I met Jeremy* on a dating site the summer before my last year of college. He was gorgeous and intelligent and we hit it off immediately. But after two dates and several hours-long phone calls, he ghosted me. I got back in touch with him over a year later, when I was out of another relationship, and he admitted he’d gotten back together with an ex at the time. He lived in Boston and I lived in New York, but I was sometimes there for work, and we started going out whenever I was in town. It was just like before, as if we’d known each other forever. The second time I visited, we started sleeping together. As I expected, the sex was amazing. But he told me he didn’t want anything serious.
Nine months after we’d rekindled things, I moved to San Francisco. I cried the last time I saw him before I left. We stayed in touch via Facebook messenger, and I saw him during one last trip to Boston, but a few months later, he started messaging me about a woman at work he’d gotten involved with. I was crushed. Secretly, I’d held out hope that our almost-relationship would turn into, well, a relationship.
I knew it was probably over, but it wasn’t for sure; what if things didn’t work out with this woman? When I returned to the East coast, I fantasized about running into him. It wasn’t until I saw the other woman in his Facebook profile picture that I was forced to move on. I cried all morning, but I felt relieved that I could finally let go of him.
Breakups are painful, but the ending of non-relationships like mine and Jeremy’s can be even more confusing, long, and drawn-out. When a relationship has no beginning, it can be difficult to discern when it has ended. And when you realize there was no relationship in the first place, that revelation can hit you even harder than a breakup.
And what’s more, people in these situations don’t always get the same permission to grieve as they do with an actual breakup. “People express the sense that because they chose to engage in a casual, non-exclusive, or non-traditional type of dynamic, they weren’t supposed to develop any type of emotional investment or connection to the person,” says Rachel Bouta, a licensed psychotherapist in California and New York who works for June Health. “Unfortunately, regardless of how you structure any type of relationship, when it involves humans, it involves human emotions. Add in the element of physical intimacy or a previous level of friendship or connection, and it’s even harder to remain disengaged.”
But it doesn’t have to be as hard as it was for me. The first step is not to judge yourself for having these feelings, says Bouta. “When this type of relationship ends, I often hear a lot of self-directed judgment, shame, or blaming when normal emotions arise,” she says. “Things like, ‘I should have known better,’ ‘it wasn’t a real relationship, why do I care so much?’, ‘I knew what I was getting myself into,’ or ‘this was my choice.’ And when people don’t give themselves permission to feel what’s normal to feel and invalidate themselves, this can just make the upset worse.”
When Caitlin McDonald, a 26-year-old in Atlanta, experienced the end of a non-relationship, she realized that “in dating, there are a lot more ‘levels’ before you get to a bonafide, official relationship,” she explains. “If you catch feelings for someone and they aren’t as into it as you are, I think that once things come to an end, it’s important to worry less about wallowing in the whole ‘oh, they didn’t like me as much as I liked them and that hurts me’ and remember that your feelings for them, whatever they were, are valid and real.”
Not only do we undermine our own grief and judge ourselves for getting into these relationships; sometimes our loved ones do the same. Bouta recommends talking to a friend, family member, or therapist who will not be dismissive so that you can express your sadness, anger, or whatever you are feeling.
“Just having friends who I was totally honest with, allowing them space to be critical, but then also knowing that their advice came from a place of love and wanting what’s best for me” helped Alicia H., a 29-year-old teacher in Raleigh, NC get over the end of a relationship that was never official. It also helped her to make a list of good and bad things about the relationship and realize that the bad outweighed the good.
The same things that can help you get over an official relationship can also help you get over an unofficial one, so allow yourself to do whatever makes you feel better. Relationship expert and mental health consultant Adina Mahalli, MSW, recommends a night out with friends or a night in dedicated to self-care. “Anything that will help you have a bit of fun and bring some laughter back to your life.”
“Reconnecting with friends on a platonic level” and “getting up to more things that involved me as a single person” were key for healing heartbreak for R., a 28-year-old in Manchester, England.
People who have been in this situation also say it’s important to avoid social-media stalking. Since casual relationships often don’t have clear-cut endings, constantly communicating online or even just looking the person up can drag on what you’re trying to let go.
“I found the only way to get over it was to do the full social-media block: Instagram; Twitter; some of his friends followed me on social, too, so I blocked them, all of them,” says Becky, a 25-year-old writer in London. “Some people think that’s a bit dramatic, but for me, it’s the only way to stop the constant stalking.”
The endings of these not-quite-relationships can often trigger feelings of inadequacy; people may wonder why the other person didn’t want a real relationship with them, says breakup and dating coach Cherlyn Chong. It can especially sting if the person leaves you to then enter into an actual relationship with someone else, like Jeremy did with me.
“But understand that someone’s inability to love you doesn’t mean that you’re unlovable,” says Chong. “It just means that you’re just not a fit, and that’s completely OK. There’s nothing wrong with you, and it’s more to do with them than it is to do with you. They weren’t ‘The One,’ so it’s up to you to find your person, someone who actually wants to be with you.”
*Names have been changed to protect innocent daters everywhere.