This town isn’t big enough for the two of us

Zoe Schacter-Brodie, Feature Reporter

Note: All of the names used in this article are pseudonyms. 

To avoid someone at Whitman is a futile endeavor. Our 1,500-student enrollment doesn’t provide much of a buffer, and 117 acres feel like 10 square feet when you’re hoping to give someone a wide berth. In fact, the moment you even allow yourself to think you’d rather not see somebody, you’ve doomed yourself to endless run-ins. We’ve all heard the stories or experienced it ourselves: the ghosted Tinder match behind you in line for coffee, the unsuccessful friendship awkwardly reintroduced in a ten-person seminar—or, worst of all, the unavoidable ex.

“Oh, Jesus,” said junior Molly Kemp when prompted to describe having an ex on campus. “Where to begin?”

Kemp, a junior, explained that Whitman essentially puts lapsed relationships in a pressure-cooker, intensifying existing post-breakup issues. It can be difficult to emotionally distance yourself from a relationship when your ex seems ever-present. At such a small school, it’s nearly impossible to fully extricate yourselves from one another’s lives.

“I’ve gone through breakups before where it feels like everything reminds me of them,” Kemp said. “I feel like that’s sort of inherent to, like, any breakup or huge emotional experience. But at Whitman, literally everything did remind me of him. It was like a breakup on steroids—I was constantly bombarded with reminders of him.”

Kemp’s relationship lasted through her first semester and a bit of her second. The breakup came a month or so before Whitman went online for the pandemic. While lockdown created its own emotional upheaval, she was grateful for the space to process.

“On campus, we were running into each other constantly, we had all the same friends—it was a mess. It was just way too easy to wallow, too; like, my friends and I would walk past a random bench on Ankeny and I’d be like, ‘We used to hold hands on that bench!’” Kemp said, a melodramatic hand pressed playfully against her forehead. “Obviously being home was hard and weird in its own way, but it was so much more conducive to, like, actually getting over my breakup.”

Illustration by Anna Stone.

Alice Cortez, a senior whose year-and-a-half-long relationship ended during the pandemic, also appreciated the space provided in the immediate aftermath of her breakup. Now, over a year later, she and her ex are once again sharing space.

“The first time that we saw each other again was this semester … so it felt like a lot of changes happened between us, in our lives, but we weren’t there to see them,” Cortez said. “It’s been kind of weird to navigate that.”

One notable change has been Cortez’s “epiphany” about her interest in women, and the subsequent beginning of her current relationship. Recently, Cortez ran into her ex on the crowded stairwell of a party—both of them with their respective girlfriends. Another instance found them face-to-face in the library printing queue.

“I turned around and he was like”—she adopts the stilted inflection of post-relationship awkwardness—“‘How are you doing?’”

Kemp has had her fair share of uncomfortable encounters as well. Upon returning to campus this spring, she found that these run-ins were no longer painful, but remained pretty awkward.
“Definitely our worst encounter was a few weeks ago,” Kemp said. “I was on a date, and he walked by, and all of a sudden I realized we were at the same place we’d had our first real date. We, like, made eye contact and had this horrible moment of acknowledgment. I wanted to be like, ‘I promise I didn’t do this on purpose! There’s just, like, three places to go in this town!’”

There seems to be a general consensus: Whitman College is a decidedly unpleasant space to share with an ex. Whitman’s small campus and tight-knit social culture can amplify the problems fundamental to any breakup. Everyone I interviewed lamented the “intermixing” of friend groups, and the difficulty navigating social circles post-breakup. Cortez even worried that she’d lose custody of mutual friends.

In discussing the milestone changes that had transpired between her and her ex, unbeknownst to the other, Cortez called it all a little bittersweet. After all, her ex had been a central part of both her Whitman experience and her life for over a year. Forced proximity to an ex transcends awkwardness: one must renegotiate their relationship with someone with whom they have often been profoundly vulnerable. How do we share space with people who have inhabited two starkly different roles in our lives? How do we reacquaint ourselves with them as classmates, foes, or tentative friends, and play the part accordingly?

Lily Thomas, a sophomore, put a positive spin on her situation: she claims that the “close quarters” of her breakup prevented her from falling into typical patterns.

Thomas and her ex-boyfriend became friends, dated, then broke up—all in the same semester, and all on the same dorm floor. It sounds like a veritable nightmare, but Thomas says it actually facilitated a pretty healthy breakup.

“I had to keep seeing him every day and keep interacting with him so we didn’t make it awkward for everyone else, so I didn’t get the chance to build him up in my mind as a villain or a terrible person,” she said. “And every time I was tempted to, like, send him a really regrettable text in the middle of the night or something, I could just tell myself, no, you have to see him face-to-face tomorrow. So, it really worked out pretty well.”

(This is a pretty evolved perspective—you can thank Thomas’s therapist, who encouraged her to frame it this way.)

It’s an interesting inversion of a common Whitman gripe, especially in regards to dating and hookup culture. After all, there’s a lot to be said for existing in small, intentional communities: it can often bolster our flexibility and emotional resilience, providing us with renewed perspective and interpersonal aptitude. Perhaps we can apply these merits to romantic relationships as well.

Cortez agreed that Whitman’s environment has helped her avoid running from her feelings.

“You’re forced to confront it,” she said. “And sometimes you’re not ready, and sometimes you’re uncomfortable, but at the same time, I think it is kind of helpful in that way.”

Another common worry comes with the idea that one’s breakup is a common topic of discussion among peers. At Whitman, this anxiety is not unfounded: a deleted Instagram post doesn’t escape anybody’s notice, and fragmented friend groups can unleash an onslaught of on-campus gossip. Cortez explained that this feeling arises from the fact that one’s “world at Whitman is very small,” but wanted to assure anybody in this situation that the issue will resolve itself with time.

Breakups are hard. Breakups in the confines of the Whitman bubble are harder. Whether it’s an awkward moment of mutual acknowledgment in Reid, a barrage of unwelcome reminders or the sneaking suspicion that your breakup has become Whitman tabloid fodder, it’s a difficult situation to navigate. May we all be blessed with the perspective and optimism of Lily Thomas’s therapist.