The Rise of the Quiet Breakup

Photo-Illustration: The Cut; Photos: Getty

After a summer of celebrity breakups — which left Ariana Grande, Rosalía, Britney Spears, Sophie Turner, and even Justin Trudeau newly single — the end of Venus retrograde and the chill of fall’s cuffing weather had lulled everyone into a false sense of relationship security. Surely, no more major celebrity breakups were on the horizon for 2023? Well, around mid-October, as part of her press run for her memoir, Worthy, Jada Pinkett Smith told Hoda Kotb that she and Will Smith had been secretly separated, living “completely separate lives,” for seven years. Not too long after, news broke that Meryl Streep and her husband, Don Gummer, were quietly separated — for over six years. The practice has been compared to “old Hollywood” divorces: “Very glamour. We are so back and we didn’t even know it,” Tom Zohar tweeted.

But the act of so discreetly ending a relationship that almost no one has a clue expands far beyond celebrity circles. Online, people have been sharing stories about attending Thanksgiving dinner “without telling anyone about the breakup” or even hiding a breakup from their family for five years.

Breakup Season™ still isn’t over then — it’s just gotten a lot more hush-hush.

Claudia Diez, a board-certified clinical psychologist and assistant professor at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, says that she’s found two distinct types of secret breakups throughout her clinical experiences. “One is the type where the partners don’t talk about it,” she says. “More than a breakup, it’s a distancing that can go on for years and why it’s happened is not even discussed.” This is not rare, says Diez. The other type is a more functional, explicit arrangement. “They understand that as intimate partners, they are no longer working, but they need to keep up something like a financial interest,” she says.

Diez says that both instances of secret breakups (one of denial and another of appearances) have always existed — we’re just now in the era where these silent dissolutions eventually get revealed. “Nowadays the idea of divorce is more familiar and less taboo, so they feel more comfortable revealing that they have been strangers in their own house or no longer intimate for years,” says Diez. The announcements themselves, she says, should be seen as a testament to popular culture being more comfortable and forthcoming about how difficult relationships can be.

For Megan Nash, a singer-songwriter in Saskatchewan, Canada, the changing public opinion around divorce still didn’t prepare her for the amount of shame she felt when her ex-husband asked for a divorce in January 2019. “I couldn’t believe it,” she says. “I know who I am, I know my politics, I know my beliefs, I know my views of the world, but yet I still had that deep sense of shame.” These feelings — and the fact that their divorce conversation happened the day of her grandmother’s passing — left Nash keeping the separation a secret for nearly four months. When she finally told her family, they were devastated. “I’ll probably never forget the day I told my parents,” says Nash. “It was just awful.”

While Nash says that carrying the secret of their divorce for so long left her deeply lonely, in hindsight the decision feels like a necessary boundary. “I needed that time and I’m proud of myself,” Nash says. And in Nash’s case, the interwoven layer of their grandmother’s death meant the secret was as much an attempt not to burden her parents as it was a moment for personal processing. As with any type of secret, sometimes the motivation behind a quiet breakup is to spare other people’s feelings. On TikTok, creators share that they kept their breakup a secret for months in order not to worry family and friends. People gather in the comments and make their own secret confessions. “My husband of 23 years cheated a year ago. I’ve been silently dealing with it,” wrote one person. “I’ve done 6 weeks then she revealed a new girl on Facebook in front of everyone we know. The embarrassment,” commented another.

Psychotherapist Rick Miller says experiencing a “quiet breakup” is not always a choice. “For gay men, which is my specialty, we’re so used to keeping it secret that it’s unfortunately part of our lives,” he says. “So the notion of this may seem preposterous is a probable reality.” Miller says that a friend of his kept his divorce from his wife a secret from his three kids for years. “When it was time for his oldest daughter to get married, the father and mother walked down the aisle at the wedding as if they were still a married couple to keep the facade going,” he says. “While the partner of this man, the husband who’s gay, was at a table somewhere at the wedding.”

Miller says that culture, ethnicity, norms, societal expectations, and community all play a factor in why people may be secretive about their separations. Online, people find community in discussing the experience of a “secret breakup in a brown household” or even suffering in silence after already telling their friends that a toxic relationship was over “100 days” before the current heartbreak.

Aside from forced secrecy, the rise of quiet breakups may be a direct rebellion against today’s encouragement to share every personal and private moment on social media. After all, navigating relationships as PR projects can get tiring. If you’re not carefully curating the soft launch of your boyfriend’s arm, you’re coming across long breakup announcements from social media couples that you never even realized were dating. Miller says the urge to announce your divorce on Facebook the second after the breakup conversation has been had is often premature. “People do this without realizing what the ramifications are,” he says.

Yasmina Stitou, a 27-year-old who lives in Barcelona, says she’s found the sweet spot for secret breakups: six months. “This is a rule of thumb now so I do this for every breakup, regardless of the context,” she says. “Six months is a sweet spot both mentally in the work that I do with my therapist and also logistically because I have enough time to save up and find another apartment.” Stitou has kept every major breakup a secret for a certain period (one time for a year and a half) after having a negative experience of sharing her first breakup with her family. “Being hammered with questions with a fresh breakup seems like an unavoidable mental breakdown that I really can’t deal with,” she says. Stitou does, however, always tell a couple of trusted friends.

By the time Stitou is telling her family about a breakup, she’s already in a new apartment and has six months under her belt of dealing emotionally with the separation. The moment of informing her parents, she says, is just as calculated. “I just say: ‘It’s been a while and it just didn’t work, and don’t ask me any more questions’ because at that point I’m pretty much healed,” she says. The questions inevitably come. What about the pet? What about the house? “It’s all been solved. We moved on. It’s over.”

The Rise of the Quiet Breakup