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The Agony of Watching a Bad Relationship Movie When You’re About to Break Up

In Spanish, we have an expression: trágame tierra. It’s a plea for earth to swallow you whole, spoken during a moment of excruciating, soul-crushing embarrassment. A lot of languages have a similar expression, but perhaps because Spanish is my native tongue and the expression is so visual and full of supplication, it’s always resonated more with me. Especially in the moments when I’ve uttered it under my breath or in my head.

There’s a very specific type of agony being in a relationship with someone and knowing the end is near, regardless of whether you still love the person or not. Things are over, but neither of you have fully acknowledged it, creating a cloud of doom that floats above your heads every time you look at each other and weakly ask “what should we eat for dinner?” when what you really want to say is “this is over, go eat dinner literally anywhere else forever please.” And never is that agony so visceral, so painfully awkward, than when you’re together on the couch watching a movie where the main characters are in the same exact position as you are, fighting the same fight, struggling to accept the same ending. Trágame tierra.

There are plenty of movies that fuel this sort of hellish experience: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Waiting to Exhale, 500 Days of Summer, Blue Valentine, Marriage Story, Blue is the Warmest Color, Revolutionary Road, In the Mood for Love, or the more on-the-nose The Break-Up. Netflix should strongly consider having a section of their home screen labeling movies You Definitely Should Not Watch If You’re About to Break Up.

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Imagine cuddling up for what you expect to be a delightful Nancy Meyers night with someone you’re casually dating (though you want more). They seem into you, but have been reluctant to define the relationship, and pretty soon it’s going to be make or break time. And then here comes notorious playboy Jack Nicholson in Something’s Gotta Give, refusing to let go of his non-committal ways, leaving Diane Keaton crying outside a restaurant confessing her love to him after catching old Jack on a date with a hot, young babe. Brutal. Also, good luck pivoting to a chill conversation after that!

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The heartbreak in those movies and so many others are part of what makes them resonate on a deep, gut-wrenching level. Especially with those of us who’ve been in the characters’ exact shoes. And watching them during those final days or weeks of a relationship has a way of hitting you in a harsh albeit cathartic way. It stings like a dodgeball to the face. Sometimes it feels like a cosmic prank when your relationship struggles and the movie you’re watching align at the worst possible moment, and sometimes it feels like the exact thing you need to see to admit to yourself that it’s really over. Maybe watching Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind‘s Clementine and Joel attempt to have a polite interaction as the tapes of Joel trashing her play in the background is the universal sign telling you it’s time to move on, because perhaps the qualities your partner once thought were cute and quirky about you they now also see as a fault, or vice versa.

I recently thought about this when discussing the Netflix film Malcolm & Marie with my colleague Kristin Corry, who wrote about the main characters’ brutal, neverending arguing. It’s “not the film that is setting you up for a picture-perfect Valentine’s Day with your sweetheart,” she wrote. She’s definitely right. It’s also certainly not the movie to watch when your relationship is bumpier than the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland. And yet, I’ve found myself in that exact situation on a number of occasions, and every time it feels like I swallowed a handful of cotton balls. As the pain of your actual relationship plays out on screen, those cotton balls get bigger, and tighter, and more suffocating. You start to sweat a bit, and feel your cheeks get hot. Then someone chokes out a “Well, this is awkward” in an attempt to cut the tension, which has never worked in the history of humankind. It’s gutting, and it hurts, and creates anxiety or hostility that is impossible to ignore—and yet you do, until you no longer can.

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There was one former partner, with whom I had several difficult conversations about wanting kids, and not wanting my time wasted if he had no interest in having a family. It was an issue, along with many others, that indicated to both of us it wasn’t going to work, but getting to the point of acknowledging it with finality took some time. Then one night we queued up the 2008 comedy Baby Mama, where Tina Fey’s character Kate, a 40-something single woman with a successful career, takes steps to have a baby via a surrogate played by Amy Poehler because she believes it’s her final option. The movie kicks off with her on a first date explaining that she’s 37 and wants “a baby now,” in part because of the deafening sound of her biological clock. “Too much for a first date, isn’t it?” she asks her date, who soon after does the old pretend to go to the bathroom but instead hop into a cab trick. It only set me and my ex up for another hour and thirty-something minutes of mortification, echoed with every uncomfortable throat clear let out. Kate eventually meets a cute juice bar owner and single dad played by Greg Kinnear, who she falls for, but is disappointed when she learns he’s against surrogacy, putting their relationship at a crossroads. While the scenario on screen didn’t exactly match what me and that partner were dealing with, it hit close enough to home that the air in my living began to feel thicker than cement. My then-partner and I avoided eye contact, and said nothing. I wanted a piano to land on my head, or the floor to open up and send me spiraling down a pit into the earth’s core, just to put the cringiness to an end. But it didn’t. We sat there quietly, and eventually broke up a few weeks later. 

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On a holiday like Valentine’s Day, it can be tough when you’re in an unhappy relationship to try to smile and romance your way through the inevitable and unavoidable. And in a year like the one we’ve had, the strain has been even bigger. Being in lockdown or working from home with your partner all day every day can make you start daydreaming about poisoning their food, not so they die or anything horrible, but maybe just have to go away for a couple weeks. And that’s when you actually love the person! I ended a relationship early in the pandemic when it became crystal clear that we weren’t on the same page, would never be on the same page, and being forced to quarantine together made it all the more obvious. And it absolutely drove the message home every time I watched a movie where a character’s needs weren’t met, empathy not shown, and I had to look my partner in the eye after and pretend nothing was wrong. The tacit agreement to not mention the issue, or the movie, hangs there, sucking the air out of the room. Still, every one of those moments, every one of those horribly spot-on movies, pushed me to make the decisions that were necessary for my own happiness. It would be much easier if the earth had actually swallowed me whole, but those unhappy endings set the stage for a better picture off screen.

Alex Zaragoza is a Senior Staff Writer at VICE.

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