Bethany, 28, knew it wasn’t going to work out with the guy she’d been casually seeing for five months. He’d been blowing off plans since the summer ended, but over the next year, he kept instigating conversations that seemed to leave their non-relationship open-ended. “Every few months or so he’d initiate banter over text, then vanish as soon as I’d ask him out for drinks, then it would happen all over again,” she says. Eventually she began a committed relationship with someone else, but the fact that there had been no formal conclusion to her last whatever-it-was kept bugging her: “I really just wanted a clearer ending.”
On the flip side is Michaela, 30. Every few months for almost four years, she’d grab drinks and have sex with the same woman. “[To me,] it was purely a fuck-buddy situation,” Michaela says. “Maybe it was different for her, but neither of us said anything.” By the fourth year, Michaela had stopped initiating contact, but they were still hooking up occasionally. “I was sort of looking for [her] to close it off,” Michaela admits.
It’s totally normal to want clarity at the end of a long-term, non-monogamous relationship, says Jennifer Aull, LMFT, a therapist at North Brooklyn Family Therapy. “It can still be a huge change in someone’s day-to-day life, but without any of the markers of a conventional breakup.” While both participants could wish for formal closure, often the person who became more emotionally invested is the one who craves a clearer ending — which can make their motivation more complicated.
If the end of your non-relationship came as an unpleasant surprise (e.g. seeing them with a new partner on Instagram), avoid the temptation to reach out impulsively. Instead, give yourself time to cool off, and nail down what you want from them. Is it chance to air your grievances? Are you secretly hoping to rekindle the connection? Do you want to be friends? “Many people in this situation just want an acknowledgement that, yes, this was something,” says Aull. “It’s almost like they don’t trust themselves otherwise.” Whatever it may be, figuring out your true motivation sets an intention for the conversation.
If a lot of your previous communication happened via text or DM, chances are that arranging a conversation any other way feels weirdly formal. But that’s kind of the point. An email, phone call, or in-person conversation is best for this kind of definitive exchange. “There’s a lot of room for hurt and misunderstanding over messages,” explains Aull. Also, real-time messaging mediums make it easy for the other person to be flippant or not respond at all. The whole conversation is fraught enough without any added potential for confusion.
“The first rule is ‘ask, don’t chase,’” says Matt Lundquist, psychotherapist and LCSW at Tribeca Therapy. “If one person is on the fence about talking it out, chances are it won’t go well for one of both participants.” So after you’ve stated your intention clearly, Lundquist suggests giving the other person an out in case they don’t want to engage. If you’re sending an email, for instance, end it with something like, “I would love to hear back from you if you can find the time.”
If the person you’re seeking closure from has been disrespectful to you or devalued your feelings in the past, reaching out to them will likely only cause more pain. You could get radio silence, or worse, they might respond defensively, minimizing the connection that you had. In situations like this, there are healthier ways to close the book on your non-relationship. “Talk to a friend, therapist, or anyone else who will actually hear you,” suggests Aull. If you happen to have any items they left at your place, a symbolic letting-go of the object, such as donating a book they forgot, might also help. If not, write a letter to the person but don’t send it — you could even burn it, a ritual that’s helped some of Aull’s clients.
Ultimately, once she thought it through, Bethany realized that it probably wouldn’t be constructive to ask her fling for a formal ending. Instead, she didn’t respond to his last text: “It was less damaging to my ego to just let it die,” she says. She hasn’t heard from him since.
If you’re responding to someone who’s seeking closure from you, be honest and respectful, much like Michala was. After some time, she received an email from the woman she’d been hooking up with, who wrote that she was looking for more, and it was probably time to part ways. The two emailed each other back and forth a few times, and Michaela found herself relieved. Closing the book on their non-relationship was helpful for her too. “I felt like a weight had been my shoulders,” she says. “I didn’t have to keep the connection going, and I could just do my own thing.”