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Unspoken Endings

By Gabriella Boston, The Washington Times – 11/05/2006 – 12:00am

The breakup of a romantic relationship is seldom easy, but we know a fair share about this uncomfortable undertaking from self-help books, celebrity news reports and tips from family and friends. But how about breaking up with friends, acquaintances and people such as hairdressers and personal trainers? Do we know anything?

Not much, but we’re learning, says Liz Pryor, author of “What Did I Do Wrong? When Women Don’t Tell Each Other the Friendship Is Over.” “From a psychological perspective, friendships are not considered major relationships,” Ms. Pryor says, adding that spousal and parental relationships have dibs on the “major” title. That “means friendships are fuzzier both at the beginning and at the end.”

Can you pinpoint, for example, the exact day and time when you met a good friend? Broke up with that friend? Not so easy, is it? Now try the same mental exercise, but replace “friend” with “spouse.” Easier. We tend to put more stock into romantic relationships than friendships, which can be ironic in this day and age when many of our friendships survive as marriages crumble, Ms. Pryor says. “Somehow, the relationships we have with women are not recognized as life-altering relationships,” she says.

They can be, however, as can relationships with hairdressers and personal trainers, says Sue Fox, an etiquette aficionado and founder and owner of the California-based Etiquette Survival Group.

“We end up getting very close to these people, even if what we have with them starts out as a business relationship,” Ms. Fox says. “We end up telling them our life’s story.” The closer we get, the harder it is to break up. Ms. Fox likens those relationships to the ones we have in the workplace and cautions: “We need to keep our distance.”

Says a long-time Capitol Hill hairdresser who spoke on condition of anonymity: “I remember telling a client — after she had complained about the way I cut her hair for a long time — that she might try someone else. “And the client started crying. She felt I had rejected her, when really I was just trying to help her,” the hairdresser says. After more than two decades in the business, the hairdresser says she never gets her feelings hurt when a client “moves on,” but she does prefer honesty to mere avoidance.

“Always be as frank as possible,” says Ms. Fox, author of “Etiquette for Dummies,” a book she is updating to include a section on breakups in friendship and business relationships. “Avoidance is the worst. It can be very awkward if you bump into that person later on,” she says, adding that being in limbo about the status of a friendship also can cause anguish and hurt feelings. If an eye-to-eye breakup is too difficult, why not send a handwritten thank-you/farewell note, she suggests. And, finally, when it comes to business relationships, there is always the money angle, Ms. Fox says. “That’s a universal language,” she says. “If you say you can’t afford it, everyone understands.”

It’s not always the client who wants to break up, however. Sometimes it’s the professional — the hairdresser or personal trainer. Remember a few years ago when personal trainer Tony Little apparently “dumped” Anna Nicole Smith as a client because she didn’t lose enough weight fast enough?

We doubt etiquette maven Ms. Fox would be in favor of this public breakup, although it did seem honest enough. A local personal trainer who asked to remain anonymous says when she started a few years ago, she was told by her boss: “Clients will tell you more, be more intimate with you, than they are with their best friends or spouses.” She had a hard time believing that, but it turned out to be true. “You have a lot of time together, and some people just spill, which is fine with me,” she says. “It’s harder to pass the time if someone is very dry.”

The personal trainer has yet to break up with any client, she says, adding, “but I’m fairly new to this.” The concept behind “What Did I Do Wrong? When Women Don’t Tell Each Other the Friendship is Over,” Ms. Pryor says, “Friendships, especially the breakup of friendships, were just not discussed.”

Just look at the tabloids as one source of reference. Sure, we get a trickle or two about friendship breakups – for example, the breakup of Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie. Compare that to the constant barrage of romantic-breakup gossip (e.g. Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughn). So, Ms. Pryor wrote the book, and since it was released in April, she has received more than 50 e-mails a day, mostly from women who want to talk friendships and share anecdotes from their own lives. “And I can’t help it, but I respond to all of them,” Ms. Pryor says. She hopes this dialogue will help shape the future of friendship etiquette for both the receiver (the person with whom someone breaks up) and the initiator.

“Most initiators I hear from say they wish they had told their friends the little things — ‘Don’t flirt with my husband’ and ‘Don’t shout at my kids’ — instead of burying it and letting it build up inside until it’s too late,” she says. She suggests that we should become more conscious about our friendships — whom we pick as our friends, how we pace our friendships, how we communicate. “Don’t assume things will be great because ‘I like her, she’s my tribe,’ ” she says.

If a breakup is inevitable, she sides with Ms. Fox on the letter as an effective way to signal the end — whether you’re a receiver or initiator. But wait a minute. If you’re the one being abandoned, you write the letter? “Yes, you can still mark the ending,” she says. “It helps the receiver because you’re playing an active part in finishing up the friendship.”

In the end, however, what will make the biggest difference in our friendships — whether they are in their infancy, middle age or about to wither — is doing what we hate to do, Ms. Pryor says. “You have to look at yourself,” she says. “Are you the person you want to be? Are you treating people the way you want to be treated? Are you being true to yourself?”

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