Tuesday, February 17, 2009

It's not what you say....

Abby's column this morning and the Classic Ann Landers posting for the week treated two very similar situations, and gave advice that was, for all practical purposes, identical. And yet, though I agreed with them in both cases, I found Abby's response really off-putting. Here's the letter, and her response:

DEAR ABBY: I am 19 and have been with my girlfriend for the last four years. I want to take a break and see what else is out there, but I don't know how to tell her without freaking her out and making her cry. Abby, how do I tell a girl who loves me that I want to take a break and see other people? -- TEEN IN MINNESOTA

DEAR TEEN: Do it in person and in plain English before you waste one more minute of her time. When you do, be sure to tell her that the reason has nothing to do with her and everything to do with you. Be prepared for the fact there may be tears. However, not every relationship is permanent, and breaking up is part of dating.

So...I don't know. Abby is right, of course--honesty, straightforwardness, and promptness are key here. But not even a nod to the fact that they've been together since they were 15? And that splitting up could be--in fact almost certainly is--the best thing for both of them? She's right to emphasize the need to just suck it up--fear of hurting the other person is a terrible reason to stay together, and I can say from personal experience that it undercuts the very honesty, straightforwardness, and promptness that would make the break as respectful, if not painless, as as possible. And I suppose that in that painful moment, it's MORE important to emphasize the honesty and respect than to try to convince the angry and hurt party that really "this is all for your own good, too."

But I get the feeling that Abby thinks this guy is just a jerk who's been keeping the girl around until something better comes along, and that's unlikely. (If it were the case, why would he be writing at all?) Dating through high school, and finding that college (or work, or travel) opens up a vast new world is an old, old story. It doesn't have "nothing to do with her and everything to do with him." It's growing up and growing apart.

Ann Landers gave virtually the same advice, but with less of a slap to the face:

Dear Ann Landers: My girlfriend and I have been dating for more than a year, and we've been having sex for the past 10 months. We are both 18. She seems certain I will marry her, although I never actually have proposed. I guess after we had sex, she assumed we would marry.

The problem is I don't want to continue this relationship any longer. Our personalities don't seem to mesh the way they used to, and she is beginning to get on my nerves. But I am afraid to break it off because it would be awfully hard on her. She has no idea that my feelings have cooled.

How can I end this relationship before it's too late? I do love my girlfriend but don't want to spend the rest of my life with her. What's the best way to do this without hurting her? — Hopelessly Entangled in New York

Dear New York: There are times in life when we have to be cruel to be kind. This is one of those times. Tell your girlfriend as soon as possible that you have come to the conclusion that you are both too young to be making any lifelong plans and that you want her to date other guys because you'd like to date other girls. Say, "We might end up together, but we both need to explore other options." AND NO MORE SEX. Period.

I like that Ann acknowledges that if a person who has made no lifetime commitments wants to end a relationship because they think there are better options out there, he or she has every right to do so (without being judged--please!). And that these people are really young! "Cruel to be kind" is cliche, but it fits the bill here. Carolyn Hax always puts it in terms that I like--everyone deserves the opportunity to find someone who loves and appreciates and wants to be with them more than anything--by staying in a relationship with someone you feel mediocre (or less) about, you're taking that opportunity away from them.

The only thing I take issue with is the "We might wind up together...." I don't think there's ever really any point in delivering this in the middle of a breakup, even if you really really do mean it, and in this case I don't think the guy wanted to give that impression at all. "Our personalities don't mesh," "she is beginning to get on my nerves," and "don't want to spend the rest of my life with her." Doesn't sound to me like he has any interest in maybe winding up together, and to suggest that he does, and then hope she'll forget or change her mind, does NOT soften the blow.

At 18, I ended a fairly serious relationship because I knew it just wasn't a good match for the long term and didn't want things to get any more serious than they already were. However, I did it clumsily, awkwardly, and out-of-the-bluishly, despite the fact that I'd been pondering and pondering and pondering it for a very long time. I think both Abby and Ann would tell me I should have been more careful with and respectful of a person who had always treated me well, and whom I, well, cared about and respected, and I should have been. I have a friend who at 21 was on the receiving end of a very painful, convoluted break up--they'd been together almost 5 years and it totally overturned her "life plan." But now, 3 years later, she wouldn't go back to where she was then.

Honesty and promptess are key. And there's often no way to avoid hurt feelings. But I think that for 18, 19, 20, etc.-year-olds to wriggle out of their high school relationships is a liberation, not an irresponsible failure to commit. I didn't do it well, and I wish I had done it better. But in terms of shaping the direction of my college experience--the people I met and the things I chose to do--it was probably one of the most important steps I took.

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