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Michael O'Doherty: Take no prisoners

It's the new year, and everyone is talking about making a "fresh start".

But we all have our leftovers to deal with, the stuff we carry from one year, or one relationship, to another and, more pertinently, the stuff we've left behind. With me, it's something minor -- an overcoat -- but I'm not sure how to go about getting it back.

Many relationships, you see, are like the Vietnam War. You go in with the best intentions, quickly realise that you've made a mistake, but the period of withdrawal is long drawn-out and painful. Most importantly, you leave some POWs behind and spend the next while fretting about how to deal with your fallen comrades.

I'm not, of course, referring literally to prisoners of war -- I'm talking about the personal items that you exchanged, lent or simply stored in your partner's house during your time together, from which you're suddenly separated after you break up.

Once during a relationship, I lent my girlfriend €500. We broke up soon after, but I didn't ask for it back, believing it would instead be volunteered. It wasn't. And I wonder if, at any stage in the intervening 10 years, she's ever felt guilty about not paying it back? Or did she simply believe that anything you owe is forgotten about when you break up, like a debt from some third world country when you break off diplomatic ties?

And what of the personal items that someone has lavished on you during happier times? I've never worked out the rule about engagement rings. The man always buys it, it usually costs a lot of money, and yet, if the couple break up, the woman seems to feel that she is entitled to keep it. I can understand wanting to keep items for sentimental value, but surely the one object which reminds you of the commitment a man once made to you, only for it to be broken, is the last thing that you'd want to keep?

Fair enough, holidays and dinners can't be returned. The clothes, as well, you can keep, as they're worthless to anyone else. But what of the jewellery, even cars, that partners commonly bought during the Celtic Tiger? How do you justify holding on to them without it being down to greed?

If we kick up such a fuss about sacked fat-cat bankers holding on to cars they were given as part of their job, why don't we do likewise when women hold on to the paraphernalia that were lavished on them during relationships?

The answer is that a relationship is never truly over as long as prisoners of war remain un-repatriated. The chance always remains that the enemy will re-establish contact with you to facilitate a peaceful handover. And women know this, which is why, by hanging on to the stuff you left behind, they are really saying: "I want you back."

A friend of mine, who left her boyfriend early last year, insisted on keeping the car that he had bought her during the good times. A couple of months ago, she confided in me that she hadn't had the car serviced since they broke up, and now it needed to be done. A couple of weeks ago, they got back together. A coincidence? I'm not so sure...

Michael O'Doherty is publisher of the VIP magazine group