To read about or hear this episode, visit theallusionist.org/post-love.
This is the Allusionist, in which I, Helen Zaltzman, say to language, “Woah, hey, slow down… Er, I think we might be better off just staying friends.”
Let’s prepare ourselves with a little word history, sponsored by Squarespace.com, the simplest way to create a compelling website. You’ve got a story in you, I can tell. Whether you want to unleash it in the form of words, or audio, or pictures, Squarespace provides easy to use tools and templates for you to create your own captivating website. What’s your excuse for waiting? You should! Squarespace. Try it out for free today: visit squarespace.com/allusion.
And thanks to Squarespace, here’s the etymology of 'fornication', a term for sex which has always carried a suggestion of immorality. It arrived in English from French by the 14th century, but came from the Latin ‘fornix’, which referred to brothels ('brothel', by the way, comes from the Old English ‘degenerate’ or ‘decay’) but ‘fornix’ originally meant an arch or a vaulted chamber. Why that connection? It’s thought the Ancient Roman sex workers may have stood in arches waiting for trade. While ‘fornix’ gained a sexual connotation, ‘skullduggery’ - originally a synonym for ‘fornication’ - has lost its, and now is just a term for underhand behaviour. Other fun old terms for fornication include ‘jollity’ and ‘abandon’. But in the Old Testament, ‘fornication’ also meant ‘idolatry’ - cheating on God with other objects of worship.
Furthermore, idolatry appears as one of the definitions of adultery - again, there’s that the sense of spiritual infidelity. Surprisingly, ‘adultery’ is not related to the word ‘adult’ - which is from the Latin for ‘grown’ - but shares origins with ‘adulterate’, from the Latin for ‘mixed’, because adulterers had adulterated the marriage by mixing themselves sexually with someone other than the person to whom they were married. In the MacLennan vs MacLennan divorce case of 1958, proof of adultery required "physical contact with an alien and unlawful organ", which wording conjures a very colourful variety of possibilities. We’ll be coming back to the meaning of adultery later in the show.
Just before we get to it, bear in mind: a lot of this episode is about the complexities of the British legal system, which has certain processes and eccentricities that other countries’ legal systems might not have. If you’re outside of the UK, remember: ours is a system that requires staff to wear wigs and capes to work, even though they’re not superheroes. So if you’re thinking that a fact in this show sounds a little odd, just go with it. Strap yourself into the rollercoaster, throw your hands in the air and scream into the wind.
On with the show.
A little while ago, I asked you to tell me about the worst things you’ve said to break up with someone, or that they said to you.
WOMAN 1: I once had a guy break up with me by saying, “I no longer feel comfortable accepting your love."
WOMAN 2: The worst thing I said to someone to break up with them - I called him and said, “We are breaking up, you have no say in the matter; you cannot say anything that will change my mind. I am going to hang up in 20 minutes. You can say your bit until then, but no matter what you say, I will hang up in 20 minutes.” And that’s how I broke up with him! I still hear from my friends that that was probably one of the meanest things I’ve ever done. But it was very necessary; he’s the kind of person to cling on if he thinks he still has hope.
MAN 1: I feel like a jerk even sharing this. It actually makes me uncomfortable to share this. Apparently, I said something pretty awful to a girl when I was in high school. We had kind of liked each other for about a year, then we went to a school dance, and we kissed. I got way into my head afterwards, which is a pattern which has haunted me ever since, and I just started second-guessing it, and decided we can’t see each other. Complete neuroses took over.
So I approach her and I tell her, “You’re great, I like you, let’s be friends,” and apparently one of the things I said in the obligatory break-up speech, in my attempt to put it gently, was, “I tried to like you.” Let’s just peel the layers back on that! That means:
1. you are effort to like;
2. I put that effort into it, I gave it the old try, so I’m trying to paint myself as a nice guy when this is an obnoxious statement that I should not have said;
3. I was just not able to overcome the challenges of liking you. She was a wonderful girl: she was really pretty, really smart, really funny, she was a catch.
And apparently that devastated her. And I feel terrible about that. I feel a great amount of guilt about that statement, because if I said it to an adult, that would be a lousy thing to say to somebody, but whatever is said to you at that age puts a dent in you. Anyway, that’s the super-lousy shitty thing I said to somebody. In the attempt to be nice, I was a complete dick. I feel bad about it now, in this moment, in sharing this with you, Helen.
HZ: When it comes to breakups, language fails not just at the point when one is taking place.
ROSIE WILBY: I actually bemoan the lack of language to describe any type of relationships.
