There's a famous saying: "There is no hierarchy of suffering." This feels especially true of breakups, the great equalizer. We can't always predict how they’ll affect us, or correlate the length of the relationship with the agony we might feel. However, there is something distinct about lesbian breakups, I think, as someone who identifies as one. Not worse, but different. From daunting media depictions of sapphic heartbreak through to familial and societal homophobia, there are lots of reasons why lesbian breakups can be particularly difficult or isolating. Yet there is a lot changing in the world to mean that, increasingly, this doesn’t have to be the case.
When I was a teenager (the late 2000s) and began to understand that I was attracted to women, I felt like I was the only one in the world. In my school, no one was in a lesbian relationship or expressed same-sex desires. There were a few depictions of lesbians in the media but definitely not of anyone my age, and social media had only just come into existence. When I met my first girlfriend at 18 — who, incidentally, was the first out lesbian I ever met — it felt like the impossible was becoming possible. Our relationship was a reality that I had privately dreamed about but which seemed out of reach. Which is one reason, I think, that I was so bereft when we broke up a year later.
Like all first loves, it felt like something that I had waited so long for was shattered. Making things worse was the fact that I felt unsure if I’d get it again. In the years that followed, I seemed to adopt a pattern that proved this to be true: falling in love with girls who identified as straight. Some were not out as bisexual or gay yet and I watched, in real time, as they went through the difficulties that I went through as a teenager, from confusion to shame. Some made it through to the other side and we dated; others told me that they just weren’t into girls. This compounded the feeling that something was inherently wrong with me. Every time it happened, I felt doomed — like the pool was too small, like there just weren’t that many gay girls out there. Unlike the straight world, where you can assume that most people are also straight, LGBTQ+ people (more so then) made up a small percentage of the population and so lesbians seemed in short supply.
There are old stereotypes: lesbians move in with one another too quickly, we're already going out with a new partner before breaking up with the last. But even if the stereotypes are true of some lesbians, do they have to be a bad thing? Why wait around to commit?
I was not alone in feeling like this, ironically. Sara, 24, grew up in Birmingham where she didn’t know any other queer people, meaning the pool felt not just small but nonexistent. As a pansexual person, she is potentially attracted to anyone of any gender but has had mostly same-sex relationships. She remembers that, as a young, queer person of color specifically, it was rare to see a depiction of other QTPOC (queer and trans people of color) in a relationship, let alone a healthy one. The depictions of lesbian relationships she did see were intense — Blue Is The Warmest Colour being a prime example — and left her feeling like breakups were always going to be dramatic or agonizing. "It was constantly in the back of my mind, that this trauma was inevitable down the line," she recalls now. "I think you internalize that. And then when a breakup happens, the inevitability feels manifest."
Daisy Jones, the author of All The Things She Said, agrees that the media has cultivated a certain stereotype about lesbian relationships. "I think the media — and music in particular — often portrays breakups between women as this devastating event, with a lot of longing, obsession, and regret after the fact. Take the MUNA song 'Everything', where the chorus is like 'Everything's about you to me!' That to me is the perennial WLW (women who love women) breakup song — tragic, obsessive, wallowing in it. Obviously breakup songs are as old as time and there are millions of straight artists who write tragic songs about breakups also. But I think it's less common to hear a WLW breakup song that's like 'Woo, I'm single!' or, say, a queer version of 'Thank U, Next'."
For Daisy, what can make a lesbian breakup so difficult — and perhaps the subject of so much misery art — is that women can quite easily 'enmesh' in relationships. "I'm generalizing obviously," she qualifies, "but your partner can very easily become your family and best friend too. I see straight couples and they only have nights out with their separate gendered friend groups and are really quite separate entities. I think it's fairly stereotypical for women to become each other's everything relatively quickly, which makes it hard to then pull away. You're not just leaving your partner behind, you're leaving your whole support system, family, way of life."
