumplings. Not everyone gets to do this. This isn't morally more right or even better in any way to choose to consciously uncouple. There's plenty of reasons to break up and never speak to your partner again or to do so abruptly — but I'm really glad that this one went the way it did. I don't have any words of advice or wisdom, just gratitude.

Anita Rao
So Meredith, tell me more about conscious uncoupling. What it can look like and what your thoughts are about it?

Meredith Goldstein
I mean, I think its ... There are many ways to to process an ending that way, and that was such a beautiful story, and it reminds me of a couple I interviewed that had a marriage and then a divorce ceremony — where they both jumped into a pool from different sides and marked the end of their relationship, and I think it was sort of like this new relationship baptism of now we are back to being friends. But they also had a lot of time to both get on the same page about falling out of love. And if at the root of conscious uncoupling is a thought of negotiation, kindness, empathy. I'd like us all to be consciously doing all of those things, but I think it's much harder when one person really wishes something were not over — and I think at that point, it's okay to be upset and to have a feeling, and it's not possible to do this in an Instagram way — where we're going to say: Oh, look, we're both cool about this, because sometimes you're just not cool about it.

Stacia Brown
I think you should, if at all possible, have process talks — that initial conversation where you decide to break up isn't going to cover everything to the satisfaction of both parties. You may never reach an agreement on why things are ending the way that they are when they are. But if you can have conversations that kind of put you and your partner in a better space, that's the right thing to do.

Anita Rao
How about the stuff. Joey mentioned burning things that could only exist in their relationship? If you live with a partner, or if you have co-habitated, there is so much stuff to negotiate. Stacia, how do you navigate this question of what to do with the physical reminders of a relationship and how to deal with the stuff?

Stacia Brown
Yeah, like, if the person isn't gonna come and get their stuff, and you're not offering to deliver it, I think getting rid of it in your own time is the right — it's a perfectly acceptable thing to do. So having that stuff there as a reminder of that person's presence and now absence is not healthy, and you should get rid of it in a timely way.

Anita Rao
Meredith, how about the burning of things? Are you recommending ... do you recommend that?

Meredith Goldstein
I have definitely thrown out some old T-shirts and kept a few others. So I think you have to decide how painful is this for me to be looking at this album cover? Or maybe I'll appreciate this blender five years later that will just be useful to me, so I think there are no hard and fast rules with items, but if burning something safely outside makes you feel spiritually cleansed in some way — by all means.

Anita Rao
Burning or smashing can be very cathartic in the wake of a bad breakup. I once seriously looked into visiting a rage room where you pay to go into a space and destroy things with a baseball bat — sadly, I chickened out, and instead just lay on the floor singing emo indie songs — which, according to the experts, is one of the most popular ways to process a breakup. Meredith has devoted a whole episode of the "Love Letters" podcast to the breakup anthem.

Meredith Goldstein
I interviewed Bonnie Hayes, who's a prolific songwriter and teaches at the Berklee College of Music, and one hilarious thing she told me was that she has made far more money — a lot more money on breakup anthems than her love songs, and it doesn't surprise me, right? Because when you need a breakup song, you need a breakup song. And so I do think there is something incredible about listening to music where somebody gets you. Where someone is putting a melody to the experience you're having, and I'm particularly obsessed with the very few songs out there that are written from the breaker-uppers perspective, because sometimes they can remind us that those people do still love us. They just don't want to be with us anymore, and they can't meet our expectations, but I am born from two musicians. And I just think that sometimes it is the best therapy to dance. To sing. And to listen to someone else's pain, and that's why they sell so well.

Anita Rao
There's nothing like a breakup anthem to get you through the worst of it. I personally find Robin's "Dancing on My Own" to be the best medicine. Songs like these help us feel like we're not alone in dealing with this kind of pain, and in the past few years that feeling has become even more important, as folks have navigated heartbreak in the midst of a global pandemic. Oregon-based grad student Paige Thomas's story is the next one that we're taking on for "Dear Embodied" — we'll call it Isolated From Love.

