Sex & Relationships

Breaking Up is Hard To Do, But Procrastinating Doesn't Make It Easier

Why do we often delay the inevitable until after some proverbial deadline?

Photo Credit: Chamelon's Eye/Shutterstock

In many parts of the world, January is cold – and it’s not just the weather. The start of a new year seems to encourage people to find themselves anew ... and single.

Facebook data suggests that a spike in break-ups starts two weeks prior to Christmas. In January, divorce filings go up 10%, and divorce inquiries spike 25%. People seem to make it to the end of the holiday season and then decide Hey, this isn’t working – or, perhaps worse, that it hasn’t been working for long enough to finally do something about it.

But why does this happen? Why do we consistently wait until arguably the worst time of year to decide to break-up? Perhaps we are all a bunch of procrastinators who wait until some proverbial deadline – the end of the year – to finally make a change.

For decades, Dr Joseph Ferrari, a professor of psychology at DePaul University in Chicago, Illinois and the author of Still Procrastinating: The No Regrets Guide to Getting It Done, has been studying people’s procrastination habits. He says that procrastination is more prevalent in people than substance abuse or depression.

“Everybody procrastinates, but not everyone is a procrastinator,” he told me recently.

Over the years, Ferrari has found that everyone engages in some level of procrastination – and a shocking 20 to 25% of Americans are deemed “chronic procrastinators” who put off everything. He believes that procrastination is so rampant is not because procrastinators are lazy – he actually believes they’re quite clever and smart because they are able to invent new reasons to not do something so often – but rather because they have a fear of failure.

Procrastination, he told me, communicates to those around us that we could accomplish whatever task at-hand (like end a relationship ... or make one work), but we have other reasons for not doing so beyond a lack of ability. To show that we lack the ability to do something difficult would have a negative impact on what Ferrari calls our “social esteem”, and thus we’d run the risk of looking like failures to those around us.

He said, “One of the things I have been able to show is that [procrastination] is heavily related to social esteem protection”, or the concern with the ways the other people view us.

“Procrastinators are very concerned with what other people think about them.”

So it makes sense that someone might barrel through the holidays in a relationship they want out of: their social esteem is at risk.

Going home – especially if you don’t go home often – can be quite stressful because your family will be asking lots of questions about your life, including, most frighteningly How are things going in your love life?.

If you’re already in a relationship, the pressure to stay in a relationship until after the holidays is real. So you wait – you procrastinate.

Beyond personal procrastination, there’s something about the start of a new year that often triggers people to make changes – most commonly in the form of resolutions, which we peg to the start of new year even when we could simply change our actions at any time. This form of premeditated waiting-to-change is tied to what Dr Tim Pychyl, a professor of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, calls “cultural procrastination”.

“The reason why I call it cultural procrastination is that you and I may start thinking about our New Year’s resolutions in the fall,” he told me. “You know, I am going to start exercising more, but I am going to wait until January. There is some absurdity in that.”

You don’t wake up on 1 January and think, Oh, I am going to lose some weight. Like a break-up, you think about it for some time in advance and just use the beginning of a new year as the point where you actually do anything about it.

But relationships – or their end – are not just New Year’s resolutions: there is another person, with feelings, in a relationship. And while waiting until after the ball drops to end to a commitment you’ve been wanting out of for a while might feel like the right thing to do, the other person in your relationship might not see it that way, and it’s his or her broken heart that matters more than whether you have to tell your mother you’re single or whether a new year seems like a “good time” to end things.

January is cold enough as it is without finding out your December was a lie.


Zach Stafford is a writer currently living in Chicago. He is the co-editor of Boys, An Anthology. Follow him on Twitter at @zachstafford.

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