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STYLE & CULTURE

It's a new year, so get lost

January, probably because it's between the holidays and Valentine's Day, is a hard month on relationships.

January 13, 2006|Kate Shatzkin | Baltimore Sun

If you're in a relationship, beware of January. Along with unwanted pounds, bad habits and gifts that don't fit, people often mark the beginning of a new year by jettisoning romantic partners.

After the winter holidays and before the big lovefest of Valentine's Day, January presents an opportune, if cold and dreary, window for a fresh start.

Among some therapists, sociologists and advisors to the lovelorn, it's known as breakup month.

"You would not believe the huge influx of letters I get in January," said Lisa Daily, a syndicated online dating and relationships columnist based in Sarasota, Fla.

The people writing in, she says, represent the recently dumped and the completely surprised. "They say everything was going great over the holidays. This came out of the blue."

The season of heartbreak affects the ordinary and the famous. Brad and Jen dropped the bombshell of their breakup last January.

Ben Affleck saw two very public relationships go south after the holidays -- with Gwyneth Paltrow in January 1999 and Jennifer Lopez at the dawn of 2004.

Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman ended their relationship a week before Valentine's Day in 2001, then Cruise broke up with Penelope Cruz in January 2004. Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger? Chris Evert and her fellow tennis star, John Lloyd? Splitsville in January.

It happens in fictional worlds too. On one episode of the former TV cop show "Homicide: Life on the Street," the medical examiner breaks up with a detective she has been dating right after New Year's. Asked for an explanation, she tells him that the holidays are over.

Daily blames the phenomenon on "relationship freeze" she says takes place between Thanksgiving and New Year's. By the time the holidays start, she points out, you might have long-laid plans to travel with your now-not-so sweetie. You've put down money you'd rather not lose. And if you broke up before the end of the year you -- and your ex -- suddenly would be alone while everyone else made merry.

"I think what it speaks to is that romance has its practical and even Machiavellian and manipulative nature," said Pepper Schwartz, a professor of sociology at the University of Washington who studies relationships. "People look out for their own welfare, and they'll do things that make it easier for them."

Jamie Braman, executive director of Maryland's Upscale Singles, a group for single professionals over 30, said her membership always spikes at the beginning of the year.

Men in particular, she said, have told her they're loath to break up over the holidays, "because this way they have a guarantee of a date and things to do over the holidays. They break up after New Year's and before Valentine's Day, because there's no way they're going to sit there at Valentine's Day and buy a gift and pretend they're into this person."

But women often break it off in January too. In their dating days, Daily said, "My girlfriends and I never dumped a guy before Christmas. You don't want to be that jerk."

January breakups can be devastating. Ask Baltimore technical writer Alisa Hoffman. Three years ago, she spent her first holiday season with her boyfriend of about nine months. They chose the perfect tree and decorated it together. They had Christmas dinner with her mother, then coffee later with his sister. They spent a quiet evening together on New Year's Eve.

Soon after that, though, a girlfriend showed Hoffman a profile on match.com. There, next to his advertisement for new companions, was a photo of Hoffman's guy.

"And there was our tree in the background," Hoffman recalled.

After the January breakup, Hoffman, 41, regretted the money she'd spent on gifts for her man. "It was a waste," she said.

Even relationships that might have seemed healthy before the holidays could be shaky by January because of the expectations and intimacy of the season. "They show their boyfriend to Mom and Dad, and Mom and Dad go, 'Are you kidding?' " said sociologist Schwartz. "Or they go to a party and their partner gets plastered, and they see a side of their partner that scares them. The holidays create a finer focus on the relationship and they do put people into situations that they're not in every day."

Then there are relationships that start during the holidays and don't turn out to be as, well, festive as they might have seemed when the mistletoe was hanging and the alcohol flowed.

That's what happened a couple of years ago to Singin Parks, a 31-year-old tennis and golf instructor, who started dating someone he ran into at several holiday parties. She seemed flirtatious and fun.

The relationship fizzled before January was over.

"She put out a persona that wasn't really her," Parks said. "Once I found out who she really was, I found out ... she's very rigid."

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