real life

Is there a good way to break up?

SUNDAY LIFE COLUMN: Getting dumped can be brutal. I learned this when I was 11 years old and ‘going around’ with a much older man. He was 12. Being vastly more worldly than me and also male, he was keen for some action. Armed with vast quantities of theoretical knowledge (thanks Dolly) and zero practical experience, I preferred the vague, romantic idea of ‘going around’ to the nitty gritty of actually doing anything involving physical contact. AS BEFITS AN ELEVEN YEAR OLD. Ahem.

One morning in the playground, a few heady days into our relationship, Sam instructed me to meet him behind a classroom after school that day for a pash. Yes, a pash. He was nothing if not clear about his needs. Cue terror. I spent hours agonising over this request at length with my friends before sending word to him that I would be unable to attend. The repercussions were swift. First thing the next morning, one of his mates crossed the playground to inform me: “Sam says you’re frigid and you’re dropped.” And that’s how the sun set on our beautiful bond. After four days. And a quick scan of the dictionary to find out what frigid meant.

I like to think this formative experience informed my attitude to dumping and gave me some compassion in later years when it was my turn to end relationships that weren’t working. Because I’ve had * cough * one or two of those.

It’s never an easy conversation, is it? There’s no comfortable way to say, ‘Sorry, but I’d rather spend time with a house plant than you’. I always tended to err on the side of mild cowardice although I don’t ever recall out-sourcing my dumping to a friend. The modern equivalent of that schoolyard approach? Changing your relationship status on facebook to ‘single’ and waiting for your partner to see it and realise they are now your ex partner. Apparently, that happens.

After quizzing a lot of people about their attitudes to break ups, I feel emboldened to make the following generalisation: women prefer honesty and men prefer running away. And as with all stereotypes, there are exceptions.

For some unknown reason, a male friend decided to seek my advice recently when he wanted to end it with a girl he’d been seeing – not the naked kind of seeing, just a handful of dates and the odd kiss. “She’s a lovely person but I’m not interested,” he explained. I nodded and made an empathetic noise. He continued. “Instead of letting it drag on, I want a clean break so it’s resolved and not awkward if we bump into each other in a month. She’s away so I think I’ll send her a text, what should I say?”

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That’s when I gave him some very bad advice. “Oh don’t do that, next time you speak to her, just say you’re really busy and then take a long time to return her calls and she’ll eventually get the message.”

Did you spot the mistake in that sentence? The mistake was the whole sentence. It shows I haven’t been single in a while because when I re-told this story to a single girlfriend, she shouted “NO!” and then threw a tea towel at my head.

Apparently, it’s better to be upfront and honest instead of leaving someone waiting and wondering, hoping and angsting. Who knew? I was suddenly reminded of that courtroom scene in A Few Good Men where Jack Nicholson is being interrogated by Tom Cruise. “You want answers?” Jack asks Tom. “I think I'm entitled,” he replies. “You want answers?! “ Jack repeats. “I want the truth!” insists Tom before Jack thunders: “You can't handle the truth!

My single girlfriend can handle the truth. She doesn’t shy away from the difficult conversations, no matter which side of the break-up fence she’s on. “I’m always direct when I don’t want to keep seeing a guy, even after one date. I just text and say: Thanks so much, it was lovely to meet you but I don’t feel any chemistry so we should probably leave it there and just be friends, OK?

Wow. That is direct (Note: on the text versus phone call question, she believes texting is acceptable if it’s only been one or two dates. Anything more requires a call to deliver the same message). It’s a brave and honourable thing to be upfront but would you want to receiving end of such honesty? “Oh sure,” she replied. “The alternative is much worse.”

Then she told me about this one guy she’d been dating for a couple of months who was giving her mixed messages – keen for sex, not keen for anything requiring clothes or conversation. This went on for some time until my friend was forced to call this guy and break up with herself. “You want to end this, don’t you?” she asked him. Directly. He mumbled, she pushed it until he grudgingly agreed with her and then it was over.

When you have to dump yourself? Well, at least you can be guaranteed it will be done with kindness. And without anyone being called frigid.

Come on – what's your break-up style? Best and worst stories please….