This feels especially true for Sara. "I think the intensity of the breakup circles back to who do you turn to? My family circumstance was difficult in that dating was taboo, and culturally you didn’t talk about that." This meant that discussions of a same-sex breakup were off the table.
According to Nicholas Rose, a psychotherapist working particularly with people in queer relationships, it is common for queer people to feel distant from their families during a breakup due to shame or lack of acceptance. Plus, if your own family does not accept your sexuality, then you might have formed a strong bond with your partner’s, only to lose that when you break up too, he adds.
Rose sees this as contributing to feelings of isolation that might already exist. "There’s less research and understanding around the psychology of these relationships and the unique pressures that can be felt," he says. This is seen in wider society: How do other people do things when it's not talked about as much? It might be that queer women don't have a strong network of other queer women who they can talk to, while men in same-sex relationships tend to have a bigger pool of literature, information, and media to call upon. "What often causes emotional distress is our struggle to process things and part of being able to process things is understanding how other people navigate things," says Rose. "[For example:] 'That hurts but that was supposed to hurt' as opposed to 'Is that something everyone experiences or is that about me?'"
With all of this to contend with, it begins to feel understandable that statistics show that lesbian marriages — above heterosexual marriages and gay marriages — end in the highest divorce rates. Articles online frustratingly point to old stereotypes as a potential reason for this: that lesbians move in with one another too quickly, that we’re already going out with our next partner while we are still going out with the last person. But even if the stereotypes are true of some lesbians, do they have to be a bad thing? Why wait around to commit? Queer people have never followed expected timelines of when we should get married or have kids, for example, because we haven’t traditionally been given access to them. The lesbian U-Haul stereotype of moving in with a partner quickly could just be another example of us finding our own way of doing things. So could the higher divorce rate. Why stay if you're unhappy? If you’re doing so because you think it’s what society expects of you or what a marriage dictates, then perhaps it’s better to move on.
The world is a huge place ... I go on nights out and see people that I've never seen before in my life. The real world isn't The L Word. Which I think is a comforting thought.
The lesbian world is not the same place it was 10 years ago, when I was coming out, and the underlying reasons that lesbian breakups hit differently back then are gradually changing. To start with, we know that more people are coming out as queer or sexually fluid, meaning that 'the pool' is technically getting bigger. "The world is a huge place and there are so many girls out there — too many, in fact," jokes Daisy. "I go on nights out and see people that I've never seen before in my life. The real world isn't The L Word. Which I think is a comforting thought."
There are also more and better depictions of lesbian relationships in the media. "I think the representation of WLW relationships in general has become a whole lot sexier and cooler over the past half-decade or so and that things aren't quite as morbid or miserable as they used to be," she says. "Videos like 'Gone' by Christine and Charli, or St. Vincent in full latex, King Princess on the cover of Playboy, TV shows like Euphoria and Betty, they show we're not always in the middle of a crisis, or crying, or heartbroken," she laughs. "I think the past few years have really evolved in terms of challenging these old, two-dimensional visions of what lesbian/bi relationships, and consequentially breakups, look like."
As for what to do when you have a breakup — there is now queer Instagram and TikTok, points out Sara. "We talk about queer relationships and whether they’re more intense, and the proof is in the fact that there are meme accounts entirely about lesbian breakups," she says. "They are built on mutual understanding, that’s the reason it goes viral." There’s a kind of ‘togetherness’ in this, particularly on TikTok, she says. "They tell you everything, from the person they dated to how the breakup went down and the comments say, ‘Yeah this has happened to me’. There’s a culture around it." When you’re not out to your family or friends, it creates a network of people you can discuss your breakup with. "Perhaps it’s my algorithm but I often see QTPOC — and particularly brown queer people — posting about their heartache, and the comments become spaces of community, where people try to support them."
QueerTok, she concludes, has become its own universe of queer community and acceptance. "Queer spaces can be physical — and that’s great — but people might live at home, or with their parents, or in a small place where there is no one to talk to. The internet can be a space to process all of it." A space where — maybe — lesbian breakups are getting a bit less heartbreaking and tragic.