A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue
By Wendy Shalit
STAGE TWO: THE DUMPING
There is very little etiquette surrounding the actual dumping itself, because it either happens or it doesn't, and when it does, that's usually it. I have heard of three cases in which women tried to postpone their dumping. That is, when they heard someone postpone beginning to disentangle himself, they did not urge him to reconsider, but rather, tried to prevail upon him to dump them later. As in: "Okay, but this week is really hard for me since I have this deadline at work. Couldn't you dump me next week instead? I mean, have some consideration!" This doesn't seem to make much sense. The moment you know he wants to dump you, what are you buying yourself another week for?
It's much better to accept your fate and move right on to Turning a Negative Into a Positive. For here is where we can observe one of the clear advantages to living in postmodernity. Although being dumped in postmodernity is just as unpleasant as in premodernity, in postmodernity instead of killing yourself you get to consider it a Learning Experience. As long as you Learn a Lesson from it then you Shouldn't Kill Yourself. As Sharon Thompson puts it, "Even when love goes badly, those brave enough to learn from romantic experience will find they've been well served."
How true. For example, if we did not endure the considerable pains of the dumping, we could never experience the joys of the post-dumping checkup.
STAGE THREE: THE POST-DUMPING CHECKUP
Explains Lesley Dormen in "Breaking Up: A Protect-Your-Heart Plan," "Once the breakup has taken place...and you have the capacity to listen and speak calmly, talking things through" with your ex-boyfriend is ideal. According to psychologist Bonnie Jacobson, Ph.D., author of If Only You Would Listen, post-breakup conversations "can be an outstanding clinic for healing and learning how to love better." Oh, really?
A 45-year-old woman told me the following story about her son: He called home from college two weeks ago, very confused. He and his girlfriend had broken up, and it seemed she wanted to remain "friends," but he didn't. They were living in the same dormitory, which made it all very awkward. "Mom?" he asked her, his voice sounding suddenly faraway and boyish. "Mom? Is something wrong with me? I'm not sure I want to be her friend." I feel like I know his ex-girlfriend already, because she or someone like her has just written a letter to the magazine lying on my coffee table: "My ex and I were getting along great," moans 20-year-old "F.G." in a 1997 Mademoiselle, "and then he called me up and said he didn't want to be friends anymore! What happened?"
I'll tell you what happened, F.G. It's called human nature. You're concerned, I know, because you're not getting all the post-dumping checkups you were promised. I understand what you're going through: You're feeling kind of left out and strange. If your ex doesn't call you, how in the world are you going to get your "outstanding clinic for healing and learning how to love better"? But don't worry about it, F.G. It's not you who's strange; it's this post-dumping checkup that's strange.
A brief explanation for those who are not familiar with the art of the post-dumping checkup. Apparently, if you've hooked up with someone -- or if you haven't technically hooked up but were going out for more than a month or so -- and then dump this someone, it's considered poor manners not to calmly "check up" on your ex-girl- or boyfriend later on. It's the new etiquette: One may dump shamelessly, but one must always be friends and check up! You know, just so that they should find out how you've been doing ever since they decided they didn't like you. And if you are a really well-behaved 90s man, you're expected to be tolerant of all your girlfriend's ex-boyfriends who are religiously performing their post-dumping checkups on her. Dave, 23, told Cosmopolitan in 1998 that of course "My girlfriend talks to her ex-boyfriends." Why? "They were part of her life before she ever met me, and I'm not going to try to intrude on that."
The same year, Daryl Chen in Mademoiselle gave her readers pointers on how they could increase the likelihood of receiving their post-dumping checkups:"He's no longer a lover. It's even possible you can't stand the sight of him. But if you follow our timetable, you can still recycle him as a confidante, mentor, handy-man and fan." If he hasn't called after three months, "you may be ready to make that initial phone call and set up an exploratory meeting." We were advised to "keep conversations short," and only say extremely clever things, such as "'fallen under a bus? Just checking.'" Then after six months, "it's safe to go back to the movies" with your ex. And finally, "By the two-year mark and later, you and your ex should be incorporated neatly into each other's lives...you know you can look forward to a long and eventful future spent in the comfortable orbit of each other's existence."
