Do you remember the first time you heard of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out)? It could have been the original New York Times discussion of the word, or Urban Dictionary, or even MTV’s FOMO Woodie. Wherever you heard it, we guarantee that it struck a chord — you knew it described something important and universally affecting. FOMO infiltrates our modern overshared lives. It bombards us with options, and leaves us paralyzed to choose which weekend BBQ, which job, which city…even which relationship.
We all know couples who have broken up because one (or both) of the parties began experiencing the FOMO itch, the fear that their bond was somehow “less than” everyone else’s as measured by some digital social yardstick. But there is another, as-yet-undefined concept plaguing our relationships and screwing massively with our lives. It affects millions of young people, eroding their vitality and happiness. Despite its prevalence, this condition has remained nameless—until now.
Welcome to FOBU: Fear of Breaking Up.
I could have made up FOBU. I could just as likely have overheard it in a bathroom stall. Regardless, what I do know is that FOBU has become a near epidemic among couples in their twenties and thirties, and it’s contributing to an overall deficit of happiness for thousands of people.
Here’s a textbook case study of FOBU. You’ve been dating for at least a year. You may live together at this point. You’ve spent at least one holiday with each others’ families and have attended weddings and other life milestones as a couple. But deep down, you know that this relationship isn’t fulfilling your needs (or your partner’s, for that matter). Still, you find yourself trapped—be it by inertia, apathy, a sense of duty, financial concerns, or crippling fear. And so you do nothing and say nothing. The relationship remains status quo.
Let’s take my friend Erika (whose name I am changing because she has yet to accept the clinical diagnosis of her malady). Erika is smart, successful and beautiful, almost offensively so. If I didn’t love her, I would hate her. Erika has been dating Max for five years. They’re both a hair past thirty and have lived together for two years. Max has hopped from job to job for those 24 months while Erika has diligently paid the majority of their rent. He admittedly smokes more pot than your average Grateful Dead groupie, frequently hits on strippers and once called her mom a bitch.
When I asked Erika why she stayed with Max she was incredibly matter-of-fact.
“Ugh, breaking up sucks, being single is horrible and it’s not like there is anything better out there.”
Jordana, a thirtysomething executive, wasn’t shocked when her boyfriend asked her point blank whether she actually wanted to marry him, or whether she just wanted to get married.
“I assured him it was all about him and that I couldn’t imagine spending my life with anyone else,” she told me matter-of-factly. “I lied. I just don’t want to be single again…ever.”
FOBU is not specific to gender. Dan, a 33-year old investment banker, told me two years ago that he was merely “renting” his then-girlfriend, because she wasn’t the type you actually “buy.” While he found her extremely attractive, he was also concerned about her anger management, as well as his own safety—once, after a big fight, he awoke to her trying to strangle him in his sleep.
Their wedding is in Cabo this July.
If you’re nodding your head, then you know at least one person grappling with FOBU. Sit down with her and try to bring up her complete lack of relationship joy or enthusiasm—her go-to responses may include, “well, I’ve invested so much time at this point, and I’m over 30,” or “it would kill his mother if we broke up,” or even, “yeah I know it’s not great, but we just bought a really expensive mattress.”
FOBU. It’s real, it’s painful, and it can literally ruin your life.
We can’t blame it on laziness, societal pressure or complacency—FOBU is a natural outcrop of the human psyche. Physiologically, we are programmed to feel terror in the face of change.
“It’s easier to stay with the devil you know than to take a chance with the devil you don’t know,” explains Dr. Jenn Berman, who advises couples such as former real housewife Alex McCord and her sometime-Speedo-wearing husband Simon van Kempen on the VH1 show “Couples Therapy.”
And this devil you don’t know has two horns—the daunting task of searching for a new partner, and the terrifying notion of possibly being (and staying) alone. The idea of facing life solo not only puts us in touch with our existential fears, but also leaves us lacking the validation that even a bad partner can give us. Think: “At least there is someone who is willing to put up with me!” Or “Well, at least I don’t have to go to this wedding alone.”
