The “Turkey Drop”: Why Breakups Spike Pre-Holidays (Even For Those Out Of College)

The term “turkey drop” refers to long-distance college couples breaking up when they come home for Thanksgiving break, but the trend is true for older adults too.

By Alina Clough4 min read
Pexels/Maksim Goncharenok

Most of us get through the gloomy weeks of November by looking forward to a finish line of pumpkin pie and cranberry sauce. For many, though, there’s something less exciting on the menu: breaking it off with a long-term relationship. The colder months have many people thinking of “cuffing season,” and in many ways, they’re right. Data show that dating activity does increase in the cooler months, but breakups actually do too. November, in particular, is earning the reputation for being “breakup season,” often kicking off just before the turkey thaws. The term “turkey drop,” which has now even inspired a movie, has come to describe this predictable string of pre-holiday breakups, but why are they so common this time of year?

Unhappy Homecoming

Most people speculate that the concept of turkey drop primarily stems from high school sweethearts’ relationships fizzling out in the first semester of college. The idea is that, especially for long-distance college romance, Thanksgiving break is often the first time both parties are back in their hometown for the kinds of tough conversations that felt too tricky to text. While the concept is hardly scientific, some say this is the result of personal exploration in college, and that the first taste of post-high school life tends to reveal interests and priorities that might not have been clear on dorm move-in day.

Ashlea Coulter of Rutgers University puts it this way to parents of incoming freshmen: "When students spend a semester away, they start to learn about themselves. They realize that their hometown boyfriend or girlfriend is not what they want because they are discovering themselves and new interests and that they aren't the same person they were in high school.” 

Others have a more cynical view, saying it’s more often the “other fish in the sea” one tends to find in college, prompting the desire to romantically branch out beyond what your high school might have had to offer. For others, distance alone is the culprit, leaving many hometown sweethearts worried about being on the receiving end of a Dear John call before Thanksgiving dinner. The data support this too. Just under a third of all long-distance relationships are between college students, most of which end around three months into being away – or smack dab in the middle of turkey drop season.

Make or Break

College isn’t the only reason for pre-holiday breakups, though, and college freshmen aren’t the only ones at risk of holiday heartbreak. Especially for 20- and 30-somethings, the holidays can feel like a critical juncture for introducing your significant other to your friends and family, an escalation that can cause many couples to come face-to-face with whether they feel like long-term potential. After all, going through the trouble (and expense) of travel and meeting one another’s parents is a high bar for someone who isn’t feeling particularly committed.

More jadedly, some speculate that the financial pressure and hassle of gift giving is what makes people jump ship, or even that the close proximity to Valentine’s Day makes some think twice about whether or not they’re feeling the love. "For grown-ups, it's the anticipation of being stuck for three or four more months,” says relationship guru Dan Savage. “You're a cad if you break up around Christmas. And then there's New Year's – and you can't dump somebody right around New Year's. After that, if you don't jump on it, is Valentine's Day. God forbid if their birthday should fall somewhere between November and February – then you're really stuck. Thanksgiving is really when you have to pull the trigger if you're not willing to tough it out through February."

Numbers Don’t Lie

If you don’t trust college students’ lingo, trust the data. British journalist David McCandless took to web scraping thousands of Facebook statuses into a data visualization for an Oxford TED Talk. His findings confirmed what it seems TikTokers and college students already intuit: that breakups do, in fact, spike around the holidays, including two weeks prior to Christmas. 

Still, contrary to all the fear built up around turkey drop season, his data showed it’s actually dwarfed by the number of breakups that happen later in the school year, specifically in the weeks leading up to spring break. It would seem that many people do actually stick around for a cuddle partner during cuffing season and that they place a higher value on being single for spring break in Miami than for hometown holidays.

It's silly and even a little bit cruel to stay with someone for longer than you should just because of the impending holidays.

How To Handle Being Turkey Dropped...

Breakups are never fun, and being on the receiving end of one can be a tough start to your holiday season. If you end up the victim of the dreaded turkey drop, try not to panic. While it may seem tough to avoid news of happy couples around the holidays, especially since the holidays are such a common time to pop the question, there are serious benefits to being single during the colder months. 

If you find yourself dropped, take the opportunity to spend extra time with friends and family, either by pouring yourself into festivities at home or by hosting your own Friendsgiving and other holiday parties. If going home to meet his family doesn’t pan out and you find yourself stuck away from home for Thanksgiving, consider volunteering at a food bank or similar endeavor with your day off. Doing service for others is a great way to keep yourself busy and your spirits high.

...and Being the Turkey Dropper

On the other hand, if you’re the one considering breaking up with your boyfriend, do your best to keep things classy. If you’re a long-distance couple, wait to meet up back home if you can, even if it requires more delicate planning. “If young people at least wait to talk in person it’s a good thing,” says Charlotte Markey, a professor of psychology at Rutgers-Camden College of Arts and Sciences. “People are apt to just send a text or ghost someone. But if they actually have a conversation in person and wait until Thanksgiving break, that is mature adult behavior.” Be kind, be classy, and try not to burn any bridges.

At the end of the day, breakups are necessary sometimes. While the turkey drop may seem cliché, it’s common for some good reasons. "It's silly and even a little bit cruel to stay with someone for longer than you should just because of the impending holidays,” Sofi Papamarko of Friend of a Friend Matchmaking says. “And if you live together (or even just constantly hang out at each other's places), breaking up prior to the holiday season might be a good thing – it'll give you time to abandon your shared space for your familial homes and let you figure out next steps.” 

Closing Thoughts

Nothing ruins a good cuffing season like a breakup. Whether you consider the turkey drop to be an overblown trend or a real risk, it’s safe to say that holiday breakups often catch people off-guard. Oftentimes, the holidays simply accelerate decisions that were already going to be made because some breakups are just necessary. Sometimes, they’re even something to be thankful for.

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