They always get it right in the movies: When disaster strikes, it strikes in slow motion. The bullet slams into the hero's shoulder and he turns with balletic grace. Or, when the floor gives way beneath him, it's as if he is being released by the carefully unfolding hands of God.
Now imagine the scene as the perfect lips of the woman you love tell you to leave her and never return. Imagine her lower lip forming a soft pout as she says the word good, and the sweet, sad smile that must come with the word bye. That is the slow-motion depiction of emotional violence that makes all men want to hide their eyes.
If it seems as if the movie of your breakup is one you've seen before, you've come to where the soft shoulder of sympathy lives. If your emotional life has just been dumped into the landfill of love, read on for a little non-degradable advice.
We'll deal with the worst-case scenario first: when she breaks up with you. This is real-life Jeopardy!, where the only correct answer is in the form of a question: What the hell happened?
What the hell Happened
The quick-and-dirty explanations for why you're not still rolling in your sweet baby's arms are readily at hand: You stopped talking to each other, or you started taking each other for granted, or one of you was afraid of commitment, or one of you felt intimidated.
This list can continue, of (continued on page 128) Breaking Up (continued from page 112) course, but here's what really happened: You were wrong about the person you chose to love. She wasn't who you thought she was. Unbelievable, you say? Well, chum, decisions on whom to love are almost always made based on damned skimpy evidence. After knowing a woman for only a few hours, a few dates, you go ahead--what the hell--and give her extraordinary power over your life. At that moment, you're road kill, a flat goner, and all you can do is hope for the best. Maybe you will hang on to her for the long haul--say, three or four months. Perhaps years. Maybe even a lifetime. But most often, what you've really got is a wonderful opportunity for self-delusion.
When you reach the breakup phase, you realize that all those terrific attributes you tried to adorn her with were the wrong size, the wrong color, the wrong cut--just plain wrong. She didn't change, and neither did you. The difference now is that through the wreckage, you see her for what she is.
How come it hurts so bad?
Men fall in love far more precipitously than women do. Here's why: While a man may have the upper hand in organizing the closet and keeping track of baseball statistics, he's usually less facile when it comes to the tangle of worries and desires that constitute an emotional life. That's where women come in, as the closet organizers of the heart. If that organizer collapses, chaos ensues.
Women, on the other hand, are neater about all this; they've arranged their emotional lives to accommodate a number of attachments. Men focus on one context for love, whereas women are busy creating pigeonholes for all the loves of their lives--their father, their sister, their damn cat. A woman's love for you is one of a number of her involvements, all of which are given more or less equal weight. So when she falls out of love with you, she has a web of other attachments to catch her. When you fall, you go straight from the high wire to the concrete floor.
Beyond that, when a woman breaks up with you, she has done a lot of careful planning. She's ready. You're not.
How to tell when it's over
When everything's going well, the end of a relationship seems far enough away to be measured in light-years. But a romance on the brink can travel at hyperspeed. Let's say you call her at home or at work, and she seems edgy. You ask what's wrong and, like every woman born, she says, "Nothing," and you know it's a lie. Nothing, in this case, means everything. Suddenly, you find that every country-and-western hit has a special meaning just for you.
Now it's time to look for the ten signs of failing love:
1. No sex: This is the obvious one--no closeness, no passion, no sweat. As a rule, sex breaks down right after communication breaks down: You can't speak the language of lust if you aren't speaking in English as well. And since there is no intimacy in your emotional life--the one that exists in kind gestures, thoughtful words, caring questions--you won't be able to find it between the bed sheets, either.
2. The omission of the emission: Women love to talk about the daily minutiae of their lives; we're talking excruciating detail, every minute of every day and every word of every conversation. When large pieces of her time start going inexplicably astray, she's probably following them.
3. Abandoned rituals: One of the more comforting aspects of romance is the adherence to small rituals and routines--the Sunday-morning bagel-and-newspaper ceremony, or the what-can-I-wear-I'm-so-ugly preparty confessional. When these become secondary to her, you can assume you've become secondary, too.
4. Pronoun problem: A woman plays havoc with your personal history when a relationship starts teetering. Where once the word we figured prominently in all of her plans and stories, now she suddenly metamorphoses into a solo act in everything past, present and future. Call it the "I" of the storm.
5. Friendly fire: Her pals start treating you with pity--or contempt.
6. Space: This is a woman's final frontier. If she asks for "space," it means she doesn't like you as much as you seem to like her. When the discussions go ballistic, it's probably time to give her so much space that she feels like Neil Armstrong.
