Twenty-year-old Rachel* was at work when she got a text from the other woman. Hastily telling concerned colleagues she needed to step outside, Rachel began to hyperventilate as a woman named Becca detailed the infidelity of her – their – boyfriend, Carl. In tears, Rachel read screenshots of Becca’s conversations with Carl, proof that the pair would meet when she was busy at work. "She showed me pictures that I thought he’d only sent me," Rachel says now.
After 20 missed calls, Carl finally answered the phone. Rachel "blew up" and called him an "asshole". Carl immediately started apologizing and said he wanted to stay together and Rachel agreed to meet later in the week to let him "explain". A day before she was due to see him, she logged onto Reddit’s relationship advice forum.
Reddit.com/r/relationship_advice has over five million subscribers who – in the words of the community's sidebar – are "here to help!" For over 12 years, the relationship-troubled have visited this subreddit to post about everything from cheating boyfriends to unwanted pregnancies to girlfriends who pretend they are cats. Like any popular place, r/relationship_advice has its own mythology. One cliché: Redditors here – and on similar subs r/relationships and r/AmItheAsshole – are extremely quick to tell you to "dump them".
Plenty of varied circumstances ignite Reddit’s fanaticism for dumping. Can’t agree on a prenup? Dump him! She’s a picky eater? Deal breaker! Girlfriend not back from a night out? Don’t worry about her safety! Get rid! All of this raises a couple of crucial questions: who takes this advice and what happens when they do?
Rachel has always enjoyed lurking on Reddit’s relationship advice forums so when Carl cheated on her, she decided it was time to make her own post. "I felt like I could go to Reddit because if I had gone to my friends, I would have gotten their biased opinion," she explains. While the solution to her problem might seem obvious to some, Rachel posted because she was truly at a loss.
"Part of me did want [the Redditors] to tell me to end it, I guess to get the validation that it’s okay to," she says. "But I also was willing to stay with him and I wanted to be with him. So if people told me that I’d be able to work it out, I probably would have thought more so that we could."
Only eight Redditors responded to Rachel – some asked for more information about her relationship, others left gentle questions for Rachel to ask herself, one went with the short and not-so-sweet: "You break up now or you break up later." Rachel was particularly struck by one response: "The only advice I could give you is to break up, because it’s clear he doesn’t even love and respect you enough to keep it in his pants." Combined, the comments left Rachel certain of what she had to do – she broke up with Carl via text.
"Because a bunch of strangers were saying ‘Don’t do this to yourself’, it kind of – this is the worst way of wording it – but it made me have the balls to just like, end it," Rachel says. "I think that I would have stayed with him longer if people on Reddit weren’t telling me to break up with him."
From start to finish, Rachel’s relationship with Carl lasted just three months so perhaps it’s no surprise that she was swayed by strangers on the internet. But r/relationship_advice also has plenty of apparent divorce stories. "Dump them" might be a regular refrain but the quality of advice before and after these words varies dramatically, meaning sometimes people are prepared to leave longer term partners after reading Reddit comments.
Because a bunch of strangers were saying 'Don't do this to yourself', it kind of – this is the worst way of wording it – but it made me have the balls to just like, end it.
Amber* is in her early 20s and broke up with her boyfriend of almost three years after posting on Reddit. She says that internet strangers helped her recognize that he was being emotionally abusive.
"It made me finally confront it," Amber explains. "I couldn’t ignore all those people describing it as abuse. When there’s dozens of people telling you how fucked up it is, it’s kind of hard to be like, 'Oh, well.'"
Amber’s Reddit post detailed an incident that occurred when she was out shopping with her then boyfriend. Before they entered the store, Amber told him she’d buy him a gift but when they reached the checkout, she forgot and he paid for himself angrily. He stormed out to the car, "aggressively" throwing his change on the shop floor before yelling and swearing at Amber, speeding and repeatedly blaring the car’s horn. In the past, he had thrown and broken objects a couple of times in her presence.
"Sometimes I even go back to that post. Just because I do feel in my head like, 'Was it really that bad?'" Amber says. "I was being pretty objective but I think people could see what was happening was abuse. And I go back to that post and go through the comments sometimes when I doubt my perception."
