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Amy Winehouse, ‘You Know I’m No Good’Via YouTube

Sorry, you can’t optimise your way out of heartbreak

A burgeoning market of apps, subscription boxes and bootcamps is helping people get over breakups. But not every process can be made more efficient

There is no avenue of human life that hasn’t been exploited as a means of making money – and heartbreak is no exception. Today, a burgeoning market caters to the heartbroken and rejected. You can now purchase break-up subscription boxes, which include candles, affirmation books, mugs with slogans like ‘I am a strong fucking woman’ or voodoo dolls that you can stab as a way of exorcising the lingering aggression you feel towards your ex (seems healthy!). You can spend hundreds or even thousands of pounds on ‘breakup boot camps’, which promise to speed up the process. And, above all, there is a wide range of apps that aim to ease the pain of heartbreak.

One such app is RX Breakup, which wants to “help you replace unhealthy coping mechanisms with positive change” and offers advice like “seeing posts of happy couples will sabotage your progress”, which doesn’t necessarily seem like helpful guidance to accept as universally true. Postdates sends a delivery driver around to your ex’s house to pick up your possessions. Break-Up Boss allows you to write texts to your ex that you don’t send (“to let out all your rage/upset/misery”) and offers a constant stream of inspirational quotes. Then there’s No Contact Rule, which does exactly as the name suggests. At the more far-out end of the market, there’s Halmos – a social network that connects people going through a break-up – which invites you to “bury your memories” and create a “virtual tomb in the app, which also becomes your metaphorical garden for rebirth”. Even more general wellness and mental health apps, like Headspace and Better, have specifically marketed themselves as tools for getting over a breakup.

One of the first of these apps, which is still a market leader, is Mend. Despite not going through a breakup at the moment, I fraudulently signed up to its free programme (the paid-for version is £60 for three months, but some of its courses cost as much as $275). After an introductory chat with a deeply sympathetic AI therapist, I listened to the first of a series of audio files which come in daily instalments. There were some guided meditations and breathing exercises, which seemed useful. I also have a relatively high tolerance for affirmations, which, however cheesy, really can help (“this too shall pass” is pretty much goated when trying to stop being sad is the vibe). But the way the app speaks about heartbreak feels reductive to the point of being unhelpful. Mend compares the process of getting over a breakup to recovering from an addiction and explains this theory in scientific terms, with reference to neuroscience and evolutionary psychology. “In a lot of ways,” says the therapist, “we’re still animals and as animals, we’re wired to want to procreate, so when we break up with a potential mate, our bodies go into overdrive trying to reunite with that person”. The drive to procreate is the essential facet of being human, this suggests, from which all other human experiences are an accidental byproduct. This kind of bio-essentialism is an impoverishing way of thinking about your emotional life, if not an outright reactionary one.

Some people might find this framework helpful, but the insistence on a scientific explanation feels like a way of medicalising the most ordinary and eternal kind of human pain. Apart from anything, conceptualising heartbreak as nothing more than a biological process is a boring way to think about it. One of the consolations of a breakup is the opportunities it affords for melodrama – it’s one of the most enduring themes of art for a reason. If you let it, that kind of pain can show you the gravity and depth of being alive. We would be better off listening to Nina Simone or reading a Carson McCullers novel than assuring ourselves what our feelings are down to misfiring synapses or the latent drive to bear children.

To be clear, I am in no place to judge anyone for how they respond to a breakup, having absolutely lost my mind in similar circumstances on a number of occasions. When I was 19 and my first boyfriend broke up with me, I filmed myself doing a maudlin acoustic cover of “Blue Christmas” by Elvis on Christmas and posted it on Facebook. Years later, when a guy I’d been seeing for two months ended things just before I was about to catch a flight, I tweeted that I hoped the plane would crash, and in the process manifested the deaths of hundreds of innocent people. If a breakup app had been around at either of those times, I could easily have busted out £30 for one and this would not have ranked highly among my most embarrassing decisions.

So I don’t mean to be cruel about anyone who uses these apps, and if they work for some people, I am sincerely happy for them. But the fact they exist in the first place is vaguely uncomfortable – aside from the question of their efficacy, they are explicitly designed to make money off people at their most vulnerable moment, people who would do anything – not least typing in their card details – to make the pain go away. As one user review of Mend put it, “The entire thing seems they’re just out to collect your data and exploit vulnerable people rather than actually helping you out.” For the companies behind them, in-app purchases are always going to take priority over genuine recovery, and we should be wary of any solution to unhappiness which encourages us to spend more time looking at our phones. (Mend recommends a ‘digital detox’, but wouldn’t deleting the app be an obvious first step?) Some of the behaviour they seem to encourage also seems actively counter-productive. Of all the times I’ve been driven to the brink of insanity by a man, posting about it on the internet – and making a spectacle of my own distress – is the behaviour that I regret most of all. (To be fair, apps like Mend don’t actively encourage you to post your progress on socials, but they do provide ready-made, sharable content.) Getting over a breakup is difficult and you can only ever ameliorate the pain so much, but if there was one thing I would get down on my knees and beg you not to do, it would be posting a screenshot on Insta revealing how long it’s been since you’ve been since you spoke to your ex.

These apps also seem like a pretext to spend all your time ruminating on your past relationship. Ultimately, they encourage you to look inwards instead of engaging with the world, to keep picking away at the scab, to imagine that your distress can be alleviated through toiling away at your own psyche. I just don’t think this is good advice. On the trend of positive thinking, Barbara Ehrenreich wrote, “The question is why one should be so inwardly preoccupied at all. Why not reach out to others in love and solidarity or peer into the natural world? Why retreat into anxious introspection when there is a vast outside world to explore?”

As a broader phenomenon, the rise of breakup apps reflects two social currents. First, a therapeutic culture that has turned emotional pain into something to be performed, as well as positioning unhappy people as potential consumers. While this can be traced back to the explosion of self-help culture and popular psychology in the 1960s, it has been accelerated in the age of social media, when it’s easier than ever before to find an audience – you longer need to be a celebrity doing a tell-all interview with Oprah to act out emotional turmoil in public. As Eva Illous writes in Emotional Capitalism, “The therapeutic narrative makes emotions into public objects to be exposed, discussed, and argued over.” Secondly, and somewhat paradoxically, the market for breakup apps reflects the idea that pain can be optimised, and dealt with in a more efficient, effective and ultimately quicker way. It’s just one instance among many of optimisation – the Silicon Valley-led idea that the logic of computational science can be used to make everything more efficient – bleeding into the most intimate areas of our lives. These apps assign you tasks; they ask you to track your mood and monitor your thoughts. Under this method, a breakup is no longer just an unfortunate thing that happens or a brush with the inevitability of loss: it becomes a project, something you have to work on and perfect.

The idea that getting over a breakup is a process that can be streamlined seems like a false promise. Even if you do all the right things, if you take up a new hobby or join a yoga class; if make an effort to spend more time with your friends or focus on your career, there’s no escaping the fact that it’s going to hurt for a very long time. You just have to go through it. But there are definitely things you can do to make the process worse. This could be drinking to excess or stalking your ex’s Instagram, but it also might look like spending £300 to have therapy with a chatbot.

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