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Ruth Neubauer Headshot

No Etiquette for Saying Goodbye

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It's probably doesn't matter whether we're young or middle-aged, but when the romantic relationship doesn't work out, there is no etiquette for saying goodbye. It's just plain clumsy. In middle age, we might have the mistaken notion that we'll be better at it, more mature about it, able to face it and do it well. In middle age, time seems more quantifiable and if we are single and should find each other in unexpected places, we give thanks for the rare opportunity. We decide quickly whether we want more than five minutes together and then embark on life's journey with a twinkle in our middle-aged eyes and hope -- lots of hope!

If it's good, after a foreshortened time of knowing each other, we begin the public appearances with our significant other, introducing them to friends, relatives and, most particularly and sensitively, each other's adult children, also known as "The Committee." Relieved, perhaps, that Mom/Dad is taken care of, not alone, happier, settled, the good-natured, well-nurtured adult children launch their own delicate attachment tendrils outwards to reach the new "significant other."

Plans for trips emerge and become manifest within several months. After all, we "must" travel together to find out who we "really" are! Inevitably, some or another holiday arrives and who goes where, when and with whom becomes another way of knowing, evaluating and finding one's place and the other's flexibility. "Of course, you had pre-arranged plans with your kids for the Christmas holidays. Don't worry. I'll manage." An opportunity for the Resentment Pile. Of course, the Resentment Pile is always ready and available for stacking depending on former history, early parenting and basic character. How much do I need to be Number One and when? Always?

Overall, let's say we are getting closer and closer, doing more and more together, integrating ourselves with each other and mixing and mingling our worlds. We have fallen deeply in love and are making plans for forever. The obstacles and resentments seem to be working out and, with that original hope and dream in tact, will never again appear as a problem. We are each of too good character and too well parented to even own a Resentment Pile, so the months and the bumps move along in time. He has met my mother and I have met his siblings. We spent a weekend just hanging out with his sister and brother-in-law and enjoyed long lunches with his older brother and long-time companion on either side of one of our trips. We have travelled and gone to Europe. One vacation may even have included some of each of our adult children. A "family" vacation, so to speak. Everyone got along, laughed, talked, cooked, shopped, did the Monopoly Thing, played the Hearts cards, with sprinkles of biking, sunning and swimming. It worked out. Connections were made. It was great. We even talked about doing it again. Now there are more people to send regards to and ask about. The cares and concerns regarding the extended circle are growing in numbers, emotions and a sense of responsibility.

Meanwhile, we privately tumble a bit. In fact, "things" are not going all that well between us. Slowly, we each begin to leak the truth to those we trust the most to help us through -- and if all goes well, there isn't much more to say in this essay.

But, what if it doesn't go well and it falls apart? What if the Resentment Pile gets too high or the problems become too difficult or the feelings change or the obstacles are indeed insurmountable?

What if it falls apart for real and for good? Happily, we know better how to settle and sort ourselves out but what about the others?

Who says goodbye to whom and how? Who even wants to? Where are the boundaries which, once in tight tact, became blurred over time to include us? What about your son's wedding and my daughter's birthing and your sister's hip and my brother's surgery and your friend's heart and my friend's cancer?

How do we say goodbye to everyone? Anyone? There are no rules. There is no etiquette. We don't know what is, and is not, appropriate to say. How do I relate to your sister who is your close friend when I am no longer relating to you? How do I validate the importance and uniqueness of my relationship with your son and his girlfriend? Do I write? Do I call? Do I just quietly disappear, as do they? Do we address the awkwardness or let it take over? =Is silence more respectful than words or must we, may we, say what is in our hearts? Directly. Clearly. Without blame. =With responsibility.

The truth is I don't know. It seems we have to play it out one by one deciding each time how much to put our heart on the line while expecting and wishing for nothing in return. If we choose to voice our good-bye it must be without an agenda, without manipulation, simply with pure intention because good-bye really is good-bye.

Etiquette doesn't matter. What matters is the heart and, albeit no less sad, endings can be caring in the midst of their finality. Then, at least internally, the relationships can stay in tact.