Paige Thomas
My last long term relationship, I did get dumped after I moved to a brand new state in the middle of a global pandemic, and I was very sad — and the next person I started seeing after that, I tried very hard to try to keep it casual, and I actually think part of that reason was because I moved to a new state to go to grad school, and I was writing about caregiving and caretaking — and I realized that I was really good at being a caregiver, but I wasn't really thinking about whether I was being taken care of outside of that role. And so I probably stopped seeing people, and I actually started really investing in my friendships, and I found that I could sustain the same kind of love and closeness, maybe safety, with my friends that before I had only thought was possible in a romantic relationship.

Anita Rao
Stacia also went through a pandemic break up.

Stacia Brown
Isolation is hard either way. I think part of the reason that a lot of us got into relationships during the pandemic was because of that feeling of isolation. And that, for better or worse, informs the trajectory of that relationship. I think when Paige says that she invested in her friendships, that's a great thing to do right now, and all your loving relationships are good things to check in on and maintain when you're going through any breakup, but particularly when you're feeling really, really alone, and you can't physically reach out to people. Remembering who loves you, regardless of what's going on, checking back in with those people if you weren't in constant communication with them while you were in the relationship is a good thing to do. Asking if you can kind of have more conversations with people like that, as you're going through splitting up. All of those are good ways to keep yourself from feeling so alone after breaking up with somebody during a time like this.

Anita Rao
Meredith, how do you encourage ... or what can folks think about who want to support a friend going through a breakup — who can't do those in-person things because of the pandemic?

Meredith Goldstein
One of the tragedies, one of the many tragedies of the last few years is that some people had entire relationships without their friends ever meeting the person they lost. So in a normal world, it would have been: Hey, meet my new partner, and we're all gonna go to a restaurant — and so it was much harder to explain what the loss was. People who had entire beginnings and endings in isolation. So I just think that I know some of us are zoomed out, but this is what technology can bring us, which is to still remain tethered in some way — and it doesn't have to be friends. It can be family. It can be one person. It can be five people, but I think that even when we're in a relationship, we are best at it when there are other people in our lives. I just think that one person can't shoulder everything. So, you know, I would hope that if you've gone through a breakup and realize how important friendship is that you maintain those ties even when you meet someone else romantically, because it's too important of a support system. But in terms of recommendations, I would say games, distractions — I play games online, on a phone with a bunch of my friends, which is just silly. It's just a silly distraction, but [it] lets them know I'm there at the other end of the line.

Anita Rao
Our friends are just a text, call or DM away, but so are our exes. So "Dear Embodied" To Block, Or Not To Block.

Kelly Henrickson
In my experience, I don't like to cut off contact after a breakup. A breakup is so hard, and there's such a feeling of loss that cutting someone out entirely only amplifies that feeling of loss. So unless the breakup was really messy in some way, I like to maintain contact and stay friends at least for a while, so I can almost slowly wean myself off of them, because it's just too hard to cut someone out all at once.

Moises Polito
Having no contact after a breakup that's really hurt you, for me, felt like hell, but I am a huge believer that everything gets better with time, because oftentimes it has in every situation that I've dealt with. And that grieving, isolation, quiet period, is necessary.

Paige Thomas
I think you should definitely not stay in contact with the person you just broke up with, or the person who just broke up with you, and the reason I say that is because I think both people deserve to grieve that relationship — and that grief will be big and loud, and it shouldn't be shoved into the same relationship, because that relationship no longer exists anymore, and each person deserves space.

Anita Rao
We got those reflections from Kelly Henrickson, Moises Polito and Paige Thomas. As Meredith said earlier, discussing boundaries is an important part of a breakup. She and Stacia agree that social media boundaries are a must.

Meredith Goldstein
I've heard from so many people who believe that blocking someone on social media suggests weakness or is rude. When in fact, in real life, if you saw your ex in a room, you might not go into that room. So giving people permission to block accounts, you know, and I think that's the first thing I tell people, which is you don't have to have this barrage of information right in your face about what they're eating for lunch. So you get rid of it. It's not rude. It's not weak. It's just sort of normal. If someone follows you, it doesn't mean you've done something terribly wrong, it just means they're curating their social media lives for their own health — and so I would also say that if you're the breaker-upper, especially if someone is avoiding you. That's okay. Be gracious about that.

