GLYNN WASHINGTON, HOST:
Welcome back to Snap Judgment from PRX and NPR, "The Mercenary" episode. My name is Glynn Washington, and today real people go to very different places to find their own heart of darkness. And what ground could be more scary, more fraught than the middle of someone else's relationship?
JOE ROSENBERG, BYLINE: Jonathan Kiekbusch thought he knew what he was doing when he broke up with his girlfriend in late 2011, but the break up turned messy. And it left him more hurt than he thought.
JONATHAN KIEKBUSCH: And coincidentally, at the same time, without expecting it whatsoever, I was laid off from my full-time job. And when I found myself without a girlfriend and without a job, I wasn't actually sure what I should look for first.
ROSENBERG: So Jonathan did what any single unemployed person does, he moped around the house, watched Netflix and surfed the web.
KIEKBUSCH: And I found a website that enabled people to offer jobs that they are willing to do for one another. And since I'd just lost my job I thought, well, this is great, you know, maybe there's something that I can do. I ended up going to a party, and at this party one of my friends tells me that he wants to break up with his girlfriend. And he just doesn't have the guts to do it. So he ends up asking me if I'm willing to do it for him.
ROSENBERG: And John, being the good friend that he was, he did it. He screwed up his courage, walked over to this guy's girlfriend and broke up with her.
KIEKBUSCH: And it turns out that her side of the story was pretty much the same. She wanted to break up with him and didn't know how to do it. So if it wasn't for me to intervene in that situation, they might have never broken up and been unhappy for a much much longer time. That's when the thought started going through my mind that well, I've just done this for someone else, why can't I do this for complete strangers - just break up with people on other people's behalf? It came to the stage where I had it written out, and I kept on reading through it trying to work out if I'm losing my mind or not. You know, it's not something that I could even go to all my friends and talk to about because I wasn't sure if I was going to get ridiculed. But at the same time, I thought to myself, if somebody is so desperate to have to order my service, they're probably better off not to be in that relationship anymore.
ROSENBERG: And so that night the site went live, and John christened himself what, for all he knew, was the world's first professional breaker upper.
KIEKBUSCH: And now I'm checking the website day after day to see if anybody wants to book the job, and I looked into my inbox and there it was. It was a young guy from the UK saying hey, do you still offer this service? And so I sat there for a little while, and I constructed a reply saying yes, the service is still going on. But I would like to hear a little bit more about your relationship. Then they said, well, you know, we've been together for almost five years. There's no love anymore. We don't talk to each other very much. We literally go to work. We come home. We go to bed. And he just doesn't have the heart to tell her face-to-face that he wants to break up with her. So I asked him how he would like me to do it for him, and he said oh well, if you could do it by text message, that would be great because he wanted the transcript. So I got her number, and I got her name...
ROSENBERG: Wait a second. Wait. You didn't think this was a bad idea by text? This sounds like a terrible idea.
KIEKBUSCH: Yeah, but see, doing it by text was good for me for the first job because, in a way, I could hide my face behind that phone as much as he could hide his face behind mine.
ROSENBERG: And so how do you - yeah. And so how - do you text her from a burner phone? I mean, how -
KIEKBUSCH: I did exactly that. As silly as it sounds, I used a spare cell phone that I had on a spare SIM card. And my hands were sweaty. I went, oh let's do this, let's not do this. You know, it was as crazy as asking out your first girlfriend. And I messaged her, and I introduced myself as the guy's friend. And she said oh, hi how can I help you? And I said well, you know, Roger has asked me to get in touch with you about something that's a little bit of a touchy subject. And I don't know quite how to start this. And she was still very much confused why this random guy called John was getting in touch with her. So she was a little bit on the defense - said OK, carry on.
So I said, how are things going with you two? And that's when she started opening up to a complete and utter stranger and saying well, you know, for about the last year, there's not really been anything in our relationship anymore. We just go to work. We come home. We eat and sleep. And I go, wait - wait just a second. That's exactly how Roger feels. And she was quite relieved, as if it was a massive weight lifted off her. And so I said well, you know, what are you going to take from this? And she goes well, I'm going to break up with him. I said well, that's ideal because now I don't have to break up with you. And she just said, you know what, thank you so much, John. You've really helped me out today. And now it's time to move on and find the love of my life. And I thought well, this is great isn't it? It's basically resolved itself.
ROSENBERG: And keep in mind, this wasn't Jonathan's first successful breakup, it was his second. And suddenly his business - it didn't seem so crazy.
KIEKBUSCH: And after that, it sort of just gained traction and gained momentum. And I was getting more confident with it, and I was getting happier to do it. And I started posting little tips. And what I would try and do is I would try and convince them to do it themselves and to coach themselves through it, and only sort of use me as a last resort.
