Like so many love stories, this one begins with two strangers meeting on a Saturday night in an overcrowded bar and ending with regrets.
Or rather, like so many modern undefined-relationship stories, this one actually begins with two people with mutual Facebook friends meeting IRL and ending via Whatsapp.
Oh yes, here we go: the non-relationship.
Just one of the key symptoms of contemporary hook up culture, the non-relationship comes in a dozen or so different forms – from fuckbuddy to placeholder to won’t-say-I’m-in-LOVE – but all types include a studied air of nonchalance and fear of commitment by one or both involved.
According to statistics, around 60% of us experience casual, ‘friends with benefits’ relationships but less than 10% lead to anything long-term. Yet despite this landscape defined by rampant Tinder swiping and couples-that-don’t-call-themselves-couples, little is said about what happens when these relationships dissolve. And the truth is, no matter how super chilled or liberated you are, it can still suck.
Generally we’re not supposed to miss the things we never had but in the case of the non-relationship, it’s quite normal to do so. As Kate Hakala wrote in Mic, you can still mourn a fuck buddy.
“The truth is, there’s no real rubric for these types of breakups … Even if we know we aren’t at all interested in having a relationship, it doesn’t make a split with a fuck buddy, a dating partner or a friend with benefits any easier.”
In fact I’d say first hand that despite a relationship never having a label, it can still make you want to crawl into bed and wrap yourself up as a human burrito when it’s over.
Over a year ago, I read an article on the New York Times about people we’re not with but not-not with.
Winner of the Modern Love essay competition, Jordana Narin discussedthe fine line so many of us twenty-somethings try to walk: the no label, no drama relationship where you’re “never more than semi-affiliated, two people who spoke and loved to speak and kissed and loved to kiss and connected and were scared of connecting.”
It resonated. I had just abandoned one of those ill-defined, quickly-aborted ‘things’ where everything on paper looked perfect but the chemistry was non-existent. We’d never tried to discuss what we were doing but instead rushed in and rushed out like neap tide. Amicable though we remain, our slow drift into an ending crested with all the confusion and drama we’d originally tried to avoid.
What the essay further highlighted was the struggle of those in non-relationships. How we navigate our feelings when we want something more than what we’re receiving. How we endow significance on a moment, a meeting, a text, a glance, because we’re looking for a sign that our feelings are reciprocated. How we never really date them but never really get over them either. Narin called this guy her ‘Jeremy’.
Admittedly, I understood Narin’s point only in theory. Even my non-relationships were deliberately more like dalliances and I was pretty sure I should self-diagnose myself with commitment issues.
Thing is, I’ve never been big on the idea of relationships. There have been a few exceptions to the ‘completely casual’ rule but never a boyfriend-girlfriend, nicknames and cutesie gestures kind of relationship. When pressed – usually by curious grandparents – I explain I’m focused on other things: my writing, my career, my projects and friends. I’m happy single. I’m not ready. I’m busy.
To my friends I offer more details. Meeting new people is never a problem, I just don’t have time to waste on those who only half interest me (and I’m easily distracted). Plus there’s Bob for when you just really need to get yours (which is often). And even on those rare occasions where being alone has actually been lonely, swipe-right dating has reminded me of why being single is good for the soul (and the brain and the body and my future life out of prison because seriously some of the guys on Tinder deserve to be at the bottom of the Thames).
Yet a year and yet another non-relationship later, here I am returning to that New York Times article and frowning.
Yes, with the advent of online and mobile dating we’re venturing into uncharted seas by straight up refusing to call someone our significant other.
Yes, by leaving something undefined we open it to imagination, to what-ifs and maybes.
But no, just because it’s undefined doesn’t mean you can’t end it, that there’s ‘no real closure, no opportunity to move on.’
The real question is do you want to end it? Do you want to move on?
Because there absolutely is a way to achieve both.
It’s called asking for clarity. It’s refusing to be part of the wheel of ambiguity. It’s asking the question and understanding that you might not receive the answer you want.
Sitting here writing this, I can tell you there are so many reasons to dislike and/or avoid having “the awkward moment” or ask “what are we doing?”
In early stages, playing your cards isn’t ‘cool’. There’s meant to be some kind of thrill in the game. Then when things become a little more long term, maybe you don’t want to let him (or her) know that you’ve caught a touch of the feels and that all the Bumble matches in a week couldn’t make you as pleased as a text from them. Perhaps you don’t want to risk saying goodbye to a human you enjoy humaning with. That’s all fair enough.
But not wanting to doesn’t mean we don’t need to call it off. Before it gets to ‘Jeremy’ level.
For one, communication is the linchpin to success no matter what type of relationship you have – casual or serious.
Without conversation non-relationships are too open to confusion. To not knowing if something can or should move forward or not. Lack of communication will always, inevitably, leave involved parties in limbo and whilst this can be fun at first, a complete lack of discussion can also makes things needlessly complicated.
I’ve been there in that casual thing where you never actually talked about what you’re doing despite hooking up semi-regularly and discussing everything and anything else. In that case, there was a joking comment early on about #relationshipgoals but that was the extent of our DTR. Months later, I was becoming attached but saw talking about it as a huge risk. Suddenly that lack of conversation was a quagmire of unasked questions I was seriously nervous about poking around with.
But this exposes another thing: relationships of all kinds are predicated on honesty with yourself and your partner about how you feel.
Needing to be honest shouldn’t come as a surprise but when it comes to navigating our emotional landscapes, it’s important to know where you stand and where they stand.
Hence if you start to lose interest or, horror of horrors, feel some feels – you probably know that you need to find out if you and whoever you’re with are on the same page.
In an instance not so long ago this is exactly what I did. And we weren’t. Which was totally acceptable and fine even though it stung. Of course I could have let it continue, let it linger, mooned and let him become ‘my Jeremy’ of the future, but I needed closure on the non-relationship whether that meant the end of any-ship or a step into something new. I had to be honest with myself and with him. Anything else wouldn’t have been fair on either of us.
Despite having various reasons for needing to instigate change, that doesn’t mean the aftermath doesn’t suck.
You can still feel empty and bruised and like you lost something despite never putting a label on it.
But having closure is often better than not knowing.
Open, polyamorous, casual: it doesn’t matter what non-label you attribute to your non-relationship, it’s still a relationship. It’s still going to be weird when it finishes whether that’s your decision or theirs. That’s ok and you shouldn’t feel guilty for feeling down and out.
A break off can be just as sad as any break up. It can also be as transformative if you let it.
In my case, as open as I remain to casualness, I realise now that I don’t like to be part of anything with no future or direction. This is probably why most of my past ‘things’ have been brief. I don’t really believe in being ‘ready’ or being ‘too busy’ either anymore – as much as I understand ambition and drive and the pressures that keep us excited about life, I also believe in making time for the people, places and experiences that make us happier, stronger and better.
So if you want to avoid the limbo land of hookups and non-dates then you can. You just have to be open to change. Fundamental, hard, sometimes messy change. So be prepared to take a step, to stand up for what you want and need.
It isn’t a break up but that doesn’t mean it can’t be a break through.