Stacia Brown
In terms of blocking people on social media, I'm 100% in favor of that, so I think that's the right thing to do — but what I will say about that is that everyone's timeline for doing something like that is different. So don't feel like you should do it impulsively or immediately, but also don't feel like you need to be the bigger person and be gracious and stay friends because that whole 'stay friends' narrative is always trickier than you think it's going to be on its face, and you're subjecting yourself to feelings that you don't necessarily need to internalize.

Anita Rao
In my role as an armchair therapist, I always advise the unfollow, but do I take my own advice? Not so much. In high school, I became an expert in the lurking from afar approach — and the practice stayed with me up through my 20s. Let me tell you, you can learn a lot about someone from their Venmo feed. But "Dear Embodied" does not give this kind of bad advice. So back to the experts. Getting older brings, yes some maturity, but it also makes breakups harder in some ways. This is Erika in Oakland.

Erika
In 2019, I was in a relationship with someone I really loved and cared for. Pretty soon into the relationship though, he lost his job and became very depressed and down on himself. We started to engage in this unhealthy dynamic where he would request a lot of attention or like need from me — and I very willingly gave in to him and would give him all of my attention and my emotional resources, but if I ever said anything that he disagreed with, or if I gave him a piece of advice he didn't like, he would really resent me for it. So six months into the relationship, he decided to break up with me because he wanted to focus on himself and his self-healing outside of the relationship — and away from me. It really came as a surprise to me. I was really devastated, because I thought that this was the person I was going to marry. It's 2022 now, and I've slowly started dating again, but I'm noticing that it's really hard for me to stay present and focused. I'm 33 years old, and I really want partnership, and I really want children, but I'm so scared of dating and so worried of being hurt again.

Anita Rao
A lot of my friends and peers in their early to mid 30s are talking about how dating relationships and breaking up all feel so much more high stakes, especially if you have hopes for having kids with a partner. Here's Stacia's advice.

Stacia Brown
It's hard not to feel like you're on some sort of deadline, particularly biologically — but you cannot be motivated by that as it relates to finding a partner. You can't do it leading with your uterus, okay. Like you can't say: I need kids by 35, and I'm gonna just grab somebody — because obviously, that's not like the best approach. Kids are forever, obviously, and the person that you have them with and want to raise them with — it's hard to know who that person is before you're actually in the throes of parenting with them. But there are some indications that a person is going to be present for you and a supportive collaborative partner with you before you start thinking about children. If you're seeing that that's not going to be the case, then you may want to end that relationship sooner rather than later. If you are concerned about having kids, lingering in a relationship because you need companionship doesn't help with the kid thing. I mean, I said don't lead with the kid thing, but if it's important to you, if it's a priority to you, that has to be an indication about whether or not you want to stay in the relationship.

Anita Rao
Kids aren't something Meredith wanted for herself, so they haven't played as much into her relationship decisions, but the wisdom of age and experience certainly shaped how she handled dates and breakups.

Meredith Goldstein
I think especially a certain kind of people want that plan, and you sort of have to toss it out the window a little bit. I will say that one of the nice things about dating after your 20s — it was very frustrating for me in my 20s, because I always thought: Well, this person could grow, and this person could change. And we do grow throughout our whole lives and certainly in our 30s, but as you get older, you begin to look at someone and say: Let me make decisions based on what's in front of me. And I think that's something you can easily — it's an easier thing to do in your 30s and 40s to say: I'm not going to pretend this is going to be wildly different.

Anita Rao
Taking people and breakups at face value can be helpful, but it doesn't mean the heartbreak is going to hurt any less. You probably just have more tools for processing it. Figuring out how to lean into the creativity that can come in the wake of pain is certainly a skill, and it's one that Moises Polito has practiced. His "Dear Embodied" story we'll call the Art in Heartbreak.

Moises Polito
I fill this time period of grieving a relationship — I write poetry, and I make music, and I paint, and I do all these various different things to occupy my time. I also try to put in effort and become closer and more loving towards the people who are there currently for me, and I try to really strengthen the art community around me also, because I have all these different ideas of what can I do today to make my art community a better place.

