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DEAR MISS MANNERS - How do we handle the ravages of a cad?

We have agencies to handle child abuse and breaking of contracts, but what mechanism do we have to deal with infringements and abuses on a personal, emotional level? If we can seek justice and damages in a court of law, even in domestic court, why are we discouraged from doing so interpersonally?Is it because, without greater forces than just one lone individual, we know it is impossible to halt the emotional injustices perpetrated by a heel?

What do we do about the lying philanderer? How do we protect ourselves from the lies and sweet-talk of a cheat? How do we reconcile giving the benefit of the doubt, assuming someone is innocent until proven guilty, with prudent self-protection?

How, in our "enlightened" society, do we deal with the immoral seductress who has no respect for another woman's relationship?

Cheating is cheating, abuse is abuse, lying is lying, no matter what area they are in. And it seems that although the perpetrator of misconduct may be brought to task in business, he goes scot-free in society.

Men smirk and applaud one another for their transgressions against women. Women preen over the "victory" of taking a man away from his unsuspecting and loyal spouse.

And people exhibit only smug self-righteousness when an unmarried woman is taken advantage of by an unscrupulous lover.

There is no such thing as free love, and I would advise women to save their love for the legally protected institution of marriage - but that's fallen by the wayside, too.

GENTLE READER - There, there.

Miss Manners wouldn't dream of intruding on your privacy by speculating whether this moral manifesto arose from any experience you happen to have had personally. But she hopes you will allow her to offer a bit of sympathy just in case it should be needed.

Modern society is not entirely to blame for the situation you describe. There have always been cads, and softhearted ladies who believed them. And, for that matter, softhearted gentlemen and what were known as heartless belles.

However, there are changes, some sensible and some dangerous, in Miss Manners' opinion, in the social customs surrounding them.

One change is that society professes no longer to pass judgment on issues of romantic morality (while constantly passing merciless judgment on questions of appearance, loosely defined issues of health and a lot of other things that should not be its business). This means that the powerful weapon of social disapproval for bad behavior is no longer available to punish those who commit such hurtful but still legal activities as breaking hearts.

But Miss Manners must remind you that invoking public opinion on personal matters was always dangerous. The behavior of spouses and lovers is extremely difficult to judge from the outside, and the same society that condemned cads was just as harsh, for example, to ladies who left cruel husbands. On the whole, one is better off not putting one's love life out for public approval.

The foolhardy modern change is that many, perhaps most, people dispense with what safeguards the society used to provide to protect people before they gave their hearts away.

Insisting on proper introductions (even if one had to hunt someone down to perform one on a likely candidate one had already spotted) may seem stuffy. But it meant that people did not take up with those for whom no one they knew could vouch. The long periods of friendship and courtship that used to precede intimacy, now scorned as wasteful, gave one at least some chance to judge character before engaging in intimacy.

Even all this could not ensure social responsibility - you have only to read Victorian literature to put the situation you describe into historical perspective - but it helped.

What you seem to crave are more definitive ways to deal with the tragedy after it happens.

Well, there was the breach-of-promise suit. Indeed, modern society is increasingly turning to law to take over where etiquette fails: Smoking ordinances, for example, are taking the place of the courtesies both smokers and non-smokers used to practice voluntarily. Perhaps you should lobby to get the breach-of-promise suit back, if you don't mind documenting your mistakes publicly.

And then there was the duel.

Failing these measures, Miss Manners can only recommend not giving one's heart easily, and when one does (such advice being useless), comforting oneself with the thought that one has behaved well and is well rid of someone so undeserving.

DEAR MISS MANNERS: I met an old friend the other day, whom I hadn't seen for a very long time. We went through the usual formalities, telling each other about our homes, families, etc. When I inquired about the well-being of her husband, she replied, "Oh, we've been divorced for about two years now." And that's all she said.

I didn't know whether to say, "Oh, how nice for you," or "Oh, I'm so sorry." Being stunned, I simply replied: "Oh! . . . And how's your mother?" How should I have reacted?

GENTLE READER: Exactly as you did. As congratulations on a divorce would be unseemly, and commiseration may well be inappropriate, the tactful thing to do is to go on to the next pleasantry and hope that it will fare better.