A thirty-ish Asian-American man I know was having some difficulty in his then-current romance. “Alan” and I discussed it at some length. His steady girlfriend of over a year, “Alison,” and he lived in the same city, but saw each other rarely, mostly on week-ends, and they had rather different interests, outside of having similar professions. Each wanted the other to make more time for them as a couple, but neither was so dedicated to the relationship that he/she would change the patterns that were otherwise comfortable.
My analysis: this isn’t going to work. My prescription: find a way to break up that causes the least pain. If you are not enjoying it, and if it is likely to fail anyway, stop wasting each other’s time. Easier said than done, of course.
The journal Psychology Today has a fine collection of articles [http://www.psychologytoday.com/collections/201208/breaking-is-hard-do] under the same title as this piece, a title borrowed from a Neil Sedaka hit of the 1960s. These articles go well beyond mine.
I told Alan that there are some predictable phases in much of dating and marriage:
If you meet in school and fall in love, physical attraction helps you get over the ups and downs,. You have much in common: school, family issues, friends and acquaintances, courses perhaps, even shared uncertainty about your futures. On campus, there is lots to do and talk about. Some people marry immediately after graduation, and this can work, though you have to wonder whether they subsequently ask themselves what it would have been like to have looked around more before settling down. What have they missed by such exclusivity? If this marriage fails, these two will be swimming in the “dating pool” with minimal experience.
After school is done and you are pursuing your career, you meet people at work and through work, and you meet them after hours through friends and family or due to mutual interests and activities. Be warned: workplace romances have their charms, but breaking up is particularly messy. People you meet through mutual interests, including your careers, can make interesting friends and lovers. The busier each of you is, however, the harder it will be to keep in contact. Is sharing an apartment the solution? You’ll see more of each other, for good or ill, but if it does not work out, the situation will be dicey. Who moves? Who keeps the cat? If she becomes pregnant, what then?
Let’s say you do get married. He gets the girl he wants. She gets, well, what does she get? The guy we hope she wants, the prospect of a house and kids, shared financial support. With luck, both are happy with this deal. Often, at least one is not satisfied, as our divorce statistics attest.
Before the kids come along, their marriage is like dating plus “benefits.” They dine out, go to shows, take trips, perhaps participate in the same clubs, sports, religious, or political activities. After the children arrive, most of these activities are greatly reduced, but the couple shares an interest, hopefully, in the care of the children. They go to the kids’ school and religious functions. They add as friendly acquaintances the parents of the children their own kids play with; these adult relationships often continue until the youngsters graduate from high school.
At this middle-age stage, the parents may also move far away for career advancement, further cutting them off from shared friendships and their families. Elderly parents may require help. Men’s “mid-life crises” seem to occur in their forties and fifties. The kids are out of the house or nearly so, and the wife has, sorry to say, “let herself go.” Too much pasta, too little protein. Too much sitting, not enough exercising. He may not be a prize, either, but there seem to be women out there who want him, including one of her friends. This will not end well, but she’ll get the house, anyway. No good way to wave goodbye.
If mutual marital satisfaction were generally true, there would be fewer divorces. Let’s take Bob and Betty [pseudonyms, again, naturally]. Bob is good-looking, successful professionally. Betty is beautiful, though a bit, I must be honest here, lower-class. She’s become a nurse, though, and things go well at first. They have two incomes and few responsibilities. Two kids arrive. One has health problems, and Bob stays home to care for him and to home-school both kids.
Betty prefers to work as a nurse rather than as a mother, but soon adds having an affair to her resume. Various attempts are made to “save the marriage,” but eventually Betty ends up with the kids, back with her mother, working and getting generous child support. Bob rarely sees the kids, sends his checks monthly. He is unhappy. The kids are unhappy. Is Betty unhappy, too? Yes. Why? She got what she wanted, didn’t she? Well, she has less disposable income than before and more responsibility for child rearing. The affair fizzled. She hints that maybe, after more than a decade of divorce, Bob and she could get back together. Bob doesn’t fall for that. “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” The lesson: all that glitters is not gold. Miss Right, or Mr. Right, was not likely to be found in the neighborhood bar.
Let’s have a success story to leaven our mix. Craig and Carol meet while he is working on temporary assignment in Britain. Both are well educated. They date. They marry. They have fun and then have kids, children that both want. They have a lovely house, attractive and charming and talented children, and each spouse is pleased with the choices they have made. After the children leave for college, the couple will become “empty nesters,” and we will want to pick up their story at some time in the future and see whether they have enough love or enough in common to stay together. Odds are that they will.
Debbie and Dan have re-found each other after their first marriages ended, hers through divorce, his through death [of natural causes] of his spouse. They knew each other some decades before, but they were not a couple then. They have similar interests, including that of Chinese language and culture. Romance ignites. Marriage is planned. Pre-nuptial agreements are drafted by lawyers for each, then debated, re-drafted, re-debated. Oops. Romance becomes replaced by finance. Yes, indeed, prudence dictates giving some thought to what will happen if their marriage fails, but any virtue—including prudence—can be overdone. Their marriage starts on the legalistic downbeat. Being seniors, without many other options, they will likely stay married, unhappily.
Back to young Alan. He and Alison are definitely not going to make it. What remains is to break up as painlessly as possible. If it weren’t a cliché, he might try, “It’s not you; it’s me.” Alternatively, “It’s not you; it’s us.” Or, “Is this really working out the way you had hoped?” Shall he do it before or after the trip they plan to take together? Cancel the trip. Cut your losses, being diplomatically candid. She may feel the same way but is reluctant to admit it. If so, a win/win, of sorts. It could have been worse.
“You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em.” You are dating for mutual enjoyment and to help select a long-term partner. When the relationship is not working, recognize that and take steps to mend it or end it. You may not wish to copy the woman in the Ray Charles 1960 hit song, who made it clear this way: “Hit the road, Jack, and don’t you come back no more.“ However, you can find some rhyming language almost as direct in Paul Simon’s 1976 classic, “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,”
You just slip out the back, Jack.
Make a new plan, Stan.
You don’t need to be coy, Roy.
Just listen to me.
Hop on the bus, Gus.
You don’t need to discuss much.
Just drop off the key, Lee,
And get yourself free.
Then, too, we have, more recently and less poetically, “Don’t let the door hit your backside on your way out.”
Breaking up is hard to do, so do it carefully. Try to make it easy on yourselves, but bite the bullet, cut the cord.
Dr. Cooper is a retired scientist, now a writer, author and writing coach. His first book, Ting and I: A Memoir of Love, Courage and Devotion, was published by Outskirts Press in 2011 and is available from Outskirts Press, Amazon, and Barnes and Noble, in paperback and ebook formats, as are his co-authored memoirs The Shield of Gold and Ava Gardner‘s Daughter? and the memoir he edited, High Shoes and Bloomers. His writer-coaching web site is http://writeyourbookwithme.com. On Twitter he is @douglaswcooper. His blog is http://douglaswinslowcooper.blogspot.com.