They're the Valentine's Day gifts no one asks for: a note slipped under the door that reads "I'm taking my freedom back." Or 25 votive candles with the comment, "The flame has died." Sometimes it's just the ring of a phone and the terse message, "We're through."
Those on the receiving end of such presents might want to break Cupid's arrows, since Valentine's Day breakups are becoming more common. As many as half of dating couples split up on Cupid's big day, estimates Jodi Smith, etiquette expert and president of Mannersmith Consulting.
The main reason Valentine's Day breakups are so frequent, culture watchers agree, is that the much-hyped holiday creates so much pressure and so many expectations. The ubiquitous ads for long-stemmed roses, heart-shaped boxes of chocolates, and flowery cards prompt many to think of all the reasons they don't want to remain half of a couple.
But there's disagreement on whether breaking up on Feb. 14 is acceptable behavior or unforgivably cruel.
Ms. Smith doesn't see anything wrong with Valentine's goodbyes, but does think that how they're handled is important.
"There is no need to keep hanging on to something that is not working," she says. "It is perfectly acceptable to break up on Valentine's, [but] dumping champagne on your date, creating a scene, and storming out of the restaurant is poor form. The polite person thinks before speaking and considers the venue before offering a carefully worded exit speech. No need to demean the person while dumping them. Leave the dumpee with a shred of self-respect and a box of chocolates."
Ria Romano of Boca Raton, Fla., didn't follow that advice and still feels bad about how she handled her Valentine's Day split a few years ago. She and her boyfriend had been dating about three months when he planned a romantic, expensive evening.
He buzzed her apartment intercom and asked her to come downstairs, adding, "I have two dozen red roses for you."
Ms. Romano, although dressed for the date, surprised herself by saying, "I know it's Valentine's Day, but I'm not going." She ended the relationship while he stood in the lobby. To make matters worse, Feb. 14 was also his birthday.
"I know that's really, really bad," she says, "but I suddenly heard this little voice in my head saying, 'He's not the one.' I felt so guilty, but I also felt relieved that I didn't have to go to dinner.
"Valentine's Day puts so much pressure on people," she adds. "There's a lot of anxiety that you don't get with Christmas or New Year's."
Ms. Smith has heard such comments many times before. Her advice to Romano and others is: "Don't be too hard on yourself." Yes, it's better to break things off several weeks beforehand, but the culture encourages just the opposite. Dumping is the symptom, she says, not the underlying problem.
"We live in a society where people routinely spill their guts on the Internet or on national television shows, but there's very little self-awareness," she says. "We feel as if we need to act on an emotion as soon as we acknowledge that emotion."
Social scientists agree. "People are notorious for not being strong enough to sit a partner down and say, 'I'm sorry, it's over,' " says Barry Kuhle, assistant professor of psychology at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pa. Rather than dealing with a situation directly, they procrastinate until something forces the issue, and Valentine's Day does just that.
"It's almost worse and more offensive to mislead the other person by going out on a date and going through the motions," he says, explaining the mindset of many who break up on Feb. 14.
Dr. Kuhle, who proposed to his fiancée on Valentine's Day 2003, notes that dumpers aren't always motivated by altruism.
"The dark side of human nature is indeed dark," he says, in reference to research he conducted at the University of Texas at Austin for a dissertation called "Cues to Commitment." That research reveals five reasons that a man - men do most of the dumping - may end a relationship on Valentine's Day:
1. He's not interested in a deep, committed relationship and doesn't want to lead the woman on.
2. He's scared about the escalation of commitment that often comes with sharing Valentine's Day with a woman.
3. He doesn't want to waste time and/or money on a relationship he thinks won't last.
4. He's dating several women simultaneously and the obligations of the day - dinner, date, etc. - force him to choose one woman and dump the other(s).
5. He's worried that publicly sharing Valentine's Day with a woman will reduce his ability to play the field.
No age group is immune to Cupid's coldhearted surprises: People in their 20s break up because they feel they have plenty of time to find better options, say observers. Thirty-somethings often have a goal in mind and cut their losses quickly if they don't like their prospects. Those 40 and older may feel pressure to find the right mate.
There are so many reasons to blame good old Cupid, it seems. Even teenagers feel the sting of his poor aim.
Kelli, who has asked that her last name not be used, still remembers the competition that Valentine's Day inspired among girls in school. The more flowers or balloons a girl received, the more popular and worthy she was considered.
Kelli always hated Valentine's Day for that reason, but in her junior year of high school, her feelings about the day changed. She was dating a senior, and "for the first time, I was looking forward to it," she says.
Her hopes were dashed the night of Feb. 13, though, when she asked her sweetie how he wanted to celebrate.
His answer: "Actually, I don't want to be in a relationship anymore." His mother told her he didn't want to buy a gift.
Kelli's only solace was that fact that the two of them have remained friends and she can remind him of his dastardly deed, and still does, nine years later. "You have to make good use of these things," she says, laughing.
But for some people, there's nothing funny about breaking up on Valentine's Day, regardless of how much pressure dumpers feel.
"Holidays carry memories with them, and no matter how much compassion and good taste someone thinks they are using when they break up with a lover, a breakup hurts, and doing it on Valentine's Day wrecks the day for years to come," says April Masini, author of the "Ask April" advice column. "If a breakup is inevitable, do it the day before - or even the day after. This kind of scheduling is far more compassionate."
Others put it in much blunter terms. "I suggest you break up at least one month before to avoid a lot of fallout," says Stefan Feller, author of the forthcoming book "How to Break Up, Without Breaking a Sweat."
"A guy who breaks up with a woman on Valentine's is automatically eligible for the sleazeball hall of fame," he says. "A woman who breaks up with a guy on V-Day just gives him another reason to hate the day."
Cupid, consider yourself warned.