Breaking up is not only hard to do, but there’s little precedent for women being able to do it, observes Canadian journalist Kelli María Korducki. In Hard to Do: The Surprising, Feminist History of Breaking Up, Korducki examines the historical shifts that enabled women to end partnerships simply because they want to, but also how that freedom has become commodified and sold back to us through common and arguably oppressive narratives of romantic love. That our romantic lives—often framed as being freer than ever before thanks to social progress—are actually laced with advertisements to buy, buy, buy does misogyny’s bidding: We purchase our way to emotional security through a system that already economically debilitates women and non-binary people.
We’re wedded, sometimes literally, to the same societal infrastructure that pays us less and somehow expects us to lean in more. Wage gap and job discrimination aside, the imperative to be coupled filters through the pop culture in corporately magnified ways. All of Korducki’s analysis comes back to the central premise: to end a relationship can be a singularly feminist act.
Her own decision to end a long-term relationship for “reasons that felt trivial” is how she opens her book, but she finishes over a hundred of pages and about a hundred years of history away. All these flashpoints—the enduring phenomenon of the fuckboy, the growing class of working women at the turn of the century, and the evolution of the term “date”—have informed our ability to end partnerships, even if our families, cultural norms, and the economy don’t want us to.
Korducki and I emailed about wedding content, the “urge to merge” among queer women, and what questions she asks herself as a feminist under capitalism. Our interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
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JEZEBEL: This reads like a book that was not so much prompted by heartbreak but by a need for a resource and a historical framing of romantic relationships that does not exist. Tell me I’m wrong.
KELLI MARIA KORDUCKI: You’re not wrong! If anything, the breakup I write about in the book made it super clear that the way we think about romantic partnership and family formation is a reflection of outdated expectations that don’t really serve many of us anymore.
At the heart of your book is this revelation that women and other marginalized genders can break up with “stable and decent partners,” which you frame as having a historical ascension that mirrors feminism or increasing rights for women. Yet, you write that “women and femmes of any orientation” struggle with being able to call off a relationship simply because they aren’t in love anymore or without “a good reason.” Why isn’t not wanting to be with a partner still deemed not a good enough reason and who is complicit in this messaging?
As long as we live within a capitalist patriarchy, breaking up is never going to be as simple as “do I still want to be here?” Just the other day I was chatting with a friend who casually mentioned that she and her husband have joint bank accounts and it gave me a literal jolt of panic. To me, the thought of financial interdependence with a male partner feels almost viscerally constricting — not because I don’t trust my own partner or have ever experienced anything even approaching financial abuse (quite the contrary!), but because financial independence continues to be the cornerstone of our ability as women and people of marginalized gender identities to have any choices at all. It’s not a nice thought to sit with, but it’s the reality of why we partner the way we do—not just because we love, but because we need to be secure.
Some of us may have access to the means to be able to strike out on our own if we’re no longer “in love,” but that was not likely the case for our mothers or aunties or grandmothers, or maybe even our big sisters. We don’t have much of a framework for weighing our options, nor do we have any model for what to do instead. Couple that with the predominant messaging we receive in pop culture about the kinds of relationships worth leaving—basically, just the ones that are explicitly abusive and capped off with a cheerful boy, bye!—and it seems pretty weird to want to leave a relationship, especially one with a man, if the other party isn’t a total dickweed. A Good Man is hard to find, we’re constantly reminded. Is that wrong? Maybe not, but this attitude certainly helps us keep the bar nice and low for would-be paramours.
You write that “Romantic love in a long-term partnership was, itself, invented alongside the market economy” and qualify that women of your particular generation are “pioneers” of reconciling capitalistic influences with genuine freedoms our female ancestors did not have surrounding partnership. How does this tension manifest in just day-to-day relationship messaging? Across culture and other forms of media?
Like you point out, it’s important to acknowledge the frustratingly ambiguous interplay between capitalism and women’s social freedoms. That ambiguity is kind of at the core of our romantic conundrums—and a whole lot of our other existential dilemmas, too! On the one hand, there’s a very strong argument for crediting the market economy with any and all independence we might have as not-cis-white-dudes in society, full stop, let alone our freedom to partner because we love someone—and not because we’ll be socially rejected and destitute if we don’t. On the other hand, capitalism propels a false narrative of empowerment that is directly linked to economic gain, climbing the corporate ladder, and that toxic, gendered falsehood of “having it all.” Work hard enough, gals, and you too can enjoy freedoms historically enjoyed only by a small, mostly-white-and-male sliver of the global populace! Or, at least, partner with someone who can help bring you materially closer to your Best Life.
Throw in the fact that we’re constantly reminded by pop culture, media, and our own misadventures on Tinder that it can be hard to find a partner who doesn’t suck, especially if we are people who date men. If you’re not the type of person who’s wholly romantically satisfied by “well, dude is employed and seems nice enough,” it can be hard to figure out where you belong or what you should seek out in love and companionship. We’re writing the script of personal priorities in real time.
Because the job market values women less than men—and because of ample narratives about women and non-binary people only have romantic value as younger people—you observe that the economic imperatives on relationships are still in full swing. Yet, the commodity of romantic love still seems to wholly eclipse this reality in the U.S. Although romantic love has been culturally positioned as a choice, I sometimes get the sense that—with corporations dictating that message—it’s just more “shoulds” slung at women couched in Valentine’s Day roses. How can we look to the past to reconcile this? Or should we?
