SHE HAD JUST moved to, Washington, 24 and eager for new beginnings. It was all working out even beyond her hometown hopes: Her first week here she met a government lawyer with an impressive security clearance.

He found her jokes hilarious and her curly hair fetching. She wasn't typical Washington, he told her. She was special, what he had always hoped would come his way. She believed him.

Even when he started working later and later at night on that confidential case. And when his weekends got cluttered with business golf games and visits from his brothers. And when the calls tapered off to one a week, instead of one an hour.

The signals could not have been clearer. Yet, she rationalized. Particularly when he called her the morning of his birthday and asked her out for a drink that afternoon.

After the drink, he even invited her to his apartment for another.

"Listen," he said rather sheepishly. "Do have any plans for the rest of the evening?"

"No, no. Why?"

"Well, could you do me a special birthday favor?" he asked. "I have dinner plans and I'm late. Would you mind waiting here until they deliver my new king size bed?"

Until The Perfect Relationship arrives, endings will be like lower back problems--recurrent pains that always come at the wrong time. And no matter how we vow to detect the symptoms the next time, somehow many of us simply never know when it's over.

Some Not-So-Subtle Signals:

* Time. There's never enough of it anymore. Somehow those sunny days you were supposed to spend together shrink to an hour and a half on Saturday. A Washington writer saw the end in sight when her boyfriend asked her to wait at Tysons Corner for two hours while he went to his estranged wife's house to change her smoke-alarm battery.

* Future. She stops reading your daily horoscope and thinking it's so revealing.

* Face Value. Little things go unnoticed. Like the public relations executive who wore his new toupee home one night and his wife didn't notice until four hours later.

* Cashing It In. When she's ready to leave, she stops offering to pay. When he's ready to leave, he insists on paying.

* Friendly Fixes. Your lover starts saying things like "you'd really get a long with my cousin."

There never was a romance worth a farthing that didn't end badly. And I'm not even counting marriage . . .

One Rule of Love to remember is as inviolate as any to be found in Robert's Rules of Order: It is better for The Girl to leave you rather than the other way around.

Absolutely no fun accrues for the longest time, to the man who leaves The Girl. He is nagged by guilt twinges so acute he can't relax even in the arms of a seductive new companion . . .

Larry L. King

From "Hurtin' Good," a recent article

In the beginning, life seems like a giant ice cream soda with two straws. It is world of "we"--through dreamy Sunday brunches and enthusiastic trips to the zoo. Even though you're both allergic to animal hair.

Then one day you notice that he twitched his left eyebrow differently and suddenly you're sure the dump is upon you. But wait. Everyone knows you tend to overreact and you're insecure, so you hang in there. Waiting for the next time he twitches his right eyebrow. It's a misunderstanding. It can't be over, you're sure.

"Why do people resist the signs that it's over?" says Isaiah Zimmerman, a psychologist and prominent Washington couples counselor. "Because the pain of being rejected is so unbearable . . . It means your value is going down. They almost never confront . . . They don't want a blow up because that will give the person all the more reason to leave. People first go through denial, then argue, bargain and finally demeaning submissiveness."

In fact, when the internal romance mechanism starts giving off dangerous signals, you become convinced you can salvage the remnants. And ignorance becomes an art form.

Suddenly, you are always available. All the things you hated about her (him) before now seem cute. His (her) loud, disgusting drinking friends (gossipy, whining aerobic acquaintances) are now a barrel of laughs. You start believing that you really are too moody and how did she (he) ever tolerate it. On second thought, your sister is probably the nerd he (she) always thought she was. And marriage? Whoever said anything about marriage? No, no. No one is ready. Of course not.

Common decency and good old-fashioned guilt usually compel people to give off loud signals when attempting to extricate themselves from a love affair. But the sad truth is this: There is no cheerful way to dump or be dumped. No matter how delicate the slide or the sign, the result is always the same. Of course, contrary to what Larry L. King says, it always feels better to be the dumper.

An economic consultant thought the kindest way was not to say anything and merely be busy with work all the time. The trouble was that her boyfriend thought she really was busy. He hung in there for seven months wait-ing for the workload to ease up. It never did.

"A sure way to know when it's over," maintains Zimmerman, "is when the disinterested person loses that kind of attentiveness and curiosity that is always fresh in the beginning. They just don't want to know about you any more . . ." Love at the Top

Abby never really figured out how much money he had, she just knew it was a lot. He owned a large company, headquartered on lower Park Avenue. During their two years together, weekends in Martinique were as common as strolls down Madison Avenue.

Limousines carted her to the grocery store and maids were sent to tidy up her small co-op. Then came the weekend in Acapulco. It wasn't particularly exhilarating, but then, what relationship always is? On the Lear Jet flying back, he told her things weren't working out. Just like that.

The next morning, she dialed his private line and was greeted by his secretary.

"Oh, hello," said the secretary. "Mr. Smith has told me to tell you that when it's over, it's over. This number will be changed this afternoon."

The former lovers never spoke again.

Q: Weren't you engaged once to a college professor?

A: Yes, but while we were engaged his wife got pregnant.

Exchange with Joan Rivers in People magazine

Zimmerman offers these clues that the dump is upon you:

* A reduction in time spent together, with the departing partner denying that this is occurring because he (she) feels guilty and doesn't want to face it.

* The departing partner claims it's simply a temporary problem because of increasing pressures at work.

