Content warning: This article details instances of sexual assault and/or domestic abuse and may be distressing to some readers.
The park bench has been the site of countless breakups throughout pop culture and real-life — but it's pretty odd that of all the places on Earth, we choose to break hearts here. When Frances cried to Nick and said she 'couldn't do this anymore' on a park bench in Conversations With Friends as people innocently powerwalk past them, I felt the awkward familiarity deep in my soul. And it's not just a pop culture cliché; whether we've been the dumper or the dumped, it's true that many of us have sat on a park bench at some point in our lives to say goodbye to a lover.
Wouldn't we prefer the comfort of our bedrooms, swaddled in a blanket; or the private peacefulness of our own backyards? No. Instead, we habitually opt for these public, council-erected seats, with children screaming on the playground behind us and soccer balls flying past our heads as we stare into the teary eyes of our now-ex — and so we have to ask ourselves, why?
Breaking up on a park bench has become so common that when your partner texts you out of the blue asking you to 'meet up at the park' or suggests catching up for a 'walk', you have good reason to feel nervous. "It had already happened to my ex once before, so he knew immediately what it meant when I asked to meet at a park," Hannah*, 24, tells Refinery29Australia. "In a weird way, it gave him an opportunity to prepare. It's kind of like 'we need to talk', but a little less direct."
"I broke up with my high school boyfriend on a park bench near my local shops," Lara*, 23, says. "The great part was that I could just walk home afterwards — because no one wants to have to ask their mum to come and pick them up after a breakup." The park bench breakup is a tale as old as time, but public breakups are are just as common.
Plenty of people have had breakups that took place in restaurants, on the street corner outside their houses, or even leaning up against a public pool table, as Jules*, 25 recounts not very fondly. "I got dumped in a bar, which is pretty cliché. It was after playing two games of pool and then they said, 'I think we should transition into being friends'," says Jules. "In my opinion, pros: none. I can’t look at pool tables the same."
Objectively speaking, breaking up with someone in a public space is a lot easier than being the one who's being broken up with in front of a bunch of strangers. Where Jules points out obvious downsides to the public breakup — the inability to scream and cry like you might want to, and the unfortunate association you'll now have between this location and this breakup for the rest of your life –– the people who've initiated a public breakup tend to speak pretty highly of it for the same reasons.
Public breakups are generally favoured because they allow you to walk away more easily, if needed, and emotions generally have to be capped and better managed. By choosing a public location, both parties can focus on the conversation at hand without worrying about the emotional baggage that might be present in a more private setting. Public settings can also be a more mutually accessible space (both physically and emotionally), so no one feels more awkward or vulnerable than the other.
"I was meant to stay at my boyfriend's place the night I was going to break up with him, so instead of coming inside, I asked him to meet me across the road at the park," Alice*, 27, says. "Yes, there was a bench and yes, we sat on it — the ultimate cliche." But while it may seem a little cheesy and banal, would it really have been better if Alice had used her boyfriend's own living room as the setting to break his heart? Probably not.
Whilst it may seem counterintuitive, public spaces can also actually provide more privacy, as they offer a level of anonymity that's not always possible in a private setting. While all breakups can be embarrassing, to an extent, we'd probably much prefer a random person walking by to hear the details about our heartbreak in real-time than our mother or housemate. The beauty of crying in public is that you'll probably never have to see the people who have witnessed your outburst ever again.
Public breakups are also a much safer option, as you're inherently more protected by having witnesses and bystanders, especially for women who are initiating a breakup. The fact is, one woman is killed at the hands of their ex-partners every nine days in Australia — so if breaking up in public means that a partner who is prone to aggression and anger is less likely to try to harm you when you leave them, then that's absolutely a necessity.
There are also the bitter-sweet situations a public breakup can present, as Nat*, 26, found. "I was dumped on a bench in the middle of the CBD and because we were in public, it almost made the breakup go more smoothly because there was the added pressure of being watched," she says. "If we had the same conversation in private, I would've been a total mess."
As Nat's breakup was one of necessity (her boyfriend was moving away) and there were still feelings of love and affection between them, they used this public breakup as an opportunity to grab dinner and ice cream — sending off their relationship with one last date. "It was definitely an odd date/breakup hybrid, but we got the chance to make the most of a shit situation, which we wouldn't have been able to do if it happened at home," she muses.
At the end of the day, breaking up with someone is never pleasant, on either side of the experience. Even ending the worst relationship in the world can still feel awkward or difficult. So if breaking up on a park bench can make that process even the tiniest bit easier, we'll keep returning there time and time again to say our goodbyes.
If you or anyone you know has experienced sexual or domestic violence and is in need of support, please call 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732), the National Sexual Assault Domestic Family Violence Service.