It’s Over? When Did We Begin?

Lately, I’ve come to think that I don’t talk enough about the positives of dating. For example, it was on a date that I learned how to fold a $5 bill so that you get a hologram effect of Abraham Lincoln smiling, then frowning. I also learned about Israel’s Internet industry, and that Uncle Junior and Johnny Ola are the same actor. I’ve discussed the linguistic inaccuracy of the term “organized anarchists,” hung on every word as a former war correspondent described being wounded in Kosovo, encountered a peeved Tatum O’Neal when I was on a date with her friend’s ex-boyfriend, and spent an evening with a man who pretended to be blind when he wanted to bring his dog on the subway.

While there are many good things about casual dating, I’ve always maintained the best thing was that you never had to worry about breaking up-or so I thought. Recently, whether because of newly frayed nerves or an already-decaying infrastructure, I’ve heard about lots of people breaking up. Many New Yorkers are moving their antibiotics and antidepressants back to their own medicine chests. While some are ending relationships of months and even years, others-including people who came together in the weeks of late September-are calling it quits after only a few weeks. For these people, the delicate business of saying it’s over is complicated by the fact that they’re not sure anything had ever begun.

For example, although I haven’t actually had a relationship since my last boyfriend, I have, it seems, broken up with people, or had them break up with me, even though I never knew we were going out. This is when relationships become like apartments with lead paint: You don’t even know you’re in one until you realize you need to get out. The end, which in some cases preceded the beginning in my mind, usually involves an unbearable phone conversation. In terms of sheer discomfort, it is, as a friend of mine said, “like being stuck in traffic on a crosstown bus with Mark Green.”

“You feel like you’re breaking up with someone you’ve only been on one or two dates with,” said a woman who recently stopped dating a man she called a “resentful former nerd.” “It’s like the first relationship talk is the end of the relationship.”

Part of the problem is that no one can agree on what constitutes a relationship. It isn’t necessarily time spent together, or even whether or not you’ve had sex. So no one can agree on how-or even if-things need ending.

“If you’ve made out with the person, it would be excellent if you actually called to end things, but you never want to assume they’re crazy about you and have them be like, ‘Are you nuts?’” said a former model who played a cad on a soap opera. “If you’ve slept together, you should probably talk to them, but you can just do the attrition route and play phone tag until they forget you.”

A man who told me he often meets women at shoe stores had a different take. “If you’ve only made out, or had exposed breasts, it’s still O.K. to stop calling. It’s not a comment on the degree of intimacy. If there was genital contact, I would say in person is much more appropriate, but it’s one big judgment call.”

Many women did not agree.

“If you made out, you should at least get a call,” said a woman who raises money for underprivileged children. “If you’ve exchanged any major body fluids, you deserve to be dumped in person.”

Although I’m not kosher, I do prefer the kosher method of killing a “not quite” relationship, namely with one swift stroke and as little suffering as possible. I much preferred the “I’ve met someone else” note I received on monogrammed, biscuit-colored stationery days after we’d last spoke to the guy who called me–after not calling for a month-to tell me he wasn’t going to call again.

For the people who are not sure there’s anything to end, there are many different options. When a friend asked me how to tell a woman that he didn’t want to see her anymore, I asked what his other friends had advised. “You ask 10 guys, ‘If you take out a girl a few times, make out with her a little, do you need to call?’, 10 guys would say ‘No call.’ Eight women would say ‘Call.’” He chuckled. “Actually, guys wouldn’t even be interested enough to give their opinion.” He lamented about a woman, whom he’d taken out five times, “who thinks we’re going out now. I take her on a bunch of dates, spend hundreds of dollars on her, then I have to figure out the nicest way to break up with her.”

Some don’t call their former date directly, but instead call the person who fixed them up. “If friends set you up, then you can decimate the relationship through them,” said the former daytime rake. “They’re the recruiter, and you can tell the recruiter you’re not taking the job.”

The shoe-store Romeo had a different method: lying.

“It’s perfectly acceptable to make stuff up. I’ve actually used my emotional dysfunction, even though I’m a lot better now,” he said. “The more fertile your imagination, the better off you are.”

For many, the nicest way to break up is to somehow convince the other person that they’re breaking up with you. A man who said he’s “really good at breaking up” said, “What I do is try to be a jerk and not be responsive. If she still doesn’t break up with me, then I have to say ‘I don’t like the way I am around you.’ You’re saying there’s something wrong with them, but you need to make up an excuse to soften the blow.”

An animated brunette called this technique the “passive one, where they’re so cold they make you do it.”

The children’s advocate said she believed that “often, guys will say that they take you and your relationship seriously- as a reason for ending it. That way you can’t say, ‘But it’s only been a few weeks.’” I refer to this method as the Gaslight technique, based on the movie where Charles Boyer slowly drives Ingrid Bergman crazy by denying he rearranged the furniture. The Gaslight, true to its insidious nature, leads you to doubt your sanity by causing you to ask such questions as, “How could he have thought we were so serious? I didn’t think we were. And he was the one calling all the time. Wasn’t he?”

In thinking about how I’d like to be dumped, I decided on a heartfelt, tear-stained note with a generous Yves Saint Laurent gift certificate attached. Like many people, I struggle with ways to say, “You’re perfect-just not for me.” I went out with a man who told me, within the first hour of meeting him, how he’d like to get the slip. He said, “Don’t tell me you want to be my friend. I don’t have time for that. Just be honest. I don’t like every woman I go out with, either.” When he asked me out a few days later, I followed his guidelines exactly, leaving a message on his answering machine. He called me back to thank me.

It was so straightforward, it made me wish all first dates went something like this:

“O.K., waiter, I’m going with the chicken. And I want him to call to say he’s not interested, but not to go on too long.”

“And I’m going to have the lamb, not too pink. And I’d prefer she breaks up via e-mail. Just make sure she writes ‘Subject: Goodbye.’”