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Doom For Improvement

I’ve been dating a fabulous guy for about a year. The other day, he walked into my house and declared that we should break up. (We had been squabbling more than usual, and he was frustrated.) Well, when he announced this, I was devastated. We ended up talking the problems out and deciding to give the relationship another shot. I’m glad we didn’t break up, but now I feel that maybe he’s sticking around so he doesn’t hurt me. I’m also a little perturbed that his frustration would lead to such a drastic consequence (one he said he was glad didn’t actually come through). Once a breakup is on the table, is there a way to move past it? Or, by getting back together, are we just prolonging the inevitable?

--Breakup Limbo

Imagine if people went on first dates looking and acting like they do after a year in a relationship. You’d see burping, farting, unshaven slobs with beer bellies wearing tattered remains of hockey jerseys -- unlaundered since purchase decades before, perhaps on the off chance the authorities demand forensic evidence of every meal the person’s ever eaten in front of the TV. Frightening, huh? And those are just the women.

A breakup should always be on the table -- if you want to keep your relationship together. Perhaps you haven’t noticed, but relationships, these days, tend to have the tensile strength of a potato chip. Believing yours could crumble at any moment is the best way for you and your partner to keep from mistaking each other for oversized skin tags -- benign, fleshy growths that go pretty much unnoticed until they get caught in a zipper. As a fringe benefit, it should also prevent the two of you from turning bathing into a ritual reserved for special occasions -- like leap year.

Conflict is actually a good thing. You could consider it a navigational aid, much like those giant lights that help pilots land planes on the runway instead of in your spare bedroom. It points out areas in the relationship landscape that might call for an extra baggage handler or two. Or, perhaps, fire trucks and the bomb squad.

To solve problems, don’t rely on gimmicky tricks like that “active listening” hoo-ha, in which you’re supposed to repeat your partner’s words back to him: “I’m hearing that you loathe me so deeply that your life dream has become watching me be gnawed to death, very slowly, by an extended family of rabid squirrels.” The best predictor for relationship tenure, according to extensive research by psych professor John Gottman, isn’t total erasure of conflict but acting out of what he calls “deep friendship” -- truly liking and respecting your partner, and caring about their needs like they’re your own. (“The Seven Principles For Making Marriage Work,” by John Gottman.)

This means that your boyfriend’s hissy fit isn’t necessarily a sign that it’s time to soap down the tarmac. It’s just conflict about not dealing well with conflict. It is time the boy came up with a communication style that isn’t modeled on a bottle of Coke shaken by a 10-year-old. Encourage him to share issues as soon as they start burning and itching (especially any pending breakups), as opposed to bottling them up until his head hits DEFCON 1. (On a side note: As upsetting as his little tantrum must have been, it is refreshing that, these days, even little boys can grow up to be drama queens.)

Copyright ©2003, Amy Alkon, from her syndicated column, "The Advice Goddess," which appears in over 100 papers across the U.S. and Canada. All rights reserved.