Lovelorn teens can relate. You’re in an on-and-off again relationship with someone who promises to change but never does. Finally, you’ve had it and you call it off, permanently.
You tell them, we won’t get together tomorrow, the next week, the next month, the next year, the next decade, or the next time ever. That’s it: We are never ever getting back together.
The threat may be commonly uttered, but it is far from a simple statement. In fact, I suggest this ultimatum is an illustration of several game theory concepts. And while the threat often uttered as a lie, it is an effective lie.
The song begins with an admission of guilt. The protagonist remembers the first time the couple broke up. The guy took a month-long break and then realized he missed the relationship. He offered to change and they got back together. But that lasted for like a day before they broke it off again.
The two would continue to have a rocky on-and-off relationship, as the song indicates:
I say, “I hate you,” we break up, you call me, “I love you.”
The issue at hand is one of non-credible commitments. The protagonist claims to “hate” the other person to indicate she is committed to moving on. But then in a matter of time she is swayed by the promise of change, and she finds herself back in the relationship.
The point is this: talk is cheap. A person can say anything and everything. But there is nothing that will bind the person to following through. The protagonist is a frequent offender of her own promises as she keeps going out again with the same guy.
Why must the threat be forever?
The song title is “We are never ever getting back together.” But that is not the precise chorus in the song. Those lyrics are, “We are never ever ever getting back together.”
The repetition of the word “ever” doubly serves to emphasize the seriousness of the threat and the intended permanence of the breakup. In other words, she is trying to say, “If you didn’t hear the first time, this time I’m serious!”
Now, logically the threat has to be interpreted as something of a lie. The protagonist has not demonstrated she was serious in the past, and there is no reason to believe so now.
Furthermore, there is a matter of what the guy will do. If he truly changes and repents his mistakes, then the protagonist might be tempted to forgive, as there is no indication the guy has done something unforgiveable. That guys will reform and the couple will end up together is the plot of many a Hollywood romance.
So why does she have to say they are “never ever ever” getting back together? I think there is a very logical reason for this.
Imagine what her alternatives are. If she simply says they are over like before, the guy will have no reason to take notice. He will try to rekindle the relationship in a month or so.
So she might try a longer threat, like, “We will not be together for one year.” This again runs into the problem of a non-credible commitment. If the protagonist is willing to give it a try a year from now, then she is admitting to holding some interest. The guy can interpret he still has a chance with her, and he will probably not take seriously that things have changed.
The same logic applies for longer periods of time. If the person says, “We will not be together for x years,” for a finite x, that indicates some positive chance to the guy at the current time.
The only option is therefore to indicate an infinite time period: we will never ever ever get back together.
Why this time might be different?
There is another perspective for the threat. Let’s say that in the past the protagonist was “type A” which means she expects some positive chance they can be together. The realization is that she is now a “type B”: she now feels there is no practical way they can reconcile.
In other words, the whole point of the threat is not to indicate a time period. It is to indicate that the protagonist has changed the game by changing her type. The threat is a signal to the guy that she is changed.
This notion is reflected in the lyrics:
I used to think that we were forever ever
And I used to say, “Never say never…”
[But now I told him]
We are never getting back together. Like, ever”
Still, one can question the sincerity of the threat. The refrain indicates they are to remain amicable, “You go talk to your friends, talk to my friends, talk to me” which leaves open the door for an eventual romantic return.
Nevertheless, the protagonist has made the largest threat she can: they will never be together. At this most guys will recognize the seriousness. So while the threat is a lie, it can be an effective one.
It’s no wonder they say communication in a relationship is so hard. Even the simplest of statements illustrate the true complex inner desires of a conflicted mind.