Terence Blacker: The difficulty of saying goodbye

The time has arrived surely for there to emerge a new specialism of caring terminators
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The Independent Online

A new service industry may soon be upon us, but it is unlikely to feature on the BBC's business reality show The Dragons' Den. It involves personal termination and is being pioneered in Berlin, by a man called Bernd Dressler.

If Herr Dressler appears on your doorstep, he will not be bringing good news. "I say to them, 'Good day, my name is Bernd Dressler from the Separation Agency and I have been asked by your partner to inform you that he or she wishes to end your relationship.' I don't get involved if somebody starts crying or gets emotional. I simply tell them I have come to pass on the message."

There is money to be made in the dumping-by-proxy business, it seems. Describing his service as a sort of dating service in reverse, Dressler, who has acquired the nickname of "the Terminator", believes that his agency answers a growing social need. "I have come to the conclusion that younger people can't face up to ending affairs themselves," he says. "Many treat relationships in the same way as an empty Coke can - when it's finished they want to throw it away."

Apart from the certainty that there is the basis here for a brilliant Hollywood romantic comedy, very possibly with Tom Cruise in the role of the Terminator, the story of Dressler and his Separation Agency is a useful reminder of how our golden age of empathy and emotional intelligence is dysfunctional in one important respect: we have serious problems when it comes to saying goodbye. So pathetically hooked have we become on the need for happiness, on a fantasy of optimism, that we forget that avoiding misery is important too.

Never before has so much energy and expertise been expended on how to find someone, and so little on how to lose them. In the place of useful guidance as to how best to let go of a good thing grown bad, the emphasis is invariably on how to hold on to it come what may. Usually this advice amounts to little more than a variety of ways of flogging a dead horse.

But it is not just the young who are incompetent in this area, even if they have the ruthlessness to hire an agency to do their dumping for them. The fear of saying goodbye transcends gender and generations. It is there, for example, at the breakfast table, as parents gaze gloomily at their hulking adult progeny and wonder guiltily whether it will ever have the decency or energy to leave home. We have been brainwashed to think that kindness and sensitivity are best expressed by giving and holding on, but often true generosity is shown by those who know when and how to bring something to an end.

Kick someone out to show you care: it sounds like a comic routine, and indeed it was. With Nigel Planer, I once wrote a spoof celebrity self-help called Let's Get Divorced! in which a couple of day-time TV presenters decide to share the details of their divorce with their fans. With their usual smiling professionalism, Jonathan and Libby Hughes explain the concept of "positive divorcehood", in which couples can grow apart together in process of dynamic disintegration. "Now that healthy selfhood is part of a modern relationship," they write, "breaking up is no longer something to be depressed about. It's simply a part of personal growth."

With the dawning of the age of the Separation Agency, the idea of growing apart together no longer seems entirely silly. In fact, if no one has written an uplifting and positive book on the ending relationships - a serious version of Let's Get Divorced!, in fact - then perhaps now is the time. For, in spite of the general assumption that 21st-century men and women are more open, attuned and empathic in their dealings with one another, we are in one sense stuck in the past. The end of love is still seen as a defeat, a matter of guilt and even shame.

This is an odd attitude at a time when, because of new pressures within relationships, of less acceptance of unhappiness and, above all, because of the longer lives that most of us live, it is unusual - and perhaps not entirely desirable - to pass one's days without going through some pretty major goodbyes.

The time has arrived surely for there to emerge from the mighty cohort of agony aunts and self-help experts a new specialism of caring terminators. Considerably less brutal versions of Bernd Dressler, these counsellors would be there to help people make the best out of a bad times when leaving a relationship, or even a job.

Exploring the process of ending things well, they might usefully look at the world of work, where retirement or simply moving jobs is rarely achieved with the right degree of grace or gratitude. As an example they might even study the British political scene of 2006 and 2007 to learn how the best planned departures can go wrong.

In this case, the man who is on his way has been reasonably dignified and positive and the tone of his farewell, so far at least, has been neither lachrymose nor defiant. Unfortunately, growing apart together, in politics as in life, requires both parties to be engaged in the process. Perhaps, after all, there are some goodbyes that would benefit from swift and efficient brutality, from the knock of the Terminator on the front door.

terblacker@aol.com

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