ROSENBERG: And the thing is, hard as this may be to believe, most of John's assignments, they were kind of like that first couple. They went really well. Most of his targets would thank him for sparing them from a terrible relationship, shake his hand and move on. And, in part, this was because Johnathan was really good at figuring out what to say in these situations, but also, what not to say.
KIEKBUSCH: One of the things that I learned very quickly to do is never accuse the person of anything. You know, people might tell you the funniest things, the funniest and weirdest reasons as to why they want to break up with someone. But trust me, you calling someone you don't know and telling them that somebody wants to break up with him because their feet smell really bad does not go down well.
ROSENBERG: All of which is not to say that Jonathan became totally comfortable with his job. He still had some big reservations.
KIEKBUSCH: Every moment of it was I thinking, should I be doing this? Am I doing this right? Am I helping people or am I not helping people? It's very split, as you can imagine. A lot of my guy friends were applauding the idea and thinking it was the greatest thing since sliced bread, whereas a lot of my female friends were very skeptical about it and were very unhappy that such a service should even exist. I had many mishaps where people just didn't believe me who I am, thought I was spoofing them, or started just insulting me. You know, you [bleep]. Why are you doing this? You shouldn't be doing this for people. I hope you die. I hope you die in a horrible way.
I just had to take it on the chin because you are seeing somebody else that you've never met in a very emotional state, and some of them get quite angry and agitated. But most of them get sad, and seeing that moment where the penny drops and they realize that this is for real and that that person want to break up with them, that is heartbreaking. That was really a big big burden to carry over time, and so when I got home, I always had a terrible back afterwards. And just the same way that I imagine a police officer or a fireman would do it, I sort of almost took my uniform off and just tried to sort of rid myself of that once I was done with the job. One of those days, I met a girl myself. You know, I met her in a bar, and I really liked her. And when we had a brief conversation and we got to know each other, she asked me what I did for a living. And it was that moment that I contemplated if it would be important to go down the line of saying what I do, and what my chances of seeing this girl again would be if I told her.
So I decided to tell her a lie that I had been made redundant from my old job, and that I was just looking for something new, not even thinking about the fact that I could be dating this girl just a couple of days later, and that I would have to continue with that lie. As we were getting deeper into the relationship and we were actually seeing each other more regularly, it was very difficult to sort of make up what was going on, and why I was absent, or why I was spending a lot of time in front of my computer, or why I didn't want her to come around on a certain day when I had planned to, you know, carry out some of these break ups. And it was really strange because it was probably the only lie that I ever told her.
ROSENBERG: Eventually, though, as it always does, the truth came out. A friend of his girlfriend's found his website, and then she told her what he did for a living.
KIEKBUSCH: And so the next thing that I got was a very angry series of text messages telling me how can I hide something like this? How can I do something like this? She was really quite shocked and taken aback saying, you know, I can't tell my friends that this is what you do. So I just said well, you know, I just haven't told you because I haven't thought about it...
ROSENBERG: Is that even a plausible excuse?
KIEKBUSCH: Of course it's not. I couldn't face telling her and getting exactly that reaction.
ROSENBERG: Which is ironic.
KIEKBUSCH: Which is very ironic. I didn't have the face to say it myself. I didn't have the balls so to say - to step up to her and say look, you know, I break up with other people. I break up couples. And, you know, I think the end of the whole conversation was her saying well, you don't have to hire anybody because I'm breaking up with you.
ROSENBERG: So wait, let me turn this around on you then. Would you have been willing to use your own service to confess to her for you?
KIEKBUSCH: That would have been great. I would have loved to have hired somebody to tell the girl that broke up with me what I was doing for a living.
ROSENBERG: But in a greater sense, wouldn't the even better hypothetical be to have just had the courage to just tell her yourself?
KIEKBUSCH: One hundred percent. To be able to tell somebody - build up the courage and do it - means a thousand times more than going to somebody and, you know, hiring them to transmit the message, whatever the message may be. I think that giving that person that face-to-face is what they deserve.
ROSENBERG: Yeah, I don't know. I feel like you're almost on the verge of repudiating your own service there, then because it's like you're enabling cowardice. It's like if you say, it's a thousand times better to have the courage to do it yourself and to tell the person face-to-face, why give them an out?
KIEKBUSCH: Because there's somebody out there that has to do the dirty work for those people who are just not going to do it. And that's me.
WASHINGTON: Big thanks to Jonathan, and I'm sorry if you're thinking what I think you're thinking, but Jonathan got out of the break up business a short while later. His current girlfriend knows all about it. That story was produced by Joe Rosenberg with sound design by Renzo Gorrio.