Since I had been seeing my boyfriend for a year before we broke up and then never heard from him again, I was definitely not in the comfortable orbit of my ex's existence. My friends told me I was most assuredly not getting my proper post-dumping checkups. When I first heard this I instinctively defended my ex: Well, since ours was a long-distance thing and we didn't really see each other all that often, maybe ours is a special case and the checkup rule doesn't really apply here. No, they explained gravely, shaking their heads, even long-distancers are supposed to check up.
What was this checkup business? I wondered. To me it seemed so ridiculous, but everyone else was acting like it was perfectly normal. My friends would proudly tell me things like, Yes, my boyfriend checks up on his ex-girlfriends all the time. Or they would brag, I'm best friends with all the guys I've hooked up with. At first I felt kind of bad that I wasn't getting my proper checkups. But then the more I thought about it, the more I was glad my ex-boyfriend wasn't calling me because, really, what in the world would we say?
"Oh! It's you -- it's really you. I was hoping you would call. I've missed you so much."
"Yes, it's me. Don't get too excited, though. I'm just calling because it's time for your checkup."
"Oh. Well, still that's awfully considerate of you. I have so much to tell you...."
"Hmm. Not too much, I hope, because remember, this is only a checkup."
"Yes, that's true, I forgot that for a second there. Sorry."
"That's okay. So anyway...how's life?"
"Oh, you know, just the same old stuff. College. How are you?"
"No, how are you? I'm worried about you. Indeed, that's exactly the purpose of this call: to check up on how you are."
"Oh, really -- don't worry about it. I'm fine."
"Gosh, I just feel terrible. And so guilty."
"Well, you shouldn't you know, because at least you're calling, sweetie."
"Don't call me sweetie!"
"Sorry, sweetie! I mean, sir. It's just that it's -- it's been so long, I... I completely forgot --"
"No, it's too late now. This will have to conclude your checkup."
"Yes, I'm sorry. Checkup's over."
"Oh, well. So anyway, talk to you next week, then? I ho --"
Did I really need this checkup? No, thank you. A checkup would not have made me feel any better. It would have just been another opportunity to humiliate myself. I'm grateful to my ex-boyfriend who didn't check up on me. At least if you feel sadness, disgust, anything on a sliding scale to mutual loathing, at least then you know you're human. All those bad feelings we are too enlightened to feel nowadays -- such as resentment, jealousy, betrayal -- also signify the capacity to lose yourself in the first place, to fall in love with someone other than yourself. They presuppose that there is a soul to protect, that there are hopes to be shattered, a lost love to guard, even if now only mentally and futilely. No hard feelings? I'm advocating a return to precisely that: hard feelings. At least then you know you're a person, that you have a heart. Whereas this checkup business is like a computer backing itself up automatically. A farce.
But my girlfriends simply couldn't understand how I couldn't want my checkups. I should get a lawyer and sue for them. I had a right to my checkups, so that we could be "good friends." The first 20 times I heard this I smiled politely and nodded, but I finally had to speak my mind: Look, he should live and be well, of course, but what could be gained by hearing from him? I don't want to be fakey friends with him. Well, sure, not now, they nodded nervously, but someday...someday! I had no clue what they were talking about, and they had no clue to what I was talking about. So I was lost in grand, dramatic thoughts, such as, What is this prudish, morbid stake society now has in making everyone stay fakey friends? In insisting on eroding the natural barriers which protect the self, the ones which also hold out the possibility of true friendship? In launching a pre-emptive strike against any real emotions which might, God forbid, surface and remind us we are not robots? At least the advice a young woman would get a hundred years ago -- "let no half courtesy continue, but break at once" -- permitted room for a sense of tragedy or dignity. That's what my thoughts settled on, eventually: where is our dignity? But that particular pompous thought lasted all of five seconds because then they told me something which assured me that, indeed, we still had our dignity.
We just called it something else.