Never can say goodbye

As SN&R’s advice columnist, Joey Garcia has seen a lot of broken hearts. Here are her tips for breaking things off with grace.

Photo Illustration by Michele Brown

I was talking to a friend, a 30-year-old single dad, about his last relationship. It had started out great, but it soon crashed, and he felt burned. Before my friend (let’s call him “Jack”) and his girlfriend broke up, they hung out daily. Then tension built and exploded, and they didn’t talk for a few days. Finally, he called her. She didn’t call back. Eventually (Sacramento is a small town), he ran into her at Starbucks. Jack said hello but kept his distance. She called a few hours later and proposed some vague plans to see each other.

“I wasn’t going to call her to make it happen, though,” Jack told me. Weeks passed before she called to say she wanted to collect whatever she’d left at his house. She picked up her things when she knew he was at work.

Jack is far from rare in experiencing such cycles. After nine years as an advice columnist for SN&R, it’s clear to me that most singles fail to end romantic relationships with respect. They allow a relationship to drift until it dissolves from a lack of attention, or they initiate an argument that provokes a histrionic conclusion, or one person lies about why he or she wants out. All of these behaviors are symptoms of the same disease: fear of the truth.

A mature person communicates directly and with compassion, but in a culture that celebrates slogans like “The 40s are the new 30s!” immaturity reigns. One way people express it in dating relationships is by refusing to be honest with themselves about whether the person they are dating is truly a healthy partner for them and whether they are a healthy partner for that person. That requires a level of self-examination few are willing to experience.

Jack is a model-pretty metrosexual, but his hip persona could not hide his anger as he recounted his story. “Did you actually break up?” I asked him. “Did you actually say, ‘It’s not working out. I appreciate the opportunity to get to know you and spend time together’?”

“No,” he said. “I know I need closure, but I’m not going to call her. She can call me.”

“Calling her to get closure doesn’t make you weak,” I said. “You do it for yourself. It’s healing.” He looked amused and defiant. I decided to push it. “How long did you date before that first fight?”

“Two months.”

“How soon after meeting did you start hanging out every day?” I asked.

“Right away. We really connected.” He looked directly at me. “Why?” he asked, frowning a little.

I sighed. “You guys probably fought because you were just sick of each other. Sometimes couples are too insecure to admit that they need time apart, so they keep up an intense togetherness schedule that launches them into nitpicking and then full-blown drama.” Jack and his former girlfriend used a fight as an excuse to let the relationship drift until it dissolved.

I walked to my car thinking about our conversation. As synchronicity would have it, I started my car, and the Jackson Five’s “Never Can Say Goodbye” was playing on the radio. It’s true. Many singles are lousy at ending romantic relationships. Most prefer to lie about why they are leaving. The prevailing cultural message is that lying to someone protects that person’s feelings. In reality, lying protects the liar’s image of herself or himself as a good person. When the person receiving the lie discovers the truth, he or she feels betrayed, not protected.

Of course, telling the truth is high-risk behavior because it creates emotional intimacy and renders the teller vulnerable. When we tell someone the truth, we are saying, in effect, “You are someone of value, and I am someone of integrity.”

Truth-telling is always compassionate. One friend of mine, a 47-year-old attorney who recently moved here from the Bay Area, shifted a relationship on the pivotal third date by telling the woman he was dating, “I like you. You’re great. But I’m not feeling a romantic spark. Can we be friends?”

Photo Illustration by Michele Brown

Notice the difference between that and something like “You don’t excite me.” The latter is an opinion, but not the truth. Then there’s the classic lie “It’s not you; it’s me” and its variation, “I’m just not in a space to be serious right now,” when the truth is that if the right person arrived in your life, you would be willing and available.

Sometimes it is difficult to bring a relationship to closure, because, despite seemingly clear communication, confusion persists. A 43-year-old woman, divorced four years, had a blind date that left her wondering if parallel universes do exist. After a pleasant dinner, but no detectable passion, the guy suggested she call him anytime she wanted to dine. They spoke again four months later when she called to invite him to an event he had expressed interest in. It was not a date, she said; she was actually working at the event. He was unable to attend, but they chatted amicably. She expressed her interest in being friends. Nothing transpired.

