The (painless?) virtual breakup

Last year, Wendy Coggsdale of Richmond, Va., found herself back in the dating game. When a colleague e-mailed her an invitation for drinks, she accepted. But after five dates, Ms. Coggsdale decided to break it off via e-mail.

Normally, she says, she ends relationships face to face. "My girlfriends gave me a hard time over it," she admits. "But there was no love connection." And e-mail was their usual method of communicating. So, she says, "I figured, why not?"

The age of the virtual breakup is upon us. With e-mail, text messaging, and the like, personal contact in a romantic relationship is no longer required. But where is the line drawn? Does technology promote lazy social skills - or help alleviate the pain of breaking up?

'You're a nice person, but ...'

Twenty five million to 40 million Americans use online dating services, and plenty figure that there's no reason to break up in person if they've never met in the first place. Some courtships take place entirely online, while others evolve into live dates.

"Netiquette" is emerging, and an e-mail ending things early on - say, after one or two dates - is commonplace. This especially holds true for couples whose interactions have largely been electronic. According to one New Yorker in his 30s who's both sent and received "break up" e-mails, if you date enough, sooner or later you'll find such a message in your in-box.

Trish McDermott, vice president of romance at Match.com, helps manage other people's love lives. Ms. McDermott says that today 48 percent of online daters say they have experienced an e-mail breakup - twice as many as in 2002.

For those who want to call it quits online, the VP of romance suggests being concise, re-reading the e-mail before sending, and allowing the other person to respond. Coming up with an appropriate subject line - no frowny-faced emoticons, please - is important, too.

The anonymity of the Internet makes things easy for those who want a clean getaway

without taking responsibility for causing heartache. Michael Lasky, coauthor of "Online Dating for Dummies," calls the people who disappear without a trace "poofers."

Social norms prescribe exit cues off- line, he says. At a party, giving an excuse like, "I'm going to refresh my drink," is more common than just getting up and walking out the door. But on the Internet, it's easy to poof when someone else catches your virtual eye.

Poof in the night

A few months ago, Karen (not her real name), a Boston-based editor, joined JDate.com to meet Jewish singles. At first, Karen thought she hadn't mastered the control panel, and that some messages she sent were lost in cyberspace. Now she knows better. One guy she chatted with online took longer and longer to reply, until he just stopped altogether. She feels that the safety and casual atmosphere of the Internet make up for the annoyance of poofers.

Even if seasoned online daters see poofing and virtual goodbyes as similar to a quick "you're not for me" phone call, expectations change after a few dates. When things start to take on physical or emotional intimacy, McDermott suggests a conversation to part ways.

"Just because you're ending things doesn't mean you're off the hook in terms of compassion," McDermott says. "Once a person has invested time getting to know you, they have a right to look you in the eye and respond in a spontaneous way."

Surprisingly, websites providing breakup assistance don't recommend dumping via e-mail either. Ren and Deanna Thompson, who met online, run Breakups.com for those who have a hard time "pulling the trigger." A customized snail mail letter or a "counseling call" for $50 usually does the trick.

"Some people don't have the nerve to initiate bad news," Ren says. "When their partner receives a certified letter from a third party, they take it seriously."

LoveWriter.com, the brainchild of Erica Klein, offers graceful exit letters for $89 a pop. In the bigger picture, Ms. Klein says, some of her clients might be better off taking the time to face potential "explosions and meltdowns" themselves.

But for those who can't or won't, her letters facilitate closure.

Klein advises her clients to write out the text she provides in their own hand. Breaking up by e-mail, she says, is cold. "Technology is a soulless endeavor," she insists. "Take the time to write a letter by hand, and they'll remember."

Mr. Lasky actually advocates that couples continue - or start - using e-mail just in case the relationship sours. It's not cowardly, he says. It's an opportunity to carefully weigh each word. "You don't get interrupted, and you can be more honest," Lasky says. "You can give the real reasons why things didn't work out."

Cyberscribes

For the tongue-tied or shy, the written word might help deliver a lucid message. Certainly, some soon-to-be exes would rather learn the news in private rather than at a cafe or park. And when a mate is potentially violent, establishing distance may be a smart move.

But when a typical relationship runs its course, each person deserves a personal parting.

Wendy Coggsdale doesn't plan to dump anybody else by e-mail. Her latest date was set up via Internet as well, but she warned him how her last relationship began and ended by e-mail.

"I told him I didn't mind him e-mailing this time," she says, "but that once is enough."

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