HZ: That’s Rosie Wilby. She’s a comedian who has spent the last several years writing about relationships, monogamy, polyamory, sex and breakups.
RW: The term ‘break up’ sounds emotionally violent.
HZ: It sounds irreparable as well, ‘break up’.
RW: It does, it sounds awful.
HZ: Like you could never commute it into a different style of relationship.
RW: I think people have, maybe they’d use ‘separated’ or ‘split up’ - I think people try and use slightly different words, but they still sound final.
HZ: In March 2014, the term ‘conscious uncoupling’ entered the breakup lexicon when Gwyneth Paltrow used it to announce the end of her marriage to Coldplay’s Chris Martin. The phrase was coined around 2009 by the psychotherapist Katherine Woodward Thomas when she and her husband were getting unmarried - yes, they were divorcing, but they wanted cordial terms that reflected how they would remain part of each other’s lives and families.
RW: Perhaps I’m being idealistic, but I think it’s really important to try and have that different phase to the relationship; and ‘post-romantic’ is one way I’ve thought of describing it.
HZ: I wonder what the noun would be?
RW: Yes, ‘my post-romantic person’...
HZ: ‘My post-partner’.
RW: That sounds like you go round delivering letters together.
HZ: But even when a relationship ends in a way that isn’t so much post-romantic as a maelstrom of bitterness and anger, the post-partners don’t necessarily have an easy job finding the right labels for each other. Nick Allen is a divorce lawyer, so in nearly twenty years of the job, he’s heard exes refer to each other in terms from the profane to the - well, nothingy.
NICK ALLEN: They often don’t refer to their spouse by name at all. They’ll find ways of constructing a sentence - “Has HE arrived yet?” “Will I see HIM in court?” “Do I have to sit opposite HER?” There’s a lot of him and her, and very little use of names.
HZ: Do they not want to call them by name because they don’t want to acknowledge that they’re there, because they’re trying to dehumanise them, or what?
NA: Both, in different situations. If they’re trying to be less emotional about it, saying, “Has he arrived?” may be easier on them than saying, “Has David arrived?”
HZ: What about terms like ‘ex’?
NA: They tend not to use ‘ex’. Sometimes they will use ‘mother’ or ‘father’ to describe the other party. It’s first names if they want to be nice about each other, or no names at all.
WOMAN 3: My husband and I were married for seven years. He finally told me that no, he didn’t want to continue our marriage, and when I pressed him to give me a real reason, what he came up with was that he had “run out of emotional equity.” So yes, now I’m getting divorced, because he ran out of emotional equity.
HZ: How much a part does semantics play in the law?
NA: I’d like to say semantics doesn’t play a part at all; but so much of our time is spent focussing on what does a word mean, is there a reason why it’s in a singular form, should it be in a plural form? In the matrimonial statute which governs the dissolution of financial claims, you have words that the courts give meanings to, such as ‘needs’ - what does ‘needs’ mean? These are the words parliament sets out, but we as lawyers then impress upon that our own meaning, if you like, because one person says they ‘need’ £100,000 a year to live, 99% of the population will say, “Come off it!” That’s not a need, to live on £100,000 a year; that’s a wishlist. But it’s amazing how often we stand up in court and say, “Somebody needs X or Y” because that’s the word in the statute. But any normal person in the street, if you said, “Somebody needs that,” they’d look at you like you’re mad.
MAN 2: I once told a woman I was dating that I needed to break up with her because she “wasn’t broken enough.” I feel like a real shithead about it.
NZ: Another good word is ‘contributions’ that the parties to the marriage have made. Again, what does ‘contributions’ mean? Until 2000, when the law fundamentally changed when the House of Lords said we had been doing it wrongly for 27-odd years, we had not been valuing the contribution of the homemaker the same as the contribution of the breadwinner.
HZ: Oh, you hadn’t been treating it as a job?
NA: We had not been treating them as equal. And effectively, if there was £10m to divide, and the wife’s needs were met for the rest of her life with £1m, the husband would walk away with £9m. In 2000, the House of Lords came up with the lovely phrase ‘the yardstick of equality’, which said you had to come up with good reasons to 'depart from equality', but if there aren’t good reasons to depart from equality, given that the role of the homemaker and role of the breadwinner have to be treated equally, then in that example, both parties would come away with £5m each, and most people, including me, would think that’s a lot fairer.
WOMAN 4: A boyfriend in college broke up with me because “You just aren’t pretty enough.” How’s that for bad?
MAN 3: I ended my first serious relationship with a girl with the words, “I hate myself when I’m with you.”