7. Assigning blame: When a woman accuses you of being insensitive or boring, or bad in bed, it probably means she's unhappy with her entire life--not just the part you play in it. Because you are close at hand, she'll try to make you the villain in the piece. She'll take all her problems, cram them into your pockets, push them down your shirt, then throw you out the door. That is, unless you get out first.
8. Tough talk: When even routine conversations have a contemptuous tone, you're in trouble galore. To spot this one coming, it helps to review military history. Just before a nation goes to war, it seeks to dehumanize the enemy. They become godless heathens with stupid names, people whose most obscure traditions become targets of ridicule, a race of jerks who command no respect. Women on the march subject men to the same tactic.
9. She cheats: Look, it's not a surprise. Unless you're a paranoid trooper walking the dangerous perimeter of jealousy, you will know, without hesitation, when she's cheating.
10. She suggests that you cheat.
The last straw
Know where your limits are. Find what for you is nonnegotiable in the continuance of the relationship, the deal breaker. Tell her what it is, then stick to it. Make sure that your ultimatum is based on stern stuff: tests of commitment, fidelity, trust. If you allow every miserable episode to become only the penultimate straw, you'll end up with a haystack in the corner. Worse, she'll leave without a shred of respect for you.
Anatomy of a breakup
The breakup will proceed according to a predictable pattern. You'll see it unfolding and you'll sense your power-lessness. If you're not living together, she'll ask you to stop by her place some evening for a little talk.
Stay home. When a woman tells you she thinks it's time you talked, you should already have a good idea about what she wants to say. At all costs, get her to give you the bad news over the telephone. Most women have the idiotic notion that the best way to tell a boyfriend to kiss off is to do it face to face, and preferably on her turf. Don't fall for it; it's like being summoned to the principal's office.
Shut up. Once she tells you to get lost, don't waste your time with any further discussion. Say something curtly polite, then get off the telephone. And stay off.
You're going to be heartbroken, of course. And the only person who can make it better is the woman who has just given you your walking papers. Don't call her and expect any comfort whatsoever. It won't be there, no matter how badly you need it.
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Know Your Rights
When the police dogs of love jump for your throat, you must know your rights. We'll call this your Emotional Miranda:
• You have the right to remain silent. You don't have to answer every charge and accusation. Keep in mind that if she's initiating the breakup, she has already marshaled all her arguments, and any off-the-cuff rebuttal you may attempt will probably be feeble and inaccurate. Anything you say will probably be used against you, maybe even in court.
• You have the right to set the record straight. Since remaining friends will probably be part of her program, exercise this right by stipulating that she must hear you out as the price of your friendship. Wait until you know what you're talking about, then let loose.
The best method of correcting the record is by writing a letter. Get down on paper all the things you've been trying to say but that you know have never been heard, but don't undermine your desired effect by reducing the letter to an emotional screed. Remember, she already assumes that you think she's horrible, and if you simply reinforce that observation, she'll be able to easily dismiss it. Instead, you should do what a man does best: With exquisite logic, explain the law and how she has broken it. If you wish to curse her with a barren life or a meaningless existence, do it in the form of a logical sequence of predictions.
While the letter may have no ultimate effect on bringing her back or shattering her self-image, it will help you understand your own moral ground. It's a lot easier to lose a battle like this if you understand exactly why you are right. And that's why the best advice of all may be to write the letter and never send it.
• You have the right of revenge. But be careful here. The superceding rule of revenge is that you should always be sure the screwing you give is worth a retaliatory reaming. Never attempt to take revenge on someone unless you can control the variables that result.
Can you get her back?
If your relationship has fallen apart, nothing you do by yourself will have any effect. No act on your part will result in the desired response on her part. If your romance is in trouble, you both will know it, and the only thing that will make it better is if both of you are willing to fix it. Don't try any fancy tricks. No matter what, nothing you do is going to get her back....
Except maybe this: Walk away from her. It's one of the few unilateral--and potentially effective--moves you can make. Read that again; it's very good advice. Shrug your shoulders, say so long, tell her tomorrow's another day. If you try some other desperate move--a pleading phone call or intercession by a mutual friend--you'll just be sorry later that you did. Once you donate your balls to romance, you never get them back.
It takes six months or so for the smoke to clear, so keep close to the floor. Eventually, you'll see your way out. Here's what to do in the meantime:
• Look at the other aspects of your life. If your job is shaky and the IRS is getting up close and personal, maybe you ought to solve the problems you can control. Most of all, pay close attention to your job. What you need more than anything else is a clear focus, and hard work can provide that.