Eight months later, she saw him at a singles dance. After a few songs, he walked over and explained that “the whole dating, going out to dinner thing” was uncomfortable for him. She told him, “I just thought we were going to be friends.”

About three months later, he left her two voice mails, just days apart. “The second one said he ‘would talk to me eventually, since he had my phone number and time was on his side.’ I thought it was creepy,” she remembered, “but I returned his call and left a message on his answering machine.” He did not return her call. A week later, she ran into him at a yoga class. “You wanted to talk?” she asked.

“Yeah,” he said. “I met a dynamite woman, and we’ve been getting to know each other. I’m putting my energy there.”

“Good for you,” she said. “Take care.” She walked away thinking, “One date a year ago, plus my clear statement that I wanted to be friends, and he needs to tell me he is dating?”

Once your dating partner states that he or she wishes to be friends, the connection is platonic (i.e., sex-, flirtation- and romance-free). A platonic relationship is no competition for potential romances. The change to friendship has other properties: Women should not expect their former flame turned friend to pick up the tab, and guys should not attempt booty calls. And vice versa. The mutation known as FWP (friends with privileges) is not friendship. Rather, it’s a relationship established to have sex with someone you know without having to experience the maturation that genuine commitment inspires. Refusing to grow up is another form of lying.

People who are most successful in creating healthy closure can do so because they have made a commitment to a higher principle. One of my acquaintances, an artist and music minister for several Catholic churches in the Bay Area, is searching for his soul mate. Along the journey, he is committed to treating each woman he dates with respect. He posted his profile on a dating Web site and received an e-mail that said, “Adventurous, passionate, 50-something woman seeks poetic guy.”

“Her photo looked good, so I e-mailed back,” he said. “She seemed reserved on the phone, but, inspired by her great e-mail, we made plans to meet. She drove from Modesto to San Francisco, where I live. In person, she was more matronly than her photo represented. I’m in my mid-50s but I’m high-energy. Her energy was very, very low.”

Conversation was pleasant, but there was no connection. When she asked if they were going to see each other again, he said no, adding, “I think you’re a lovely woman, yet the e-mail and profile I read is nothing like who you are in person.”

She said she read his profile and tried to write an e-mail he would respond to. He grabbed a napkin, asked a few questions and wrote a profile for her that he thought was true. “She thanked me, and we parted,” he said. “A few months later, she e-mailed me and said that she met the love of her life with that new profile. I was really happy for her.”

This man knows the secret to happy endings: appreciation of the whole person. For Catholics, it’s the recognition of the Christ within the other. Hindus call it namaste, which is translated as “the divine within me greets the divine within you.” Treating another person with loving kindness is a universal religious truth. Living this reality means accepting people for who they are and the privilege of time together with them, even if they are not the partner we hope for.

However, many of us create frantically busy life schedules that block us from catching our own breath, much less noticing another’s humanity. A chronically active 40-year-old Sacramento woman discovered the downside of not creating downtime for herself. “I canceled a second date with a guy when I realized that I was not willing to change my busy schedule to spend time with him,” she said.

“He was hard to reach, so I just left a voice-mail explanation,” she continued. “Well, he called me back and laid into me for leaving that message. He was really offended by my coldness. I realized he was right. I could have waited and spoke to him directly.”

Initiating an argument in order to create closure is inconsiderate. The woman felt bad about herself and worried that her date thought negatively of her—ammunition she used to justify doing more for others and, thereby, stacking that schedule again. She needs to allot time for honest self-examination.

Learning to say goodbye requires that we singles know ourselves well enough to choose what is healing, like securing closure, even if it means our own ego is humbled a bit in the process. It means listening deeply and communicating with clarity and truth. It means treating each person with respect, even if they are not the soul mate we hunger for.

When someone says goodbye, it’s not rejection. It’s an acceptance of who you are: I appreciate things about you, though you’re not right for me. It’s an invitation out of the moment and into the future.