NA: We have other great words: if people are trying to say that one party has ‘dissipated’ money that should then be added back, the conduct has to be ‘wanton’ or ‘reckless’. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard the word ‘wanton’ in normal speech ever! But again: one judge uses the phrase “There has to be wanton or reckless expenditure,” then barristers up and down the land are standing up and saying, “This expenditure is wanton and reckless,” or, “This particular expenditure is not wanton and reckless.” It’s just phrases that come from the law reports that we all start imbuing with an enormous amount of significance.
HZ: And the words are like 19th century bodice-rippers.
MAN 4: Thirty years ago, a woman author broke up with me. When I asked her why it didn’t work out, she said, “Maybe if you read more Kafka.” That was one of the worst, and funniest, break-up moments of my life.
MAN 5: I asked her over instant message if she wanted to go out with me. Her response was, “Not really, sorry.” Only she forgot the comma.
HZ: Here in the UK, there is complicated situation regarding same sex marriage. In brief: the Civil Partnership Act of 2004 allowed same sex couples to marry for the first time - the ceremony and the legal significance were very similar to a heterosexual civil marriage, only the government decided it had to stay distinct from marriage, and thus it was called civil partnership, not marriage. Then, same sex marriage was legalised in 2013, but it isn’t quite the same as civil partnership. For one, the vocabulary is different:
NA: When the civil partnership act was passed, the Labour government was very clear they were creating an institution that was completely separate to marriage and divorce, so they had to come up with a different term for ‘divorce’, so they came up with ‘dissolution’.
HZ: And is there any difference between a dissolution and a divorce?
NA: Absolutely no difference at all, although adultery is not a grounds to dissolve a civil partnership; apart from that, the grounds of divorce and dissolution are identical.
HZ: Adultery IS grounds for a same-sex married couple to get a divorce, because the terms for same-sex marriage match those of heterosexual marriage.
NA: But because the government didn’t really want to have a debate in the House of Lords explaining how same-sex relationships might work, the wheeze they came up with, having not had adultery in civil partnerships, they said, “We have to have adultery, because marriage is marriage; but it’s still only going to be adultery with the opposite sex.” They didn’t want to grapple with the change of the definition of ‘adultery’, because adultery is sexual intercourse of someone of the opposite sex, and I believe, without going into too much detail, degrees of penetration. The government thought, “We have to use ‘adultery’; we don’t have to redefine it.”
HZ: Evidently, the government does have to redefine the legal meaning of ‘adultery’, unless they really are capable of hiding from reality forever. Someone send them some diagrams. Maybe some educational dolls?
WOMAN 5: I went out with a guy who said he needed more time. I bought him some - the herb thyme. Left a packet on his desk; not sure that’s what he meant, never heard from him again.
MAN 6: This is the meanest thing anybody ever said to me to break up with me. They were trying to be nice and let me down easy. She said, “I really like you and all, but I think I need to spend more time with my horse.”
HZ: Oh, who hasn't lost out to a horse?
You can find out about Rosie Wilby’s gigs, writing, radio shows and podcasts at RosieWilby.com. And let’s hope you don’t need of Nick Allen’s services.
This episode is supported by Slack, messaging for teams - it’s the oil in the engine of team Radiotopia. Our email inboxes are uncluttered and we don’t have to worry about trying to have meetings across eight timezones: Slack is how we chat, send messages on the go, share documents and sound files, keep each other company when we’re still up and working at 3am... Also, Slack integrates with dozens of other apps and services - Google Drive, Dropbox, Mailchimp, Github - meaning you can keep everything in the same place, easily searchable and shareable. You can use Slack for free for as long as you want, but if you visit slack.com/allusionist and create a new team, you’ll get $100 in credit you can use when you decide to upgrade to a paid plan with extra features. If only one of the extra features was ‘forcing podcasters to go to bed at a sensible hour’ - that’s not Slack’s fault.
The Allusionist is a proud member of Radiotopia from PRX, a collective of the thirteen greatest podcasts in the world. One of these is The Heart, and they’ve just started their new series Ghost, stories and essays about what love leaves behind. Trust the Heart to turn breakups into something so beautiful. You can hear the Heart, and the other Radiotopians, at Radiotopia.fm.
Radiotopia was brought into existence by you kind listeners, the Knight Foundation, and Mailchimp. Mailchimp’s randomly selected word from the dictionary today is…
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Try using it in an email today.
This episode was produced by me, Helen Zaltzman, with editorial help from Hrishikesh Hirway from Song Exploder. Martin Austwick made the music. Very big thanks to the listeners who shared their breakup stories. I hope it was...cathartic, in some way?