No bullshit, please!

Guys: If you're breaking up with me, don't say, "Let's keep in touch."

Published August 1, 2003 7:21PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I am a woman who will turn 41 in a few weeks and what I would like for my birthday is for you to use your column as a forum for one day to tell guys not to exacerbate the pain of a breakup by saying that they will see the woman or call her if they know they won't.

I have had 14 intimate relationships in my adult life and the majority of them have ended with my getting dumped. (Let's not get sidetracked over why the numbers are lopsided. At my mature age, I have finally learned not to wallow in useless self-flagellation. That's what my 20s were for). Anyway, many of these dumps have included the dumper passionately claiming how much he cares about me "as a person" and how he intends to keep in touch with me in some fashion. Never happened. Not once.

Once someone who had said he wanted to marry and have children with me said as part of his breakup spiel that he would like to see me from time to time because he "couldn't turn off his feelings just like that." Apparently he could. Never heard a single word from him.

The lies run the gamut from the specific -- "I'll call you this weekend" -- to the more general -- "I'll talk to you soon" (which apparently means "only if we meet on the street and I absolutely cannot escape" in guy talk).

The point is: Just don't say it if you know you will not follow through. We are adults here and we should all know ourselves well enough to know our capabilities and intentions (especially before mucking up someone else's life). And I don't care if this is the type of person that a man wants to be but is not. I only say, know who you are already and come clean about it. Don't project or represent -- just be. It's not fair to use another person for emotional target practice just because it makes you feel better to pretend you're the kind of guy who will take the high road rather than the guys Liz Phair sings about in "F*** and Run."

And not to belabor the metaphor: You might think I have been exiled in Guyville long enough to see through it, but the bottom line is, I don't. When someone who has been inside my body looks me in the eyes (though, granted, I've had my share of ultra-weenie phone and e-mail dumpings) and says he will call me or wants to get together with me soon, I believe him. So then there is the double whammy when days, weeks or months go by and the realization sinks in. I just feel dumb, like the joke was on me. Like we were never going to have any intentional contact ever again and someone smarter or cooler would have known it all along.

To the rightful inhabitants of Guyville: You cannot avoid inflicting the sting of rejection that the one being dumped will feel. But you don't have to compound the pain by making the person you just dumped feel foolish to boot.

So Cary, would you please help me out? Please tell guys when they get ready to break up, if they are leaning toward gilding the lily to make themselves come off as a nicer guy, just don't. Please, just don't.

Tired of Guyville

Dear Tired,

You said it all right there. The only thing I could add would be some suggestions for guys about actual wording. Be definite and final. Don't bullshit. As this woman's eloquent letter indicates, the bullshit isn't soothing, it's insulting. Just let the facts be: I'm sorry, but this is over. It's sad, but this has to end. Goodbye, I won't be seeing you anymore, please don't tell your girlfriends about my small dick.

May I also add a note to you, dear? I know you don't want to dwell on the past, and you don't care that those weasel words are just there to make the guys feel better, but if the same thing is happening to you over and over, that's got to be painful and troubling. I think I may know the reason this is happening. I have a feeling that you may be, like me, a person who focuses on verbal content rather than on nonverbal cues.

I am a literalist. To my frequent dismay, I listen to and believe the actual words that come out of people's mouths. I often have to ask my wife what they were actually saying. I have had to learn the hard way that many, perhaps most, people do not use words for their dictionary meaning at all. They use them more like gestures in an elaborate dance, to convey an ineffable and pleasing message that may be internally contradictory but is emotionally true to them.

If they were to actually put it into words it would sound like this: "I'm breaking up with you because I really like you a lot and I won't be thinking of you ever but, really, I will always love you." Or, "I really think you're ugly and boring but, baby, I really think you're super hot!" Or "I really do love you but for some reason at the same time I don't care about you at all."

Obviously, you can't say that out loud because it sounds like your brain isn't working right. There's too much cognitive dissonance. Language is like fingerprint powder: It shows what's hidden. I'm not telling you anything you don't know. But here's the thing: You need to stop letting this happen. Not all men do this.

You are probably a thinking type who has been going out with feeling types. They are addressing your feelings but you're hearing with your brain. If you are attracted to men who are "warm and kind," try instead dating men who are "cold and uncaring." I don't mean really cold and uncaring. I just mean in outward presentation.

Look for a man who isn't smooth, who isn't easygoing, who isn't all over the map emotionally. Stay away from musicians and salesmen. Look for men in analytical occupations, either abstract or concrete: lawyers, engineers, carpenters, mechanics. Trade a little excitement for a little transparency and consistency. Find a stubborn, unstylish man who knows what he thinks and doesn't give two shits about how he's perceived: Green Party members, Cubs fans, racers of recumbent bicycles. Birkenstocks may look dumb, but men who wear them have a strong inner sense of who they are and what is right, and they'll try to tell you the truth. It might be refreshing. Also look for men who care about people but must also make tough decisions and deal with the unvarnished truth: social workers, drug counselors, probation officers.

And, as I said, stay away from salesmen and musicians.

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