I've always had this theory that, spiritually speaking, being in a long-term relationship is sort of like being single in the way that after years and years with the same person, you are so over making a good impression that you can just be your truest, unmitigated self. You can dress how you want, do your hair how you want, hang out when you want with whomever you want, and not even care what they think because you've been together so long that they just have to accept it. At the same time, I also have this theory that if you've become so separate from your partner that you feel as though you might as well be single, then, well, you should probably just break up.
Admittedly, I did not come to this latter realization easily. Three months ago, after over a year of feeling incredibly disconnected and lonely in our relationship, my boyfriend of almost eight years and I decided to part ways. The breakup itself was done with kindness, compassion, and even a little humor, all of which came in stark contrast to the last couple years we spent together, which were filled with isolation and resentment. It sounds kind of backward, but the moment he and I decided to officially break up, we were both overcome with such relief that we were actually able to be nice to each other again.
Now, like most breakups, mine came with a sudden feeling to want to embrace a whole new side of myself, and that included a revamped hairstyle. "New hairstyles or color can be associated with making a fresh start, with new beginnings and optimism," couples therapist Vivian Diller, PhD, told Byrdie last year. But because the emotional journey of my breakup was sort of inverted (i.e., very painful during and virtually pain-free after), so was my vision for my new, single-me hair. Indeed, my version of a drastic breakup haircut was not to chop it all off; instead, it was actually a desire to grow it longer.
As most of us know, the "breakup haircut" is one of the oldest beauty tropes around, not only in American culture but around the world. As New York–based psychologist Heather L. Silvestri, PhD, once explained to us, "In native teachings, many tribes cut their hair during the mourning process, which symbolizes the deep wound to one's sensibilities. … Cutting your hair usually occurs when [you] choose to make a major change in [your] life, putting past misdeeds behind [you] and beginning a new life." For many women with long hair, making a big chop can feel freeing, and also like you're gaining some agency over your life, after having dedicating so much of it to your former S.O.
"A haircut after a breakup is powerful," Chase Kusero, hairstylist and IGK co-founder, recently told Refinery29. "People [often] keep their hair a certain way because of what a partner likes, or because it's how they've always worn it. When you cut it and wear it how you want it, it's empowering." Because women are generally taught that long hair is conventionally attractive, cutting it off after a breakup can symbolize a rebellion against the beauty standards (either overt or covert) that a former partner may have had.
Here's what makes my situation a little different: I actually think my breakup haircut may have happened long before my boyfriend and I actually broke up. Our relationship started to take a nose dive a little over a year ago, as he realized before I did that we were growing chasmically far apart, and he started pulling away from me as a result. I held out this hope that we would find each other again but also felt lonelier than ever in the relationship. I felt insecure and out of control of our situation, unable to understand why he suddenly didn't want me anymore.
These are emotions that psychologists find often come after a separation.
"Breakups (especially if they're unexpected or not mutual), can result in a blow to self-esteem," Diller commented. "Taking a proactive step physically, like getting a new hairstyle, can help regain a sense of control over unsettling emotions—like sadness, rejection, and insecurity."
I wasn't ready to break up yet at that point, but I think subconsciously, I started embracing my individuality more intensely in order to prepare myself for the day I would be. Accordingly, I started cutting my hair shorter and shorter, until about a month before we finally broke up when, at my lowest emotional point, I cut my hair the shortest it'd ever been. It was a stark, ear-length haircut. An IDGAF haircut. And I don't think it was a coincidence. I think that last drastic change was my one final, gasping attempt to assert some authority over a heartbreaking yet inevitable situation.
Now that my relationship is over, I no longer feel the low self-esteem I dealt with for years, the same low self-esteem that usually comes after a breakup. To my surprise and delight, single-hood makes me feel truly unshackled—full of hope and energy. I feel freer and dare I say sexier than I ever have. For that reason, I've decided to let that ear-length bob grow out to my shoulders so I can create tousled bedhead looks while still maintaining the sass that relatively short hair affords me. I'm about halfway to that length, and I can't wait until I finally get there.
About a week ago, I met Jessica Elbaum, the key hairstylist on Modern Family, who told me something about breakup hair that I really liked. "In my personal and professional experience," she said, "people change their hair after a breakup … to shed the old self that they see in the mirror, in hopes of a new beginning … or to make the ex jealous."
Not gonna lie—I don't hate the idea of my former boyfriend admiring my longer hair on Instagram, but that's not really the reason I'm growing it out. I'm doing it as a symbol of liberation, of letting go of that suppressed, stagnant mess that lived within me for so long.
"When we change our hair, it changes our life," Elbaum told me. For the first time in a long time, I'm letting my hair—and my life—flow free.