August 08, 2022

The End of Ending Relationships

Cornelia Mayr PhotoBy Cornelia Mayr

Department of Sociology, University of Klagenfurt, Austria

My colleague and I recently spoke about our experience with death. He asked me whether I have ever seen a dead person in real life. My answer was yes and so did he. Our experiences with death led us to talk about the opportunity to say goodbye to a loved one for the last time.

How often do we say goodbye, see you, so long, ciao, adieu, adios, sayonara, auf Wiedersehen, to our family members, friends, or acquaintance--mostly with the taken-for-granted assumption that we will meet another time? In fact, the German word auf Wiedersehen literally means until we see each other again. But what if we won’t be able to see this person again or do not want to? Do we always part our ways harmoniously? If you had known that you will never see a person close to you again, how would you have said goodbye?

These questions may inspire a sociology lesson on how people end relationships. We can ask and think about the ways people end relationships, stop having contact with someone or leave a social occasion; how the pattern of ending a relationship helps us to understand the nature of people and their relationship to each other, depending on age, gender, culture, ethnicity, or hierarchies; if and why we might say goodbye to a human, but when, if ever, do we say goodbye to an animal, or perhaps more unlikely to an object.

How do people express farewell non-verbally? How long does it take people to leave a conversation or an occasion and finally say goodbye? What are the social hints that tell us the time to say goodbye? In other words, when is the right and wrong moment to bid farewell?

A modern form of breaking up or dissolving relationships is the phenomenon of ghosting. Ghosting can refer to the act of leaving a social gathering or a person or moving away without notice and goodbyes. The term can also mean to suddenly stop and cut off all communication after having initial contact. Like a ghost, the person seems to vanish into thin air – metaphorically speaking.

Sociology may not only help us understand the social implications of saying goodbye, but also why someone would choose not to do so. Erving Goffman explained why people might or might not want to experience a leave-taking situation by referring to the rituals of interaction. Both greetings and farewells, as Goffman argued, “are ritual displays that mark a change in degree of access” (p. 79). He continues, “once a farewell occurs, departure is likely” and the access or contact to the person is broken temporarily or permanently (p. 85).

In other words, farewell conduct and saying goodbye can help determine the end of a conversation, relationship, or an occasion. However, closing salutations in vain, in the wrong situation or at the wrong time could disrupt social order in a way as to upset interaction. A “twinge of

anomie” results and can happen, for instance, when someone returns unexpectedly after saying goodbye and leaving the room (p. 88).

Both making farewells and the orderly participation in the relationship game could also be seen as a practice of what Lynn Jamieson called “doing intimacy.” Although a “Goodbye,” perhaps accompanied by “Have a nice day,” “Wish you all the best,” or “See you” breaks the contact between people and leaves them to go separate ways, it might simultaneously develop a sense of closeness. Thinking of farewell rituals as practices of intimacy, we can also look at the emotional effort sometimes needed to say goodbye and how those expressed or repressed feelings affect and are affected by the strength/weakness of the relational bond.

The absence of the farewell ritual an when communication is abruptly ended, as it occurs in the case of ghosting, could be seen as a strategy applied to avoid direct confrontation, emotional expenses, intimate closeness or instances that would spoil the ritual of farewell.  Such strategies are explored in Carol Smart’s accounts of secrecy, Ashley Barnwell’s study of dishonesty, and Susie Scott’s on deception. Scott, for instance, discussed the beneficial outcomes we may achieve from purposefully hiding the truth, as this deceptive behavior would “gloss over the cracks of strained relations and contribute to the smooth orchestration of everyday life” (p. 275). Like keeping things secret, the act of ghosting might equally mask the potential disruption of interaction order. Consequently, wishing somebody farewell can be considered a practice to develop close bonds, just as ending (or not?) a relationship with someone by withdrawing from all communication.

Whether we say goodbye or not, farewell conduct is more than just an observation in social interaction. It entails complex relationships of people, norms, values, social relations, and the ways these interdependencies are created and recreated as well as understood and interpreted in everyday social life. Having said that, “I never really had the chance to say goodbye” might perhaps be given a new meaning. So, if you choose (not) to say goodbye, how do you know when and which leave-taking strategy is the socially optimal option?


if anyone also feels to help the poor communities and to change the situation in rural areas.

When we consider farewell rituals as practices of intimacy, we can also consider the emotional labor that is sometimes required to say goodbye, as well as the ways in which the feelings that are either expressed or repressed affect and are affected by the robustness or frailty of the relational bond.

Ending relationships can be emotional and challenging experiences for those involved, as they may have invested time, emotions, and effort into the relationship.

It is interesting to reflect on the significance of goodbyes and the assumptions we make about future meetings with loved ones. The German phrase "auf Wiedersehen" highlights the expectation of seeing each other again.

This article is a real mind-bender! It's like trying to navigate one of those "Slope" games, where you think you're heading in one direction, but then suddenly the path changes. It's got me thinking about how relationships evolve, and how the 'end' might not always be the end. Thanks for this thought-provoking piece! Now, if only I could navigate my own relationships as smoothly as that ball rolls down the track...

This article really got me thinking! It's like those "Slope" games where you think you're headed for a crash, but then suddenly the path shifts and you're back on track. It makes me question how we define the end of relationships, and how those endings can sometimes lead to new beginnings. Thanks for the food for thought!

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