Since the advent of dating at the turn of the twentieth century, commodity exchange has always been central to the performance of romantic love. The commodity of female beauty, sex, and companionship traded in for, say, a nice dinner at a restaurant or movie tickets. That sounds super cynical and maybe even a little reactionary, I know, but I think we have to be honest about the enduring prevalence of these dynamics in order to better interrogate our own values. We still place so much value on the demonstration of love through the purchase of goods and services and, historically, there has been a tremendous pragmatic impetus for doing so. There still often is! So let’s talk about it.
I feel like I get a real window into this dissonance whenever I look at wedding magazines or any sort of wedding content online. Finances are one of the top reasons for divorce in the U.S., and yet when you step into curated content on this decision, it’s all about the event itself—not necessarily the long-term impact. I see a little bit of deviation here in the States as quizzes about “should you get a prenup or not” get thrown into the Pinterest algorithm, but considering that legal marriage is the biggest personal financial decision you will ever make, I don’t see a lot in my country addressing the decision in that context.
I mean, where’s the article that’s like, “should you accept your partner’s proposal if they have fucked up credit score?” Not surprisingly, it’s on Forbes. But my point is, it should be on The Knot. Do you observe a similar dissonance in Canada?
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that “weddings” are a much shinier and more written-about subject than “marriage.” Marriage is an unsexy thing; it’s a verb, and it’s work. It’s intimate and many-layered. It’s private. Weddings, on the other hand, are these colorful festivals of capitalist consumption. And I don’t think anyone who’s actually had one would disagree with me! There’s a set of social expectations and real pressure around what a wedding should look like and contain, and the result is a more or less homogenous celebration that cost the people involved (and their guests!) a lot of money.
Yet even wedding budgets are likelier to be a subject of discussion than the actual financial implications of marriage itself, probably because talking about the long-term material consequences threatens to erase the sparkle of an event we’re taught is romantic and heart-driven above all else, the most beautiful and important day of our lives.
But to answer your question, there are currently more cohabitating unmarried couples in Canada than in the U.S. I suspect that has less to do with social priorities and values than the fact that Canada recognizes common-law partnerships as basically the same, legally, as civil marriages. Among those who do marry, the spectacle is more or less the same and there are a lot of magazines dedicated to it.
One of the ways you complicate “romantic love as a choice,” however, is when you get into marriages between enslaved people in the Antebellum south—which was a radical assertion of humanity in a system that did not deem them worthy of legal marriage. Why is that historically important to keep in mind when critiquing marriage and commodified love circa now?
In my research I came across an explanation of Antebellum attitudes toward slave marriage that was something to the effect of “Slaves couldn’t own property; they were property. Do chairs get married?” It’s a chilling comparison—we’re talking about human beings, after all—but it also reminds us that the institution of marriage was and is, primarily and practically, about two things: kinship and inheritance.
[Enslaved people] in the Antebellum South were often denied agency over their family structures and didn’t have things like livestock and property to pass along to their children yet, in perhaps a purer and more immaterial sense, they married (albeit, informally) for the same reasons as everyone else: to build families and to pass along culture and values. Marriage was an act of survival. Fast forward to the here and now, where humanity isn’t defined by the presence or absence of a spouse nor the ability to legally obtain one, and it kind of makes a person think a little harder about why we approach love and marriage the way that we do.
Although queer women have had to traditionally construct relationships and communities outside mainstream society and courting practices, you suggest in your book that the lesbian “urge to merge” tendency also has the capacity to corral women into serious commitments they are not ready for. You cite a journalist who suggests that the “urge to merge” is also trauma-based, in that serial monogamy for queer women was safer. How has, as you put, “writing off a whole gender,” straight men in this instance, when it comes to dysfunctional relationship dynamics, actually further isolated these communities?
A relationship is a relationship, which is to say that even (especially?) the healthiest intimate relationship is hard-ass work. That’s true irrespective of gender. But our cultural tendency to blame relationship woes on a defunct gender (straight cis men) and/or the people who love them (the women who keep falling for the wrong guy) does nobody any favors. Binary, declarative language about gender roles AND about civil institutions like marriage presumes that cultural norms are inherent inevitabilities instead of the product of received wisdom and learned behavior. Marginalized communities stand to lose the most from that line of thinking because the rules were not written with them in mind.
I appreciate throughout your book the assessment of capitalism and what it has ultimately asked of mainstream feminists who participate in the broader culture. You observe, “Patriarchy doesn’t need capitalism, the argument goes, but capitalism does need patriarchy.” I feel like that should go on a pillow, but not in the Etsy sense of the word. So many feminists I know, of all genders, are currently grappling with this in the practice of our politics. What questions are you asking yourself as you navigate this?
All of the questions, tbh. But the one I’m thinking about a lot about in my personal life these days is the idea of “having it all” (which I hate, a lot) with regard to family-work balance. I have the liberties I do because of my participation in the workforce. If I wanted to have kids, but maintain my relative independence, I would have to offload the daytime care of my child onto low-paid workers at a daycare or in my home—people who by virtue of their jobs would not be afforded the social, let alone literal, capital that I would likely receive for doing my much easier work of writing and editing. With the exception of people whose partners have given up their careers to become full-time caregivers, every time we celebrate a “SheEO” or whatever for climbing the corporate ladder while also being a mom, we’re tacitly denigrating the staff who make her achievements possible behind the scenes.
This is the biggest trap of both capitalism and patriarchy, but it’s one I can’t really figure out how to reconcile with the life I want to live unless I choose to opt out of building a nuclear family. Thinking a lot these days about what that could look like.