Between Before & After
songs that honor the pain of new singlehood while pointing toward a future
There are tons of songs out there about bad breakups, songs that capture the anger and betrayal and righteous self interest that characterize these experiences.
But what about the rest? Where are songs for breakups that feel more bittersweet than bitter, ones that are mutual, sad but necessary?
It's a simple statistical fact that most relationships will come to an end at some point. Whether you're seeking one soulmate or dating non-monogamously, it's never a guarantee that every single connection will be a lifelong one.
And that's not always the point! We date people precisely to get a sense for who they are, how much we like them, and what they're like to date. Often, the result of dating someone is the discovery that the two of you aren't compatible as romantic partners - and that's okay!
It's perfectly normal and healthy for relationships to end, but that doesn't mean it's easy or pleasant. In fact, a "good breakup" can be even more painful than a "bad breakup," because there are more complex emotions than anger at play. Processing a "good breakup" requires grieving all the good that you're losing, finding ways to honor positive memories from the relationship, and taking accountability for your part in whatever caused the breakup.
Sometimes it's tempting to try and turn a breakup "bad" by finding ways to be the victim, provoking hurtful conflict, or re-telling the narrative. Feeling like someone else let you down and that you've been hurt in senseless, undeserved ways is certainly cathartic, and indulging in this kind of anger is almost always part of the healing process after a breakup. But there are enough playlists out there for that kind of feeling.
Instead, here are some songs that capture the nuanced pain of a "good breakup," which is a phrase that itself feels like an oxymoron. Sometimes, it takes music to help us make sense of things that feel too confusing to put words to.
When you have a good enough connection with someone that you can honestly come to the shared conclusion that you need to break up, that means you're losing
The Mountain Goats - "Woke Up New"
This song may not even be about the end of a romantic relationship - many listeners interpret it as a song about grieving a loved one lost to death. In many ways, that grief is more comparable to a "good breakup" - it's a loss that wasn't desired, a concession to circumstances rather than a choice taken.
Singer John Danielle opens with the admission that "On the morning when I woke up without you for the first time, I felt free and I felt lonely and I felt scared" - a common set of mixed emotions that follow a breakup which was necessary and yet painful. Feeling free and lonely at the same time can be hard to reconcile, and this soft song about sadness and solitude gives this strange experience a voice.
"Woke Up New" is honest about the raw hurt that infuses your life after a breakup. My favorite line is the heartbreaking image: "An astronaut could've seen the hunger in my eyes from space."
But it also looks toward better times. The title itself has a sense of hope and resurrection, focusing on the newness of the next day, and the last stanza before the chorus closes with the narrator getting "ready for the future to arrive."
Taylor Swift - "happiness"
They say that "time heals all wounds," but they never tell us what we can do to make it through before time has had a chance to patch us up. Mirroring the sentiment in "Woke Up New," the narrator in Taylor Swift's "happiness" recognizes that a brighter day is coming, but it certainly isn't here yet.
"I haven't met the new me yet," Taylor sings, acknowledging the grindingly gray period we all suffer through after a serious relationship ends. Her lyrics are brutally self reflective about her emotional myopia during this painful time, acknowledging in the song's opening likes that while she acknowledges that there's a forest, she also can't yet see it for the trees she's still stuck on.
Whenever friends break up and are feeling confused and frustrated by the fact that the relationship was genuinely good until the end, I give them the same advice: "There were reasons you stayed together, and reasons you broke up. All of those can be real at the same time."
I see a same kind of hopeful realism in this song's chorus: "There’ll be happiness after you/But there was happiness because of you/Both of these things can be true."
Ashe - "Moral Of The Story"
This song is a bit less gentle than the previous two, perfect for the crescendo of fury that will always bubble up, even when you're being as level-headed as possible about a breakup. Because the reasons you broke up are serious and real, and it's important for any breakup playlist to make space for those emotions too.
Ashe's poppy, uptempo song reminds us that "Some people fall in love/With the wrong people sometimes." The narrator doesn't see time spent in relationships that didn't work out as a waste of time. Rather, like the title implies, she takes them as learning experiences.
While the stanzas take us through some of the lowlights of the relationship, helping us understand why Ashe's narrator has determined that it needed to end, the chorus is unswervingly supportive. "Some mistakes get made/That's alright, that's okay," Ashe sings between each bit of narrative, "In the end it's better for me/That's the moral of the story."
Jonathan Mann - "We've Got To Break Up"
Beginning in 2009, musician and YouTuber Jonathan Mann started writing one song a day. He's still at it, and has since composed thousands of songs and turned his relentless musicianship into a career.
So it was only sensible that his girlfriend at the time, Ivory, would be involved in this project that consumed so much of his life. Romantic relationships nearly always draw people into one another's hobbies and social crowds, especially when partners are both in the same field, like these two musicians.
On day 1,435 of Jonathan's song-a-day project, he and Ivory announced their breakup in the same medium they'd been working together in for years. They titled it "We've Got To Break Up," and addressed it to their friends, answering some questions they knew would arise. "Invite us to your parties," they promise, "We will work it out."
The lyrics explain that they still care for each other, but have realized that they need to go their own separate ways to pursue the lives and futures that each person wants. "I wanna have babies," Jonathan sings, as Ivory harmonizes with the fact that she really doesn't.
It's a bizarre, intimate, heartwarming video to watch - the pain in both singers' voices is real, and watching them collaborate on their final song together as a couple makes it clear just how compatible they were until changing circumstances and new conversations forced the breakup.
OK GO - "Oh Lately It's So Quiet"
I'm closing out the playlist with this lovely song from OK GO, because it does a good job of wrapping up the beginning of the end, and the end of the beginning, when it comes to moving on from a breakup. "I don't think much about you anymore,/You're not on every whisper" the lyrics boast, reflecting that longed-for point where the sting of the breakup has faded some.
This song's narrator acknowledges that his ex wasn't so easy to date - he refers to their presence as a "haunting," and theorizes about whether the person they're currently dating is dealing with their "crying" or "clenching fists." At the same time, he also wonders whose face they're kissing and whose sheets they twist, giving us joyful images to balance out the bad.
Even the song's title, echoed in the chorus, is both a lament and a celebration - the narrator's life lately is "so quiet," without both the drama and the delight his ex brought into the house.