* Decreased direct eye contact. Departing partner often looks away;

* Increased eye contact and liveliness with others at a party or in groups. The departing partner always appears more comfortable in crowds.

* Unaccountable moodiness on part of departing partner when alone together. When one has got it on his or her mind that they want it to end, they try to put things on a sour note to build a case for leaving.

* Ending the evening earlier than usual, claiming fatigue or a heavy work load. The Beginning of the End

There was nothing about Suzanne that Craig didn't like during those first two months. She was lean and tan and played an acceptable game of squash. In addition, she savored his one obsession: Politics.

He thought this could be IT. Until they spent their first night together. After several hours of what seemed to be blissful romance, Suzanne lay back and stared out the window. Craig draped an arm around her tiny waist.

"What are you thinking about?" he whispered.

"My old boyfriend, David," she said. "He called today. He wants his 10-speed back."

"I can't stand feeling sorry for myself. I can't stand feeling like a victim. I can't stand hoping against hope. I can't stand sitting here with all this rage turning to hurt and then to tears . . . I looked at the pie sitting right there in front of me and suddenly it began to throb . . . If I throw this pie at him, I thought to myself, he will never love me. And then it hit me: he doesn't love me.

It hit me with shimmering clarity: that was all there was to it. It didn't matter if he was crazy. It didn't matter if I was innocent or guilty. Nothing mattered except that he didn't love me . . . I picked up the pie, thanked God for the linoleum floor, and threw it. It landed mostly on the right side of Mark's face, but that was good enough."

Nora Ephron "Heartburn" Sweet Revenge

There are ways to retaliate and aggravate the dumper. This is not to be confused with conniving to get the dumper back. Psychological warfare must only be used by the person being dumped when all hope is truly gone.

Some universally accepted techniques:

* Ignore all the subtle signals that you are being dumped. This will infuriate the dumper, who is desperately trying to be a nice person but still get out of the relationship. The longer you placidly ignore the situation, the crazier the person will become until one day he or she will announce he or she hates you.

* Picket in front of dumper's house. One labor lawyer did this for three days, carrying a placard that accused his ex of stealing his record albums when she moved out.

* For the dumper who tells you, "I'm confused": Important to realize that this person is terminally confused. Response should be agreeable. Sweet. Drippy. But, when the confusion lifts enough for you to be wanted, be busy for the next year and a half. Dumper will get unconfused fast. But that doesn't matter because this is not a ploy for reconciliation.

* Preemptive Strike. Call dumper up and make a special appointment to discuss the relationship. Before he or shecan say a word, zap. You're sorry, but you're leaving. That's life. Wish him or her happiness. This, of course, take ingenious timing. But it's well worth it--you deprive someone of one of life's greatest dramas.

* The Achilles Heel Technique. Go for the sore spot. A college student, who had a prolonged affair with one of her professors knew the guy was obsessively fastidious. So one day--as the relationship was nearly dead and he was going through the usual patronizing "we must be friends" routine--she stopped by his office to show off her new puppy. The dog relieved himself on the rug.

A publishing executive knew his wife had long left their marriage. She just hadn't moved out of their apartment yet. Her way of avoiding life and relaxing was to take long hot showers. So he would wait until she was good and comfortable and then flush the toilet in one of the other bathrooms to cut the water pressure.

* Hardcore Humiliation. Not only dump the dumper first, but do it with panache. One Washington secretary waited until her businessman boyfriend, who treated her like his portable doormat for one year, had invited six of his out-of-town associates to her house for a fancy dinner. She cooked for two days (at her own expense), served them and even disappeared into the kitchen so business could be tended to. As they all left her apartment, she asked her boyfriend to come back for a second. From behind the door, she lifted a huge carton with all his laundry and belongings, shoved the box into his arms and pushed him out the door.

* Discreetly slip out of town for a few days. When you return tell him you went to see your old boyfriend and how very painful it is for you to say this--but you'll be marrying soon.

* Quietly send her mother a birthday present. And when she tells you you're using her mother, accuse her of being warped.

* Consistently send his kids innovative (but inexpensive) gifts and little notes. They will harass him on weekends concerning your whereabouts.

* Tell her you now understand why her last boyfriend dumped her.

* Throw a surprise birthday party. Best results are if you can make it to the party without getting dumped. All his friends love you. And he'll feel guilty.

However, this works even better if he decides to lower the boom prematurely.

For example, a Baltimore television producer started dating two women at the same time and after six months, he had worried himself into a frenzy, deciding he was the one-woman kind. So he sat No. 2 down and explained "honestly" how he felt and that he had decided on No. 1.

"No problem," she said. "And I do hope we can be friends . . . But there is something you should know. I've arranged a surprise birthday for you and invited your entire office and friends."

* Forget to give back the keys to his house for at least a month. Changing locksis a nuisance, and he'll never really know if you plan to drop by sometime.

If there is a flicker left in the romance, then at least you may be able to salvage your dignity. So you won't have to stay in the house for several months as if you're in mourning. You won't cry at subway stops or find new personal meanings in every Top-40 song. You don't have to drive to a store eight blocks out of way to avoid her (his) neighborhood or 'scope out the guest list at a party three days before, or avoid the office cafeteria for months.

All this being said, it's important to know that if the dumper doesn't care, none of this works: You have no leverage.

But you can't plan for every possibility, anyway. Remember, as the song says, there are 50 ways to leave a lover.