Take Annie, a 29-year old-advertising executive in Manhattan. For three years she vacillated over whether to break up with her college boyfriend because she was terrified of the split hurting too much, of being single, and of possibly being alone forever.
“I would literally force fights to break up with him, and then beg him to take me back because the fear was so intense. I wanted out so bad, but I couldn’t handle the anxiety of the breakup,” Annie told me.
Plus, let’s face it, breaking up isn’t just hard—it’s brutal. There is the impending emotional pain as well as the financial cost. Living on your own ain’t cheap. Get ready to budget for your own dinners, activities, housing, new furniture, therapy, and probably a long-forgotten vice or two like smoking and whiskey. Plus, our busy lives rarely accommodate all the grief and healing a breakup may require. Few, if any, employers offer bereavement time to mourn the end of your three-year relationship, and you can bet on your work productivity dropping for a while while you nurse your wounds.
“In our culture we think that if we are doing the right thing, it shouldn’t be painful,” Berman says. “Leaving a relationship is going to be painful. There is going to be a sense of loss.”
Adding to the anxiety is the growing myth of the always-contracting dating pool. As Erika put it to me: “I don’t think there is anyone left to date.”
Luckily, that one is simply not true. Why? Statistics.
There were 99.6 million unmarried people over the age of 18 in the United States in 2010. That meant that 45% of all households in the United States were unmarried households. Approximately 39% of the unmarried population was formerly married, and 60.8% have always been single.
The pool of single people is also in a state of constant flux, with women and men doggy paddling their way in and out of its waters. Consider that after 10 years, the probability of a first marriage ending is 33%. That’s a lot of thirtysomethings reentering the dating market.
As far as I can Google, no one has compiled statistics on how many of those first-marriage breakups were the result of FOBU. But getting married because it’s too much hassle to break up doesn’t make things any easier down the road.
Of course, then there’s the trickiest FOBU factor of all: love. Just because a person isn’t right for you in the long-term doesn’t mean that you don’t care deeply for him. Adore him, even. At least, to a point.
It’s this love, mixed with the other factors, that can lead to reconciliations once the breakup finally occurs. The FOBU I experienced with my ex-fiance was so bad that, after he moved out of our shared apartment on the Upper West Side, I begged him to come back, just to forestall the pain. Mind you, we broke up again two months later, for the same reason we split in the first place: neither of us was capable of meeting the other’s emotional needs.
So we’ve identified FOBU’s symptoms. We have the causes. What about the cure?
Tracey Steinberg is a dating coach in Manhattan and one of my favorite people to approach for dating and relationship advice because she is completely incapable of mincing words.
“The cure for FOBU is to grow a set of balls, or ovaries, your choice,” Tracey said. “You’re not doing either of you any favors by staying with someone who isn’t right for you. You deserve to be in a relationship where you have fun, feel good about yourself, and are excited to see your partner. Break up and enjoy the freedom that comes with being available for new and exciting options.”
The pain will be inevitable, and the labor unfortunately doesn’t stop once you’ve taken him out of your phone and purchased your own couch. It’ll take some work, some real self-delving and exploration, to determine what wasn’t working, forgive anything or anyone that needs to be forgiven (this includes yourself), and then find a new relationship that will truly meet your needs.
But first, you have to break up.
Getting there may require some help from a support network. Were it not for a well-timed phone call from my father asking me “what the hell was I doing with that [insert expletive] still in my life!” I may have remained so paralyzed with FOBU that I might now be Mrs. [Expletive]. The breakup was awful, but being married to my ex would have been worse. And now, I happen to be dating one of the most wonderful men I’ve ever met. I should get “I conquered FOBU” tattooed on my ass.
Six months ago, Annie finally ripped the Band-aid off FOBU. Three months later, she started dating an awesome new guy. They just took an adorable ski vacation to Tahoe. Their pictures gave me huge FOMO.
More on FOBU:
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