Backing out of a rocky gay relationship is like rappeling down a rocky cliff: you either make sure you’re safely belayed, or you end up a splattered mess.
If love has turned to torment, and you’re at wits end, wondering what direction to take; if you’re almost convinced all men are pigs and relationship bliss seems a hopeless quest, you’re in luck, my friend. We gays may not have the legal right to marry, but we know all about divorce, and what we have experienced, as a community with a long history of intense self scrutiny but with too few resources to guide us, has been admirably described and analyzed in Neil Kaminsky’s When It’s Time to Leave Your Lover: A Guide for Gay Men. It’s filled with basic how-to, self-help advice for coping with breakups, spiced up with a plethora of anecdotes from case studies involving Kaminsky’s clients (he’s a licensed clinical social worker; his clients’ names were changed to shield them from embarrassment).
For backing out of a relationship once you’ve lost your way — or your partner has, or both of you have — When It’s Time to Leave Your Lover is as good advice as you’ll get short of a therapist and some really perceptive and patient friends.
As a disgruntled lover, your first job, according to Kaminsky, is to recognize that in fact you need to break up. Coming to this realization will involved much indecision and countless hard questions, best asked of yourself, not your partner. You may decide to stick it out, work through the knots, etc. Maybe you just need a breather. Maybe you were really meant to be just friends. But sometimes you’re going to have to say bye bye, and then you would do well to consider all the consequences. You see, you ought not simply dump your lover if he’s been at all decent, because that could end up making you feel like a complete jerk, and your priority is to look out for yourself; rather, you ought to depart from him ever so gently, being firm and forthright yet allowing your fleeing affection to caress his cheek farewell as you let him know in no uncertain terms that you are setting off — alone — in search of freedom and happiness (or at least lack of misery).
For backing out of a relationship once you’ve lost your way — or your partner has, or both of you have — When It’s Time to Leave Your Lover is as good advice as you’ll get short of a therapist and some really perceptive and patient friends. It is a guide for retreat, for admitting defeat and bowing out gracefully with as few bruises as possible. It offers scant advice on how to push forward through difficult terrain, overcoming painful obstacles in the quest for fulfillment (though in fact this book ought to be required reading for anyone even considering entering into a “serious” relationship). Rather, it proffers what amount to first-aid tips: how to recognize symptoms of things being screwed up between you and your beau (be alert for red flags that signal misery and doom, such as lack of trust, “fantasy confusion about who your lover is,” substance abuse, and lack of emotional support). If you adhere to the book’s wisdom, face the hard facts early enough, and act to cushion yourself against emotional upheaval, the wounds of a breakup won’t hurt so much.
Just as a map is not the territory, a guidebook is not the embodiment of truth. While it can hint at ways of sorting out the complexities of life, a book such as this can offer only the most general suggestions for finding your footing before you free-fall. It can’t tell you precisely where to step, and it certainly can’t tell you how to see and appreciate the poetry of your situation. Rather, it offers a fairly engaging yet ultimately clinical take on managing relationships, in the process mostly sanitizing them.
The book’s most powerful accomplishment is laying out a general system of rules for struggling partners, a ready reference to turn to for advice, all of which will probably fly out the window when it comes time to break up. But forewarned is forearmed: at least you’ll know which rules you’re mangling.
This article first appeared in print in the Bay Area Reporter.