Why is everyone breaking up? It's the annual 'spring clean'

Break-ups, according to Facebook data analysts, tend to spike in the spring and again in the summer -- perhaps the natural counterpoint to the phenomenon known as cuffing season, when singles suddenly settle down.

A couple of years ago, almost to the day, I went through a breakup.

It had been brewing for months. I stuck it out through Christmas -- it seemed only right -- though as I grew more miserable, I found myself idly looking at online apartment listings, fantasy shopping for a different life. The winter was a slog through couples therapy, punctuated by a halfhearted Valentine’s Day. As spring approached, the threat of another summer together loomed.

So, that March, I got out -- bringing a quick end to a long relationship.

And, along the way, I became a statistic.

It turns out, the term “spring clean” doesn’t apply only to your closet. The likelihood of divorce climbs in January and February, peaking in March, according to an analysis of Washington state divorce filings published by University of Washington researchers.

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Divorce filings peak in March and August, over a 15-year period studied by University of Washington researchers.

And breakups, according to Facebook data analysts, tend to spike in the spring and again in the summer -- perhaps the natural counterpoint to the phenomenon known as cuffing season, when singles suddenly settle down.

It's a cycle that appears to accelerate in February, a month that happens to include Valentine's Day.

David, a 44-year-old chef from Roxborough who didn’t want his last name used, said he and an ex-girlfriend broke up just over a year ago. They’d been dating for eight months, but he couldn’t bring himself to say "I love you," and Valentine’s Day was bearing down.

“I couldn’t say it in return. And it was over,” he said.

On the other hand, he figured, “It’s a good time [to be single]! Rebirth!”

Science appears to back him up. There may be a biological basis to the idea that spring is the season of love, according to Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist at the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University and Rutgers University's Center for Human Evolutionary Studies. She ascribes that to activity in the brain's pineal gland, which deals with light and dark and which produces less of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin in the longer, sunnier days of spring and summer. 

That's what accounts for spring fever, the idea that love, like pollen, is in the springtime air. Fisher suggests the same could also apply to breakups. "With more sunlight, people have more energy, more optimism, more interest in the future," she said. "If they look around their home and say, 'This isn't working,' perhaps this is the time they have the energy to do something about it."

Steven Ward of  Fairmount, chief executive of Master Matchmakers, has noticed a seasonal trend in new client sign-ups.

“I’ve been doing this for 15 years, and, basically, we see an S-curve in the beginning of the year,” he said. People start strong in January with New Year’s resolutions, then taper off. Valentine’s Day rolls around and provides another reminder to make romance a priority, making spring a busy season for him.

Then, there are the breakups.

“This time of year, we see a huge uptick of people who want to do what you can call spring cleaning. They want to clean house. They want to get out of a toxic, bad relationship, to stop doing what they’ve been doing.”

Ward said it's not surprising that a change in seasons would be a major trigger for people to reevaluate their lives.

“You’re realizing that you’re coming up on a time of year that you already went through with that person,” he said, "and you know what to expect."

In some cases, though, clients try to sign up for his service before they’ve even broken up with their last significant other.

“It’s now normal to step one foot out of the relationship while keeping one foot in it. Most of the people contacting me are actually in relationships they’re unhappy with. They’re ready to get out, but they don’t want to go through being single.” (He often has to coach them through a breakup before he can coach them into entering a new relationship.)

Gayle Crist, a dating and divorce coach from Ambler, said her busy seasons are in the spring and fall.

"I would say people get energized at springtime in a way to kind of follow through on things they have promised themselves," she said. "The absolute busiest time for online dating is January, when people want to follow through on resolutions, but with spring people get recharged."

As for breakups, she said, it can be a year-round endeavor. Her own pattern is a midwinter clean break.

"I'd be at the end of the year assessing all my goals, I'd look at my life and say this is something I've been meaning to do for a long time. Both my breakups were that way," she said. "But lots of times there are breakups in the spring if there are kids involved. They wait until the kids are out of school, and then they leave."

Of course, seasonality isn’t the only factor that predicts breakups.

There are economic factors: The divorce rate was suppressed during the recession, and then it rebounded when people had the money they needed to strike out on their own. There's even an online tool at www.wevorce.com that inputs your age, education level, and other factors and that can tell you, based on census data, your likelihood of divorce. 

And one analysis by Facebook data scientists found the shorter a relationship, the more likely it was to end in a breakup. If it made it past three months, the odds were it would last four years or longer

That assumes couples bother breaking up at all.

Kevin Arnold, 33, of South Philadelphia, whose last breakup was in November, said that's no longer a given.

"Especially with online dating, breaking up seems to be a thing that is disappearing. Seems to be a reflection of the times: Instead of people talking about breaking up, a lot of people just start ignoring that person or begin short-replying to texts until the relationship just sort of fizzles out without a confrontation."