The Etch a Sketch Effect Will Explain Every Breakup You’ve Ever Had

A few years ago, during the height of our very first pandemic summer, my roommate’s boyfriend broke up with her—over Zoom, let it be known!—for no apparent reason.

Sure, he’d recently moved back in with his parents, and yeah, the pandemic had been, shall we say, a little weird for all of us. But what did any of that have to do with their relationship, which had seemed to be going just fine? For my friend, it had even been a comforting source of stability during what were then known as “unprecedented times.” (Were we ever so young?!) Why would her boyfriend want to dump the one normal thing in his life leftover from the pre-pandemic days when everything else was already so chaotic?

That night over seven tequila sodas, (which, BTW, is the mathematically correct number of tequila sodas to consume in the immediate aftermath of heartbreak) I explained to my roommate that she’d been yet another victim of the Etch a Sketch Effect. I’d seen it many times, and yes, truth be told, I’d even been Etch a Sketched myself once or twice.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, it’s because I made it up. But I’d be willing to bet that you, yourself, have been Etch a Sketched a time or two. Allow me to explain.

Uh, so what is the Etch a Sketch Effect?

In case it’s been a minute since you Etched your last Sketch, here’s a quick refresher on how this beloved pediatrician’s office waiting room staple works. Actually, it occurs to me that I have no idea how an Etch a Sketch really works, but the important part is there’s no “backspace.” If one little aspect of your design doesn’t go according to plan, you have to shake the entire thing and start from scratch.

This, from what I’ve gathered, is what men—or, fine, some men—seem to do with their entire lives every time one thing goes wrong (probably because they were never taught to process emotion in a healthy way, but we’ll come back to that). Thus, the Etch a Sketch Effect refers to that thing guys do when something in their life goes awry and they end up breaking up with you for no apparent reason, or at least for reasons that seem to have nothing to do with your relationship. Trouble at work? Your dude breaks up with you. Dog dies? Sorry babe, he’s probably gonna break up with you. Essentially, he shakes the Etch a Sketch of his life to correct one small error and ends up erasing everything—including your relationship.

While this particular metaphor may be one I made up, I have it on good authority that this is, in fact, a thing.

“This is something I see all the time,” says psychotherapist Rachel Sussman, a New York City-based relationship expert and founder of Sussman Counseling. According to Sussman, Etch a Sketching a relationship is usually, on some level, an attempt to regain control when things feel chaotic. Something bad has happened—a death, a work problem, or, say, a viral pandemic—that feels out of your partner’s control, “so they try to blow up their life,” says Sussman. Essentially, they’re trying to reclaim a sense of authority over their lives by “firing things and people that they can control.” Unfortunately, that tends to mean that your otherwise stable relationship ends up on the chopping block.

Now, to all my “Not All Men” folks out there, I hear you. Personally, I believe that women can do anything men can, including blow up our relationships for no reason. That’s what feminism is all about, baby! (It’s not.) That said, there is some (expert-backed!) reason to believe this breakup behavior really is more of a guy thing.

“I absolutely see this being more common among men than women,” says breakup and relationship coach Natalia Juarez, founder of Lovistics. According to Juarez, the main reason men tend to pull this move is because, as we all know, men aren’t generally socialized to express and process their emotions, leaving most dudes out here operating on a lower level of emotional intelligence than their female counterparts (sorry, boys).

“I think this behavior is more common among men than women because men have a more difficult time processing emotion and compartmentalizing,” says relationship expert Rori Sassoon, co-founder of match-making company Platinum Poire. While women’s advanced EQ (*brag*) may find us expertly juggling simultaneous stressors and making it look easy, a comparable lack of coping skills is more likely to send men running for the nearest exit, even if they don’t really know why.

For some guys, it might also be a matter of pride. Thanks to, oh IDK, several centuries or so of social conditioning, many men have internalized the idea that showing emotion is a sign of weakness. For some, this means they’d rather make a break for it than let their partner see them struggling.

Then there’s the fact that the stressor in these situations is often financial or work-related, as Juarez points out. Sure, women get stressed about work too (maybe you’ve heard of a little thing called burnout). But, again, thanks to all that societal conditioning, men tend to see themselves as “providers,” which means they can take work stuff a little more personally.

“I think a lot of men really define themselves by their jobs and the kind of money they’re making,” says Sussman. “When that’s not going well, they kind of spiral.” Pair that work-related spiral with an underdeveloped EQ and an inability to compartmentalize, and your boyfriend’s work problem just became your relationship problem. Congrats!

Is there anything you can do to stop your man from pulling an Etch a Sketch?

Look, is it men’s fault that they were born into a society that actively discourages them from even having feelings in the first place, let alone processing them? Eh, not necessarily. (Some might argue that men are suffering under a patriarchal hell scape of their own making, but we don’t have time to get into that right now!) But is it still a little frustrating and inconvenient for those of us who would rather not have our relationships upended by uncontrollable events in someone else’s life that have literally nothing to do with said relationship? Why yes, yes, it is!

Unfortunately, there’s really not much you can do to stop a guy from shaking things up once he’s got that Etch a Sketch gripped in his anxious, confused man hands. According to Sussman, all you can do is try to be aware of the warning signs and offer support if you know the man in your life is going through it.

That said, it’s not your job to single-handedly save a relationship that someone else is willing to blow up because of problems in their own life. Remember, you can bring a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink it. (In this case, the horse is your boyfriend and drinking water is going to therapy instead of throwing away a perfectly good relationship for no reason.)

Haters gonna hate, Etches gonna Sketch, and dudes are sometimes gonna break up with you because of stuff that has absolutely nothing to do with you. To paraphrase an occasionally problematic fave, “He’s just a man, it’s just what they do.” If a man wants to treat you and your relationship like a literal toy, I say let him shake that board like the child he is and move on to more mature playmates.

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