Why Are We So Invested In Other People's Breakups?

Marnie and Hannah from Girls HBO

Why were Hannah' friends caught up in the demise of Hannah and Adam?

There's been a lot of positive coverage from this past Sunday's episode of Girls. In case you haven't seen season four's "Sit-In," Hannah returns from Iowa to discover that after a month of long-distance/open-relationship dating, Adam has moved Hannah's furniture into storage and is now living with a new girlfriend, Mimi-Rose Howard.

Over the course of the episode, as Hannah locks herself into her old bedroom and refuses to leave the apartment, each of Hannah's friends pops over to provide comfort and dispense advice on how to come to terms with the end of her relationship. By the end of the episode, Adam and Hannah have an emotional conversation and Hannah leaves the apartment to visit her storage room, all of her boxes marked "Fragile—Handle with Care."

So… why were Hannah' friends caught up in the demise of Hannah and Adam?

We make emotional and personal investments into the romantic relationships of our family members and friends and co-workers and even fictional characters like Hannah Horvath and Adam Sackler. Sometimes, it's almost as if we're the ones in the midst of a breakup as we watch our nearest and dearest come apart.

I think a lot of these feelings stem from our fears of breakups, our past experiences with romantic lovers, resentments we may have bottled up over the course of their relationship, and our ultimate stake in the lives of those we care about the most. We have feelings. We get caught up in them, often to our surprise.

If you've ever dreaded an impending break-up, it doesn't matter whether you're the dumper or the dumped. You still feel like it’s the last thing you want to do. You make excuses not to see the person—avoid their calls and texts or suddenly develop "other plans." When you're together, you keep your interactions with them superficial and breezy. Everything is great. So great. Really great. Nope, not hiding a thing. Maybe we don't have to go through with this. Except we do.

Naturally, as we see others enduring the same experiences, a little bit of empathy comes into the light.

This empathy reminds us of the past, whether it's a long-ago lover or a very recent ex. If you're seeing someone treated badly during a break-up, it can bring up memories of those who treated you with callousness. Or maybe you remember being the bad guy and wince at seeing the fallout through other people's eyes.

There are thoughtful and considered ways to end a relationship—and there are ill-timed, unfair means, too. But there's almost never a pain-free end. I'm reminded of Baz Luhrmann's "Everybody's Free (To Wear Sunscreen)"—if you succeed in doing this, tell me how.

In reassuring our friends that everything is going to be okay, we're also reminding ourselves of what holds true in our lives. This, too, shall pass.

Of course, sometimes we still hold onto the pain. We forgive, but won't forget. Memory can heighten the experience as it pulls in other threads from our lives to remind us of being alone, being rejected, being the one to leave when you wish you didn't have to go.

Those resentments can lead to bitterness, but they can also keep us from repeating the same mistakes. And sometimes we share those mistakes with those around us—or we watch them play out in books or on-screen and then we remember why it all went down the way it did for us.

But really, we care about our friends. We share in their triumphs—a new job, moving to a different place, travels, all of the watershed moments. It makes sense that when we've witnessed and participated in the joy, we're also invested in the hard times. So we show up for the ones we love. We bring ice cream and flowers and hugs. We listen and we talk. We're in the struggle. We tend to the wounds.

A bristling, fed-up Hannah asks, "Why is everyone acting like tea is some sort of magic elixir that will make it so Adam doesn't have a girlfriend anymore?" She isn't wrong, necessarily. But we pour the tea, anyway. Because that's what showing up means.


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