It goes without saying: No one wants to be the dumpee in a breakup. So it’s no secret that some of us are very proactive about dumpee-proofing our dating lives. I won’t say that I’ve been running a 24/7 patrol for dumpee prevention and preemption, but I do like to boast that I’m “dumpee-free since ’93!”
Now, that’s dumpee-free with a slight technicality — I haven’t been on the receiving end of a bona fide breakup since I was 17. And by “bona fide breakup” I mean this: The ending of a romantic relationship that has been firmly established. And by “firmly established” I mean this: The guy and I have titles.
It doesn’t matter what the title is — maybe he calls me his “girlfriend” and I call him “my man” — but there is some kind of designation that says, “We are officially with each other and no one else.” Another crucial component: We both adhere to our shared identity as a couple. So not only do I say that we’re a couple and he says that we’re a couple, but we both act like it. It’s an acknowledged fact — to him, to me and to people other than either him or me. And we, the guy and I, are unequivocally an uppercase Us.
So now that I’ve covered the linguistic politics of what is and isn’t a relationship, let’s get back to my not having been dumped in a long time.
Like I said, I was 17. Lawrence was my cute Mennonite boyfriend of many months, but one day he announced that he could no longer be my cute Mennonite boyfriend anymore because his mother didn’t approve of our relationship. (Actually, his mother didn’t approve of me. I suspected it was partly because Lawrence’s African-American father and I share nearly the same dark, coffee-bean complexion. Yet having a black husband didn’t seem to make Lawrence’s Puerto Rican mother a fan of her very fair-skinned biracial son dating Black girls who looked like me.)
But whatever. Bygones.
The fact is this: Lawrence’s mom got what she wanted, and I got my first pungent taste of the wrenching shame associated with being the dumpee after a breakup talk.
No matter how private it is, a breakup talk always feels like a town hall meeting. Even if there’s no one around to overhear what you’re saying or what’s being said to you, a breakup talk feels like a damn public event. So if you’re the one who’s doing most of the listening during the talk (i.e. you’re the dumpee), then it’s impossible to shake a strong sense of embarrassment. It’s as if you’re standing in a public square with a mass of people, but you’re the lone villager whom the town crier addresses when he blares, “Hear ye, hear ye! From henceforth, you and that guy you love and have been with for a really long time are no longer boyfriend and girlfriend.”
I don’t even remember the words Lawrence used when he broke up with me. But whatever they were, I never wanted to feel again the way I did after I heard him say them.I don’t even remember the words Lawrence used when he broke up with me. But whatever they were, I never wanted to feel again the way I did after I heard him say them.
Lawrence was neither the first boy to break my heart — that was a pretty boy named Richard when was I was 8 years old — nor the first boy to reject me. I was quite used to boys who I liked telling me they didn’t like me or boys who I liked saying they liked me and then expediently flip-flopping on the matter.
But Lawrence was the first boy to legitimately dump me. With Lawrence, I had been experiencing my first true sense of relationship reciprocity. He took me on real dates (dinner, the movies, a carnival) and bought me a Christmas present.
Hearing a breakup speech from Lawrence’s mouth was a disorienting blow, but it’s not as if that devastating breakup made 17-year-old me eschew subsequent serious relationships. In the last two decades, I’ve had many legitimate boyfriends, each of whom I dated for anywhere from six to 16 months.
Still, for the most part, I’ve cultivated a dating life where the labels in relationships are nonexistent and the expectations are few. When those relationships end, you don’t walk away from the losses like a jilted high school sweetheart. You walk away as the same intact single woman you were while you met a guy in the first place. Because “a guy” is not “your boyfriend.”
When things are over with a guy who’s not your boyfriend, then there isn’t the same breakup blowback (or so I tell myself.) Rather, it’s like the two of you were talking on your cell phones and one of you inadvertently dropped the call, but you didn’t intentionally hit “end” on the touch screen.
And, really, I kinda hate it when guys don’t just take the accidently-dropped-the-call relationship exit. Otherwise, it feels like he’s trying to be a hero. Take the handsome professor with the French accent who sent me a very thoughtful and earnest text message saying that I reminded him too much of his ex-wife and he couldn’t see me anymore — after we’d only been on two dates.
I’ll admit that the professor’s text message stung. I really, really liked him. Each time I re-read that little iMessage bubble, my stomach ached a little more. And I even sent a reply asking him to reconsider seeing me again.
When he didn’t respond, I got that breakup-blowback, town-crier-singling-me-out-in-a-crowd, dumpee-devastation feeling.
Intellectually, I knew the professor’s text message was only meant to gently close the door to what we might have built together. But emotionally, I quaked as if he’d slammed the door so hard that the ground shook. In two decades of dating, perhaps my biggest self-delusion has been this: If I build nothing with a guy in the first place, then there’s never anything for him to dismantle.
Still, I wish the professor knew the nuances of we’re-seeing-each-other-but-not-really decorum. He could have spared me that piercing explanation about how I am too much like his wife whom he didn’t see very favorably because of a bitter custody battle. As far as breakup lines go, in fact, he actually could have taken a page from my book. In every real relationship that I’ve ended, I at least had the decency to say something like, “We don’t have what it takes to make it in the long run.”
If only I could claim creative rights to that “we don’t have what it takes…” line, but I discovered it in my twenties because it came up in a Google search when I typed how to break up with someone on the day I’d finally come to terms with my hunch that it was time to permanently split with my then-boyfriend of one year. The genius of we don’t have what it takes to make it in the long run is that it gets the point across without making things too personal.
I, at least, know this: My “we don’t have what it takes…” farewell sure as hell beats the goodbye lines that have been used on me. And it’s indisputably better than those priceless explanations I’ve heard, like, you remind too much of my ex-wife, that bitch who won’t let me see my kids or my mom says I can’t be your boyfriend anymore because you’re too black.
So on the breakup spectrum, I like to think that I’m notably ahead and winning. Yes, I’ve felt then sting of being a dumpee. But thanks my superior showing as a dumper, those losses don’t count against me.