science of us

The Temptation of Over-Corrective Post-Breakup Rules

Photo: H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images

So, maybe you’ve heard: There’s a lady out there who has decided she will no longer date Jewish men. After two failed relationships with men of the Jewish faith who left her and later settled down with women with religious beliefs more similar to their own, she’s had it — and dammit, she’s made herself a rule.

Look, there are so many problems with this rule that it’s barely worth discussing. Is it patently intolerant? Check. Does it betray an alarmingly shallow, stereotype-dependent understanding of the author’s past partners’ religion? Check. Others have dissected the more serious problems with the piece, at length (and the author has since apologized). But one smaller, more frivolous piece of her argument hit me with a pang of sad familiarity: the Over-Corrective Post-Breakup Rules — vows made after a nasty breakup to never fall for anyone of the most recent ex’s particular type again.

The Over-Corrective Post-Breakup Rule is always made by someone who means well. It’s present you protecting future you from making the same relationship mistakes again — or so wounded, indignant present you thinks at the time. One woman I know, for example, instituted a No More Firefighters policy after dysfunctionally dating three firefighters in a row. (She subsequently also instituted a No More DJs policy.) Another friend of mine had back-to-back bad experiences with two men named Dan and two men named Pat, and as she put it, in each case, two strikes seemed sufficient. “If I ever met another Pat I really liked, I wouldn’t actually let it stop me,” she says now, with a laugh. “But I would definitely think hard about it first.”

Throughout my dating history, I too have made a series of mostly ridiculous OCPBRs. I have sworn off musicians, cat people, men considerably younger than me, men considerably dumber than me (and later, men considerably smarter than me), men who lived in different states from me, and men who were so much bigger or so much stronger than me that I couldn’t hold my own if they attacked me. I have enacted post-breakup rules for myself the way I set filters on my Yelp restaurant searches: with an eye toward weeding out the too-busy ones, the too-distant ones, the too-snobby ones, and the ones with too many reservations ahead of time. By repurposing my past bad judgments into an entry-screening test of sorts, I figured, maybe I could shut out the possibility of repeating my wrong choices.

Here’s the thing about post-breakup rules, though: Sometimes, in the white-hot momentum of a post-split self-improvement rampage, the rules we make target the wrong part of the problem. It’s tempting to remove ourselves from the equation, simplifying a complicated tangle of a relationship into a single trait belonging to one of its members. And it’s in our nature to think we’re seeing patterns where none actually exist; we’re wired to seek meaning, to impose an order that protects us from both uncertainty and blame. When you’re navigating the strange, confusing new territory of being alone after a relationship ends, it’s hard to know in real time what’s baggage and what’s a lesson learned, what’s a precautionary measure and what’s a prejudiced one. In other words, sometimes you don’t know until much later whether you’re actually protecting yourself from emotional harm or holding a potential new partner responsible for problems you had with your old one.

I have, of course, in time, broken approximately all of my Over-Corrective Post-Breakup Rules, and for the most part, I’m glad I did. I went on to have flings I still remember fondly with a handful of partners who were younger than me; I discovered having a relationship across state lines isn’t so bad if you work hard at it (and if your respective states are really, really close to each other). Had I kept following all the rules I’d made for myself, I would have missed out on partnerships both casual and serious that I learned from and enjoyed — though I also discovered that, as a person allergic to even the sweaters of a cat owner, I was right the first time about the cat thing.

And nestled somewhere within every one of my OCPBRs — like a hard pearl of wisdom inside a squishy oyster of hurt feelings — was a wiser, harder-won CPBR, a rule that actually might have helped me date smarter in the future, one about recognizing my own needs. When I swore off musicians, what I should have sworn off was partners whose schedules or lifestyles didn’t allow for the kind of relationship stability I wanted. When I wrote off men who were smarter than me, I should have written off men who talked down to me, who routinely dismissed my ideas out of hand. And when I promised myself I’d quit dating men with such a strength and size advantage that they could toss around all six feet of me, playfully or otherwise, I realize now I should have just promised myself I’d leave a relationship the moment I started to worry my partner might hurt me.

It was never, in other words, the age, nor the size, nor the profession, nor the IQ level of my partners that were the real problems. Weeks, or months, or years from now, I hope it dawns on the no-Jewish-boyfriends woman that it probably wasn’t the Judaism that was the problem, either.

The Temptation of Over-Corrective Post-Breakup Rules