Hey, You're Breaking Up on Me!

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By January W. Payne
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Jason Sherman, 25, admits he sometimes finds it hard to say what he means: He once broke up with a girlfriend by text messaging her on his cellphone, and he says he has used e-mail to deliver similar news to other women.

"I'm one of those people that it's hard to speak [my] mind in person," said Sherman, of Independence, Mo. "It's a lot easier to say how I feel [electronically]. You can get more out, and you don't have to worry about somebody yelling in your face."

Sherman is part of a changing dating world where singles can avoid direct confrontation by crafting the traditional "Dear John/Jane" letter using advanced technology. Even pop star Britney Spears reportedly broke up with her soon-to-be-ex-husband Kevin Federline via a text message sent to his cellphone -- a message he read while taping an interview for a Canadian television show in November.

It's no longer unusual to deliver uncomfortable news by text message, instant message or e-mail and, increasingly, through social networking sites. MySpace and Facebook, among other sites, allow users to post public comments on one another's profile pages -- including some very private, and sometimes confrontational, messages. An October survey commissioned by Samsung Telecommunications America reported that about 11 percent of Americans say breaking up with a boyfriend or girlfriend via text message is okay.

Singles can also break up with a partner by means of a prerecorded voice-mail message, set up a special phone number to screen calls, reject a potential suitor via a hotline -- and even use an e-card to tell a past sexual partner that he or she may have been exposed to a sexually transmitted disease.

It's all about what makes the bearer of the bad news feel more comfortable, singles report -- not about how it will make the receiver of those messages feel. While many of these tools are passed around as jokes via text messaging and e-mail forwards, some people are using them to avoid the discomfort that can come with having to tell someone they're not interested or to deliver otherwise unsettling news.

This concerns some psychologists, who say that avoiding confrontation may not be a good idea for the person delivering the message -- or for the receiver.

"Some of this involves courage or lack of courage and ability to face up to things, which people often have to struggle with," said Bernard Guerney Jr., founder of the National Institute of Relationship Enhancement, a nonprofit educational corporation based in Bethesda. "You grow some when you face these things, and I think you lose something when you have to resort to tricky things and not confront people about things that are intimately important."

Still, while it is clearly hurtful to be on the receiving end of such rejection messages, there may be a bright side. That, at least, is how Helen Friedman, a St. Louis clinical psychologist who specializes in dating and relationships, chooses to see it.

Of the person initiating the breakup, she said, "it shows a lack of character to not just be able to say no" face to face. "Most people want to be [romantically] involved with someone who has character, so the recipient can say, 'Hey, I've been spared something.' "

And though some of the modern messaging is clearly done in jest, it can leave a lingering trail of damage, a recent survey suggests. Teenagers report that technology can fuel near constant -- even harassing -- contact via instant messaging and text messaging; and jilted boyfriends and girlfriends can post embarrassing pictures, videos and messages on social networking sites, according to the survey, sponsored by Liz Claiborne Inc., which commissioned the research to evaluate levels of dating abuse among teens.

Here is a sampling of the technologies available:

REJECTION HOTLINE Created in 2001, this prerecorded voice-mail line is available in more than 80 area codes. Some 90 million callers, according to the company that runs the service, have dialed it and heard a message that begins, "This is not the person you are trying to call. . . . The person who gave you this rejection hotline number did not want you to have their real number. We know this sucks, but don't be too devastated. Maybe you're just not this person's type. . . . Please take the hint. Accept the fact that you've been rejected and then get over it."

Jeff Goldblatt, whose Atlanta-based company runs the hotline along with the "Breakup Butler" site mentioned below, estimates that the majority of callers dial the number as a joke after hearing about it from friends. But he has heard from users who give the number out in bars or other dating situations to reject strangers. http://www.rejectionhotline.com

STD E-CARDS Launched in 2004 as a service for gay men seeking to notify past sex partners about exposure to sexually transmitted diseases, the e-cards are now available to anyone, according to Deb Levine, director of Internet Sexuality Information Services, an Oakland, Calif.-based nonprofit that distributes the cards. They are similar to the e-greeting cards sent to celebrate birthdays and holidays, but instead they deliver news of potential exposure to an STD and advise the receiver to get tested.

"It's not what you brought to the party, it's what you left with," one card states. "I left with an STD. You might have, too. Get checked out soon." More than 80 percent of the cards are sent anonymously, and about 80 percent include an optional personal message, Levine said. The Web site gets about 750 unique visitors each day.

Levine said the cards are available free nationwide. But the site requires senders to click on a geographic region before selecting a card. That feature is simply to provide location-specific information for recipients who want to follow up with STD testing in their area, Levine said. http://www.inspot.org

BREAKUP HELP Another option for breaking up with significant others: the Breakup Butler, who delivers a "kinder, gentler, proper breakup," said Goldblatt, who also offers a female voice declaring a much harsher, meaner ending to the relationship. The Web site allows you to enter your partner's e-mail address and have the prerecorded message delivered, as an audio attachment to him or her.

"We really don't know how many people are actually using the breakup service to actually end relationships," Goldblatt said. "And if they are, you have to question what kind of relationship it actually was. . . . We caution people to think before they use it and to take people's feelings into account." http://www.breakingupiseasytodo.com

SCREEN NUMBERS AND RESCUE CALLS Set up an alternate phone number that routes calls to your voice mail or your regular phone number. If you decide you're not interested in the person calling the alternate number, cancel it. Available -- sometimes free, or for a small monthly fee -- through a variety of service providers. Also useful in the dating scene are so-called rescue-ring calls, which allow you to schedule a prerecorded call to your cellphone at a predetermined time -- perhaps in the middle of dinner -- so you can make a quick getaway if the date isn't going well. Instructions provided on the recording typically walk you through how to comfortably excuse yourself from the date.

Call screening: http://www.screennumber.com. Rescue ring services: http://www.cingular.com/voiceinfo (called Instant Alibi), http://www.virginmobileusa.com. A company called Moderati offers "faux calls" and "faux numbers," available for subscribers to all major cellphone services: http://www.mobilefaker.com. ยท

Comments:paynej@washpost.com.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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