How "The Tortured Poets Department" Encapsulates the 30-Something Breakup

We all expected Taylor Swift's cathartic new album to be about the demise of her long relationship with actor Joe Alwyn. But on release day, we discovered more: "The Tortured Poets Department" is a portrait of the roller coaster that is a 30-something breakup.

Swift spent six years in a relationship with Alwyn, and fans speculated that perhaps she had found something that would last forever – until their breakup was announced in April 2023, when she was 33, just as she was embarking on her history-making Eras Tour, and arguably reaching the peak of her decades-long career.

The breakup, heartbreak, rebound relationship, and public backlash she chronicles in the album sound, quite frankly, miserable. On "I Can Do It With a Broken Heart," she sings that "All the pieces of me shattered as the crowd was chanting 'more!'" But now, she seems to have found her way back to detail for listeners just how she got through it. Ultimately, the album shines a light on the pressures that lead to a 30-something breakup, but also the transformative period that can follow.

What Is a 30-Something Breakup?

A 30-something breakup — quite simply, a breakup that takes place in your 30s — comes with a specific type of heartache. It's painful because that's what breakups are, of course, but the pain is layered with considerations that don't necessarily come with breakups in your 20s: greater societal expectations and pressure to settle down with a long-term partner.

It's an age when everyone around you is seemingly settling down, finding an "endgame" relationship, and potentially starting a family. This often means breakups spur regret about "sunk cost" and fear of the unknown ahead. And even a billionaire genius like Swift isn't insulated from the pressures and stresses around the ticking biological clock and the patriarchal messaging that your 30s is when you should have it all "figured out."

How "The Tortured Poets Department" Encapsulates a 30-Something Breakup

Swift publicly shared next to nothing about her relationship with Alwyn, who was private and declined to speak about his personal life in interviews. But the clues in tracks like "So Long, London" and "loml" tell the tale of a 30-something breakup, and it's gutting.

"I'm pissed off you let me give you all that youth for free," Swift sings in "So Long, London," followed by the refrain "You'll find someone" — something often said after a relationship ends. In "loml," Swift sings, "You talked me under the table / talking rings and talking cradles / I wish I could unrecall how we almost had it all." In "Florida!!!," Swift details the specific weirdness of suddenly finding yourself a single person in your 30s, drunk on freedom but not knowing quite where you fit in: "And my friends all smell like weed or little babies / And this city reeks of driving myself crazy."

Then — to everyone's surprise — Swift spends the large majority of the remainder of the album detailing her brief (and admittedly toxic) rebound relationship with Matty Healy.

And while all the relationship revelations make for great tabloid fodder, perhaps the best part of "TTPD" is how, through her 30-something breakup and the rebound that came after it, Swift openly (and refreshingly) rages at societal expectations that have been placed on her for years.

In a poem in her vinyl booklet titled "In Summation," Swift leans into what she calls the "temporary insanity" that was her short time with Healy, and declares that from now on, she's going to do whatever the hell she wants to. After introducing herself as a "dutiful daughter, all my plans were laid" in "But Daddy I Love Him," she declares, "I'd rather burn my whole life down / Than listen to one more second of all this griping and moaning / I'll tell you something about my good name / It's mine alone to disgrace."

Ultimately, Swift tells the story of her 30-something breakup with humor and beauty, and puts it firmly behind her. In an Instagram shared on April 18, she writes that the album reflects "events, opinions and sentiments from a fleeting and fatalistic moment in time – one that was both sensational and sorrowful in equal measure. This period of the author's life is now over, the chapter closed and boarded up . . . Once we have spoken our saddest story, we can be free of it."

These days we are watching the unfolding of Swift's relationship with Travis Kelce – someone who's publicly celebrated her craft and work ethic. No matter what happens next, though, she's already been through the intensity of a 30-something breakup and is all the wiser to take on whatever is ahead. And the greatest thing about Taylor Swift? We know she'll always bring us along for the ride.

Kathryn Smith is a freelance writer who writes about parenting, reproductive freedom, and culture.