Dear Social Grace,
My 16-year-old daughter wanted to have a boyfriend “like all the other girls,” but never did until about two weeks ago. Now, she realizes she is not ready to have a boyfriend after all. She wants to let him know right away (this week) that she doesn't want to date, not just him, but not anyone, right now. But she has been struggling because she doesn't want to hurt his feelings — they have actually known each other for years through school. Any suggestions on how to discuss this with him without hurting his feelings?
I get many letters from people looking for a pain-free way to end a romantic relationship. Here's a dose of reality: There is no way to end a romance without causing at least a little bit of pain. Accepting, and fully understanding, that our actions and decisions may hurt others is, I'd say, an important step in becoming ready for true love. Your daughter is learning this lesson at a relatively young age — and good for her. Many people never learn it at all.
Now, there is a polite way to end a love affair. That is, privately, personally, and without blaming the other person (the explanation in your letter is a fine one for your daughter to use). Additionally, it sounds as though an apology is in order on your daughter's part. (Apologies for harms done are a necessary part of many “it's over” talks.) Further, and very importantly, a polite person never discusses intimate details about a former boyfriend or girlfriend after a breakup.
When a girl breaks up with a teenage boyfriend, she's going to hurt his feelings. But if your daughter follows these courtesy guidelines and treats her beau's feelings with care (and if the young man is a gentleman), he will recover, and their friendship should endure.
Dear Social Grace,
How does one behave in the unwelcome presence of one's ex, when that encounter happens to take place in a public place, and with mutual friends also in attendance? The breakup in question was traumatic and the result of extremely duplicitous behavior on the part of my ex, followed by a long series of continuing lies about me, which cast me in a bad light. To complicate things further, the ex can be very charming, which serves to cover his criminal side (he does have one, literally, in addition to multiple socially criminal infractions). Some friends now see me as the difficult one, as I find it impossible to tolerate his presence, which has become the response to his abandonment and absence of any sort of apology on his part. I loathe turning down some social invitations which once brought me so much happiness, but which now cause so much awkwardness if my ex (with new partner now glued to his side) and I happen to find ourselves in too small a public space. I do hate to make a scene, especially after the amount of time that has elapsed.
Dear Wondering Madam or Sir,
You almost seem to be asking me for a polite way to make a scene. And I grant you, it sounds as though you have good reasons to be quite perturbed with this fellow. However, I cannot give you a temper-tantrum how-to. Rather, I will provide a strenuous (but highly beneficial) exercise in self-restrained, politely principled behavior.
When someone does you irreparable, grievous harm, you should forevermore “cut him dead” — that is, end all contact with him. When you see him in public, pretend he's invisible. If you must interact with him (if, for example, you are introduced by an unwitting host), a bare-minimum, coolly polite tone makes your feelings plainer than even the nastiest outburst. At the same time, it spares the people around you the embarrassment of a big scene. This refusal to engage is not only polite, but also an effective way to keep an unsavory character out of your life.
A famous, perhaps apocryphal, story in etiquette circles (it was first transcribed by Emily Post) may serve as a simple lesson: It seems that a great lady attended a large dinner party and found herself seated, at the table, next to a man she utterly despised. She turned to this man and told him, with a calm expression and quiet tone of voice, that she would not speak with him but that, for the sake of their hostess and the other guests, she would pretend to speak with him, to avoid any unseemliness. Thereafter, with an expression of mild interest on her face, she began reciting the multiplication tables. She then asked the gentleman to do the same when it was his turn to speak. And thus, back and forth, they passed the minutes until she could politely turn to another dinner companion.
You could, in the same spirit, turn necessary conversations into a recitation of the past week's weather: “On Monday, it was raining, wasn't it? And what do you think the high temperature was? And on Tuesday?” and so on.
I've given you some difficult tasks, but then, etiquette is not for milquetoasts. A polite alternative, if you find the previous methods too burdensome, is to remove yourself from social situations in which you may encounter your ex.
And I have one last piece of advice for you: Stop saying nasty things about your ex. Of course, you may commiserate with your closest loved ones, but don't curse his name every time it comes up in conversation. Truly polite people just don't do that, and trust me — becoming known as a polite person makes good sense. Being despised hurts. Being despised by someone whom everyone else admires as a paragon of moral rectitude — that really hurts.