Print this Article
Thursday, April 2, 2015 12:01 am

Wane of terror

I’ve been seeing this guy long-distance. I haven’t really been feeling it and kind of let it drop off, thinking he’d get the hint. He keeps texting and calling. I keep telling him I’m just really busy. The truth is, I’ve met somebody else. Do I have to tell him? – Dreading It

Even milk and meat have the courtesy to let you know when they’re expiring. You, on the other hand, reeled in a guy’s heart, watched it flop around on the carpet and then misplaced it under a pile of old newspapers.

“Life is short!” you hear people say. And it can be – if you’re in the habit of Snapchatting while meandering across bus lanes. But as the Stoic philosopher Seneca said, “It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it.” Unfortunately, other people sometimes waste it for us, like by expecting us to “get the hint” that they’re done with us. By the way, men, especially, tend to be poor at hint taking. So yes, you actually have to tell the guy – rather than continue with your current approach: “I dumped you. You’re smart. You’ll figure it out eventually.”

To be human is to procrastinate – to put off till tomorrow (or the second Tuesday in never) what we could do today. Behavioral science research finds that we are biased toward the right now, irrationally overvaluing a small payoff we can have right away over a substantially larger one down the road. We’re especially quick to put off anything that involves duty (and its conjoined twin, discomfort). This is irrational because deferring almost always costs far more – like if we delay going to the doctor until we have not only a tumor but one with 3,651 Facebook friends.

Likewise, instead of cleverly escaping the stress of breaking up, you’ve built stressing about it into your daily routine: Coffee… ignore uncomfortable text… feed the cat… duck his call. It seems that ending the daily feel-bads should be motivation enough for you to clue the guy in. The problem is, the human motivational system tends to be in-activated by “avoidance goals” – negative outcomes we’re trying to avoid, such as avoiding feeling guilty for stringing a guy along. (It doesn’t help that the “reward” here – shifting from feeling guilty to feeling relieved – is abstract and intangible.) What we find most motivating are “approach goals,” positive outcomes we strive toward. To recast breaking up in that way, offer yourself an immediate and tangible reward, like treating yourself to a big sloppy dessert right after you do the deed.

Telling him in a timely way is something you do not just for him but for you, because what you do becomes who you are: Murder and you’re a murderer. Garden and you’re a gardener. Keep a guy on the hook and… well, okay, that one goes a little off-track. But doing the right thing, the kind thing, would take what, five uncomfortable minutes on the phone? The cumulative dread of doing it probably feels way worse than the actual doing. Plus, the momentary awfulness seems a small price to pay to become a different sort of person – one who doesn’t make a guy feel like the kid whose mom was supposed to pick him up after soccer but instead moved to Belize. 

© 2015, Amy Alkon, all rights reserved. Got a problem? Write Amy Alkon, 171 Pier Ave, #280, Santa Monica, CA 90405, or email ( Weekly radio show: Order Amy Alkon’s new book, “Good Manners For Nice People Who Sometimes Say F*ck” (St. Martin’s Press, June 3, 2014).


  • Mon
  • Tue
  • Wed
  • Thu
  • Fri
  • Sat
  • Sun