Breaking up is hard to do. And don’t we know it. UK comedian writer and podcaster comedian Rosie Wilby has been dubbed the Queen of Breakups, not because she’s been through a spectacular number of breakups herself but due to her building the current phase of her career around this subject. Her second book, The Breakup Monologues, is all about the process of breaking up. It is subtitled ‘The Unexpected Joy of Heartbreak.’ Her first book Is Monogamy Dead? was shortlisted for the Diva Literary Awards 2017, longlisted for the Polari First Book Prize 2018, and followed her TEDx talk of the same name.
Being dumped by email was the inciting incident that led Wilby along ‘a line of inquiry’, exploring the business of breaking up, reflecting on her own experiences, both of past relationships and her current relationship. Along the way, she shares anecdotes from friends and interviewees, some science and psychology, and a lot of footnotes. The footnotes contain relevant asides but I found them annoyingly distracting. Otherwise, I love this book – it’s an accessible, informal read, one of those satisfying and informed conversations with a good mate, where you unpack your own stuff and analyse the world around you, finding relief and succour in shared experiences. Wilby is generous with herself and her life, always finding a humorous angle to the stories she tells. The search for honesty underpins her explorations, especially honesty with oneself. After being dumped she initially had doubts about going on stage and trying to make jokes about the experience, but when she fronted up to audiences with the truth about how she felt; it worked. Really worked.
Breaking up a relationship can be emotionally excruciating, devastating; seemingly the most painful thing you could endure, and often accompanied by a sense of not knowing who you are anymore. Wilby likens it to drug withdrawal. When ‘happily ever after’ is the default story ending we’ve all internalised, ending a relationship can make you feel like a failure. As well, the culture of internet dating has brought about new patterns of relating and ending relationships; few of them serving the interests of deeper connections.
Among other things Wilby looks at attachment theory, at how hormonal patterning affects the relationship when both partners are women, and how to recognise what she calls ‘the moths of doom’ – her fabulous description of the flutters of dread, insecurity and panic that can accompany conflict with your partner. ‘Moths of doom’ are the ‘dark’ opposites of the excited ‘butterflies in the tummy’ feelings accompanying the anticipation of a new romance. They both need to be given their place, and understood as temporary emotions. (Moths of doom could also cover those fluttering dread moments of intuitive awareness, when you just know something isn’t right.)
The Breakup Monologues also touches on breakups with close friends as well; sometimes these can feel more devastating than breaking up with a romantic partner. The same wisdom applies. As a culture we’re only beginning to talk about how hard these breakups can be, to allow this previously unnamed pain its weight.
Wilby says she wants people to take away from her book the message that they’re not alone in their post-breakup emotional devastation. And that it is possible to ‘uncouple’ in ways that reduce the possibility of experiencing trauma, by reframing the ending of relationships as an opportunity, not in a mindless ‘positive thinking’ way, but as a chance to grow by learning to value a different kind of relationship, not least with oneself. As Wilby says, breakups have been the biggest learning experiences she’s had.
The book is a valuable guide on how to stay together. It offers a wealth of good advice about how to navigate the inherent tension between autonomy and commitment, perhaps the big key to a successful relationship.
The Breakup Monologues is a book to go back to, again and again. It’s smart, funny, and wise. Buy it for all your friends for Christmas, single, coupled, or otherwise.
The Breakup Monologues, Rosie Wilby
Publication date: 3 August 2021