• Rebuild. Remember those long-suffering buddies who couldn't get you for a pickup basketball game because you were lolling in bed with what's-her-name? Go to them, apologize and live for a while in the land of men. They'll know exactly what you've gone through, assist you by saying rude things about your ex and occupy your mind with the really important stuff in life--Rotisserie League Baseball, golf-swing mechanics, comparative waitresses. In between all of that, they'll help you figure out how you--or she--messed up.
• Anything goes. You're heartbroken, so ride with it. Do anything you want--cruise by her house, dial her phone number just to hear her answer, bed her best friend, go through her garbage--but be prepared for the consequences. Remember, nothing you do is going to get her back.
The Chronology of recovery
Don't make unreasonable demands on your recuperative abilities. A broken romance is the emotional equivalent of riding a Harley under a gravel truck, so expect to be laid up for a while.
Here's what to expect as your post-breakup life crawls along:
• The first day: Don't be surprised if you experience a momentary euphoria after getting the gate. The world will look new and full of interesting challenges, and you'll immediately start thinking of women you just know you could have scored with if you'd been free to do so. Allow yourself 24 hours or so to return to the hard and ugly truth: The perfect woman isn't out there, and if she were, she'd be with somebody else.
After reality sinks in, make a quick call to your travel agent. Get out of town. Play Kerouac and drive across the U.S. Go to London or Newark for lunch and a good hoot. Get drunk in a motel lounge or introduce yourself to nature. Stay away as long as you can. By all means, substitute a new landscape for the charred ruins you're leaving behind.
• The first week: A breakup resembles a death more than anything else. You have, after all, lost a loved one, so the first few days of postbreakup confusion will be spent in denial. For instance, you will pass the time waiting for her to come to her senses and call. One day, you'll realize that the phone isn't broken and your relationship is, and you will move on.
• The first two months: This is the time for endless recapitulations to friends as you try to make sense of the disaster that has befallen you. You will find yourself slipping into hours of profound sadness and grief as the reality of life without love grows more immediate. These periodic bouts of melancholy are extremely helpful. They are a purgative of a sort, since they represent acceptance of what has happened.
• The third month to a half year: Now you will be trying to control a growing anger over the injustice you've suffered. Revenge and other black thoughts occupy your mind. This stage is a highly dynamic one, since it's difficult to maintain a high state of rage. You just sort of wear yourself out after a while and put your energy into more useful things.
• The seventh month to the ninth month: You should now be able to ask yourself why it all happened and get a reasonable answer. Incorporate that answer into your arsenal of useful knowledge and live by it.
• A year or two later: You'll wonder what the hell all the fuss was about.
If you break up with her
The world of heartbreak has two hemispheres, of course. The good-neighbor hemisphere is where you live if you break up with her. If you do the dirty work and call it quits, you'll recover faster than if you are the guy wearing the toilet-seat covers when the party's over. It's a matter of exerting control, but control isn't without responsibilities.
Be scrupulously honest. Think clearly about what you're doing. You'll be giving a hard time to somebody who was once your best friend and greatest ally, so give her your best explanation of why you're breaking it off.
Be specific. Saying "I guess it just didn't work out" is not only intellectually bankrupt, it's emotionally cruel. Don't leave the responsibility for the breakup in mid-air. There are specific reasons for doing what you're doing. Take the time to get them clear to yourself before you retail them to your soon-to-be ex. Nothing will ease her pain so much as a concrete set of reasons it didn't work out.
Be final. Breaking up is crossing the line; it's not a hazy, ambivalent kind of thing. When you say that it's over, you must mean it. If you end it on Friday, don't try to be friends again on Monday. Get out of her life. There'll be an opportunity for friendship only when the idea of meeting her for lunch is something you'd have to consult your calendar, not your shrink, about.
Here's what you have to keep in mind, always: When it's over, it's over. Not only that but even if your romance should revive, it'll be a different beast. And the chances are, you won't like the look of that beast one bit. So much the better, then, if you take the end like a man, preserve your attitude and move on.
Once you've learned this skill, you'll have it forever. So the next time your love life goes belly up, you'll keep a sense of control and distance yourself from cardiac distress. You'll pick up your life, pile it into a box, throw it into the back of your car, tune in the voice of country music and drive off into the sunset.
"If she asks for 'space,' it's time to give her so much space that she feels like Neil Armstrong."