There are nearly 100 comments on Amber’s post, including her replies. Before posting on Reddit, Amber excused her boyfriend’s angry outbursts because he had mental health issues. "One of the big things that pushed me to follow through with breaking up with this person was that people were explaining it doesn’t matter if [his abuse] was intentional or not, it literally doesn’t. Because you don’t have to put up with someone’s abuse even if you don’t think they’re a bad person deep down."
Rachel and Amber appreciated getting advice from people who’d been in similar situations in the past but of course there’s no real way of knowing who was telling them what to do. "I don’t think I really could put faces to anyone. If I did, it would be off of their usernames – none of them had very good ones," Rachel laughs when asked who she imagined was replying to her (one commenter’s username included "peepee", another’s was to do with "grabbin butts").
When I undertook a survey of r/AmItheAsshole users in 2019, I discovered that the vast majority of the sub’s users had never been married and a tenth were teens. Reddit has a (somewhat outdated) reputation for attracting young, basement-dwelling boys – are these the ideal people to go to for advice?
"I was really pleasantly surprised because when you’re anonymous, it’s so easy to just be cruel," Amber says. The comments she received were supportive and kind, with one poster sharing a story about their own ex-husband. Rachel notes that because r/relationship_advice has millions of members, there is undoubtedly a variety of ages and genders leaving comments.
Amber left her boyfriend a couple of days after posting on Reddit. Though in-depth, thoughtful comments helped her reach her decision, she was also spurred to action by simple, straightforward responses. "One of them was like, ‘You have legs, now run woman!’ or something like that, and at that point, I felt a lot of relief," Amber explains. She had posted on Reddit because she was between therapy sessions when the incident occurred. When she did see her therapist again, she actually read some of the comments she received aloud. While it’s "not the same" as having a therapist, Amber argues that relationship forums "can be a good resource" for those experiencing difficulties.
Of course, people who leave their partners after posting on Reddit may have been very likely to do so regardless. Lauren* is in her early 30s and left her partner of just under a year after posting to r/relationship_advice. Lauren’s dilemma was fairly straightforward: her boyfriend was going to pick up a free pet from a woman on Instagram but he somewhat suspiciously didn’t want Lauren to come along, saying directly that he didn’t want the woman to know he had a girlfriend.
I've stayed in contact with a few people from that post. They're like, 'Are you doing good? How are you? Don't go back to him.' Sometimes it's a daily reminder.
"He’s always been kind of secretive on his phone," Lauren explains. "He was DMing her and then for a few nights prior to [picking up the pet], he was sleeping with his phone underneath his pillow, which I thought was weird." Well over 300 Redditors commented on her post. Because Lauren’s story was so straightforward, many of the comments were too.
"Don’t get a [pet] with him. Break up with him," wrote one person. "Go with him, get your [pet], and then dump him LOL," added another. A third: "Either find a better guy or be alone. Either way, you’re better off."
Lauren posted on Reddit because "to my friends, his name is just like nails on a chalkboard." Because she had broken up with her partner briefly before, Lauren felt that her friends were tired of giving her advice. "Reddit felt more genuine, it felt more honest, because they were just seeing a little snippet of the relationship," she says. "They just saw this one problem, even this one problem was huge to everyone, when I thought it was no big deal in comparison to what else I’ve been through."
Lauren describes Reddit’s response as "1000% validating". "My friends would take my side but when strangers do it, it’s a bigger deal." Ultimately, she broke up with her boyfriend after checking his phone and seeing suggestive messages he sent to the woman on Instagram. She left that night and says Reddit stopped her going back.
"I’ve stayed in contact with a few people from that post. They’re like, ‘Are you doing good? How are you? Don't go back to him.’ Sometimes it’s a daily reminder: ‘Please don’t go back.’ And, you know, that’s been really helpful. And I wouldn’t have got that otherwise."
As relationship forum readers, Rachel, Amber and Lauren were all well aware of Redditors' reputation for saying "dump him" before they made their posts. Yet in practice, these words were more powerful than any of them thought.
"Our relationship was the kind of relationship where I felt like I could be with this person for a long time, and we had similar morals and similar things that we want to do in the future. I felt like we could have made it work out," Rachel says. "I definitely wouldn’t have come to the conclusion [to leave him] on my own because I don’t listen to my friends when they give me advice.
"Because it was people I didn’t know and they were speaking out of their experiences and their opinions, I felt like they probably knew best."
All names have been changed to protect identities