Anita Rao
When you read Meredith and Stacia's work, it's clear that they too process through writing. Their hurt, pain and joy is all there on the page.

Stacia Brown
Historically, I tend to process things publicly as a writer and as a podcaster. So I knew I was going to create work about the breakup almost immediately. I did it almost immediately, and I did it for the entire six months that I spent feeling my feelings about it, because it's the way that I process things. I think that's fine. I think it's fine. I was gonna say: I talked to my ex about it and let him know that it was going to be something that I published. I don't think you have to do that. I did it as a courtesy. He was fine with it, and that helped me to feel like I could continue to work through the process that way. If it's helpful to you, I think you should go ahead and do it.

Meredith Goldstein
I am the same, and I think this is a warning that if you date a writer, you might see yourself in story. But I will say that I'm very immaturely motivated by revenge — which is such a silly thing to admit, but, whether you're a musician or writer or someone who paints once every four years, I remember after certain breakups, I would say: I'm going to write a book, and it's going to become a best seller — even if it wasn't about the breakup, it was a creative pursuit. And it's so interesting because for my first book, which was a novel, I wrote it in the throes of a breakup, and by the time it was released, my ex came to the book party. So, listen, it can start as one thing and end as another. So I think that even if it's not necessarily art that pertains to the breakup, it's art. Its art in the shadow of a loss, and it can be, again, just an incredible thing to remind yourself of your own talents and also give you a distraction. So I'm all for doing something creative, even if it's just playing a keyboard in your living room just to see if you can do it. And you're probably working out some stuff you don't even know.

Anita Rao
In the wake of a breakup, it's so easy to get caught up in the past. Rewriting your memories and experiences to make the present make sense, but at a certain point, you've got to look forward and figure out what you want now in this new chapter. Dating again too soon can be bad for the heart, but so is staying home forever if partnership is something you desire. So how do you know when you're ready?

Meredith Goldstein
One of the gifts that this era has given us is just a slower pace for a lot of people. The idea that you can have a zoom date and not have to show up somewhere and wear something fancy and pay for something — this idea that you can have a soft launch of your new single life. First of all, no rush to get back out there. There will always be single people, a bazillion people get dumped every day. I always tell people, which is both terrifying and also a relief to know, we're not alone, right. You never hit the end of the internet. You never hit the end of people. And so I think that that's the first part, but I think also, nowadays, you can really just message someone. You can see them on a FaceTime, you can decide you need to take another three months of a break — but I think we all have a pretty good internal compass where if something feels terrible to do, and you feel like you're just doing it so you don't waste time or miss out on something, you probably shouldn't be doing it. It's like it is work in some ways, but it shouldn't feel like this terrible slog to date.

Anita Rao
Stacia, what do you think some kind of markers or ways to figure out if it's the right time to start dating again?

Stacia Brown
Certainly you have to have given yourself time to process the loss that you've experienced. I don't think — there's this adage about getting over someone by getting under someone. That is like not the best way to process breaking up with somebody. Or hurrying along to prove that you can, or that you're still desirable and things like that. Not the best reasons to do it, but once you can feel like you're able to look at someone else without comparing them to the experience that you just had or trying to regain that experience through someone else — if your criteria for finding someone else is just completely independent now of what you went through with your breakup, that might be a good indication that you've processed enough to move on.

Anita Rao
Embodied is production of North Carolina Public Radio WUNC, a listener supported station. If you want to lend your support to this podcast and WUNC's other shows on demand, consider a contribution at wunc.org now.

Incredible storytelling like you hear on Embodied is only possible because of listeners like you. This episode was produced by Audrey Smith and Elizabeth Friend. Kaia Findlay is our editor. Jenni Lawson is our sound engineer and Quilla wrote our theme music. The show is supported by Weaver Street Market, a worker and consumer owned cooperative selling organic and local food at four triangle locations in North Carolina, now featuring online shopping with next day pick up: weaverstreetmarket.coop. If you enjoyed the show, share about it with a friend or put it on social media and tag us. It really helps new people find our show and it means so much. Until next time, I'm Anita Rao — taking on the taboo with you.

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