I often wonder if Britney Spears knew the impact that *that* ‘dump him’ 2002 t-shirt would have almost 20 years later. Somehow, I doubt she could have guessed that the statement piece would give Depop sellers vast new levels of omnipotence as they sell the crop top for $40 with the hashtag #y2k, without blinking an eyelid. Or maybe, deep down, she knew that ‘dump him’ was always destined to stay when it comes to discussing shitty relationships.
They’re words I’ve definitely found myself repeating in my head whenever I come across a particularly awful type of guy. I’m talking the ones who have decided that bed sheets aren’t an essential item to own, liking Pulp Fiction makes you special and unique, or that having one nail painted makes it okay to say things like “yeh I’m a feminist but tell me your body count because I don’t wanna date a slut.”
Granted, these are all valid (and awful) dumpable offences, but most of the time it’s not that clear cut. Far too often, I find myself taking Britney’s advice for far lesser crimes: wearing black shoes and white socks, not being great in bed immediately, or referring to his ‘mum’ as ‘mummy’… although I really do think that last one might be valid. Even the relationships which are really worth it require work on both sides to keep them alive and healthy, yet I tend to fixate on seemingly irrelevant things until I get the ick.
Ella, 21, agrees: “Often I find myself pushing the dump-him line onto myself way too much. It definitely makes me far less willing to open up in new relationships and makes me view the guy I’m dating as the enemy. I know it’s not fair on them but I can’t help it.”
On the other hand, Anya*, a 19-year-old from Dublin, has struggled to converse with friends who push the ‘dump him’ logic. “I’m very happy with my boyfriend, but sometimes I do need to vent to friends. Some mates are really good at listening and offering advice, but others will tell me to get rid of him as soon as I mention that he hasn’t texted me back for a while or that we’ve had a small disagreement. It completely disregards any of the great parts of our relationship and it makes me feel pretty alienated because I want to feel supported by them. I know that if the bad outweighed the good I would end our relationship, but at the moment I am enjoying it.”
Although there are some things which we can universally consider to be dumpable red flags, when it comes to the smaller things, it’s all about personal preference… or a willingness to commit.
Sally Baker, a sex and relationships expert and therapist behind the new e-course Online Dating: How To Become Super Savvy And Have The Love In Your Life You’ve Been Seeking puts it down to boundaries. “Most people’s willingness to put up with what could be red flags is met with some degree of tolerance. It’s down to how evolved a person’s boundaries are as to whether a red flag is a total no-no, or if the hill they will die on is something that on a good day, they could learn to live with and even find endearing.”
Twenty years later, it might finally be time to recognize exactly what the phrase is: two words on a tee-shirt. It really should come as no surprise that the phrase doesn’t encapsulate the complexities of modern day relationships, so why do we keep coming back to it?
From self-help books to feminist infographics, 2021 has been trying to reclaim Britney’s t-shirt and theorize it. While it can be very helpful to know which red flags point to an overall level of incompatibility, it’s impractical and unfair to always look for utter perfection.
In situations where we need to separate genuine, worrying red flags and a more personal level of commitment-phobia within ourselves, Baker suggests reflecting on past experiences. “Ask yourself: what are your hunches telling you? Then ask yourself how much raw pain from previous relationships is still informing your behaviour around dating and potential partners? As the saying goes, ‘Memories buried alive never die’ and unresolved pain from the past can easily become the lens that colors present attitudes and can make you commitment-phobic.”
Although being the dumper is always preferable to being the dump-ee, by becoming too fixated on a person’s negative qualities or obsessed with ending the relationship first, you end up placing a timeline on your own happiness and ability to find connection. “As a strategy, it works of course if you get to be the ‘dumper’ and the hard-ass, but as well as keeping wrong-‘uns at bay, there is a big chance that the potential love of your life might get kicked to the curb too.”
Perhaps when you next find yourself with that irresistible itch to cut and run, maybe try and work out why. Is it really them? Or is it your own negative past experience screaming ‘get out before you get hurt.’
However, if the guy with one nail painted tries to mansplain third-wave feminism to you on the first date, I give you full permission to leave him to pay the bill and make a swift escape through the bathroom window… tell him it’s your way of forcing him to do his bit for the gender pay gap, and block his number.