It's one of those things every woman dreads. You try ignoring the signs, telling yourself everything's fine, it'll get back to the way things used to be. But then it doesn't, no matter what you do or say. And you know that special something is gone. You need to take action.

You have to break up with your hairdresser.

My friend Ellen just went through it. "I really feel like I gave it my all," she said one evening at dinner several weeks ago. "I told her the last few times I went, I wanted the sides left a little longer."

Ellen has one of those mid-length styles that cry out for proper layering.

She looked down at her plate and nervously poked her fork at her pad thai. "She just wouldn't listen."

She sighed.

"Maybe I've been going to her so long, she just didn't hear me anymore."

Meg, Linda and I nodded in sympathy. Linda flicked her long black hair over her shoulders.

"I had a situation like that a couple of years ago," Linda said. "I was growing my hair out from that short cut I had, and it was just about to my shoulders. Remember? I was going to that girl in the shop on M Street, near my office. No matter what I said, every time I came out of there, I had these . . ."--she paused, and grimaced--". . . these wings that would just stick out."

We all shuddered.

"That's so early '80s," Meg said, wrinkling her nose.

Linda nodded emphatically. "Exactly. I had no choice. I had to find someone else. It was hard because we'd been together for five years. But what could I do? She wasn't changing with the times."

We murmured our understanding.

"I just felt so bad for dumping her without saying anything," she said, absently spooning some eggplant with black bean sauce onto her plate. "And after I found someone else, I actually walked a block out of my way every day to avoid passing by her shop, so she wouldn't see me with a new haircut."

The three of us nodded in unison. It sounded like perfectly reasonable behavior to us, given the circumstances.

Now, we've all had disastrous haircuts. One time years ago, I went to a hairdresser who looked at my shoulder-length, straight brown hair and suggested a permanent. By the time she was done, my now frizzy hair stuck out about one foot on each side of my head. I looked like Roseanne Roseannadanna from "Saturday Night Live's" early days. But this is something more subtle, and even more disturbing than a bad cut: gradually growing apart from your hairstylist, whom you initially adored.

For women, there's nothing quite like that early, blissful time when you find a hairdresser who actually knows how to cut your hair so you look your best. You learn more about each other every time you visit, since you're in that chair for a good hour each time, and even longer if highlighting is involved. Soon she knows about your triumphs and frustrations at work, your love life, your cousin's wedding on Long Island.

If you're lucky, this goes on for several years. But more often than not, one or both of you begin to, well, get bored. Or you want a change, and she doesn't get it. Or maybe, she wants you to change, and you want to stick with what you know.

Or, as in Ellen's case, your hairdresser just doesn't seem to pay attention the way she used to. Which is exactly where I find myself at the moment.

So I have to break up with my hairdresser, Debra. But why do I feel so guilty? Maybe because she took me through that difficult growing-out stage without too much pain. And she got me back to wearing bangs, which I'd avoided at all costs following that unfortunate spiky bangs incident back in 1990.

But last summer, things started to turn. I'd ask for just a tiny bit off my bangs, and she'd cut them up to the middle of my forehead. I'd ask for a little more layering all around, and she'd smile and nod, and then cut my hair exactly the same as before.

After three visits like this, I began to think perhaps the magic of our relationship was fading. So the question is, how do I leave? It seems a bit cold to simply stop going, after four years, with not a word of explanation.

On the other hand, it is a professional relationship. You're the client, she's the service provider. You're simply moving on to another provider. Right?

Hardly. Jenny, a woman I met at a conference, told me of her horror when, after switching hairdressers, she spotted her ex at the gym.

"My stomach did a sort of flip-flop when I saw her," she said. "I'm embarrassed to say this, but I actually shifted my workout schedule so I wouldn't risk running into her again. Isn't that crazy?"

Crazy, maybe. But not abnormal. I've broached this subject with more than a dozen women, and all of them related stories about how they or their friends had made a concerted effort to avoid encountering former hairdressers. I have to admit, I avoid going to lunch at a certain downtown restaurant because it's in the same block as my former hairdresser's salon. And when I lived in Silver Spring several years ago, I once hid behind a tall display of reading glasses in the drugstore when I spotted my former hairstylist in the greeting card aisle.

Then there is the case of my friend Carrie. Not long ago, she decided she wasn't happy with her hairdresser, Nicole. When she arrived at a new salon, the first person she saw was . . . Nicole.

It seems Nicole had changed jobs. In fact, she worked at the chair right next to Carrie's new hairdresser, Barbara.

So what did Carrie do when Nicole saw her?

"At first, I just wanted the floor to open and swallow me up," she said. "I didn't know what to say. So I just mumbled hello."

And did Carrie slink out the door, unable to return again because of the awkwardness of it all?

"Well, Barbara gave me such a wonderful haircut," she said, a smile slowly spreading across her face, "I got over my guilt."

Hmmm. A haircut so good it's enough to vanquish the facing-the-hairdresser-you-just-dumped guilt? I think I may have to get Barbara's number.