Way back when, in fall 2017 into winter 2018, I was seeing someone…sort of. It wasn’t a relationship per se, but it wasn’t totally platonic either. The whole experience was confusing: How much of it was objective(ish) truth, and how much of it was my subconscious projection and misinterpretation? Not knowing these answers made understanding how to handle the inevitable breakup feel impossible. Because, like that supposed tree falling in the woods, can there even be a breakup when there’s no relationship to effectively end?
We met through mutual friends and quickly began texting and going on dates—yes, the dinners, movie nights, and shows were indisputably dates. But beyond knowing that we were, in some sense of the word, dating, I didn’t have much of an understanding of our relationship. We never really discussed it, partially because I was not in a rush to DTR, but also because things just seemed to working. I didn’t want to harsh the vibe or create weirdness where none currently existed.
Month after month, it went on, until one day, it was unceremoniously over. Of course, since we were never really together, there was no breakup. I felt confused and pretty mad while I unsuccessfully searched for closure. But what was I even looking for?
There is a huge gray area between being single and being in a relationship, yet there’s also a huge lack of language to articulate this space.
While I’d like to believe this experience was unique to me (mostly for the emotional health and greater good of the world), such is not at all the case in modern dating. There is a huge gray area between being single and being in a relationship, yet there’s also a huge lack of language to articulate this space. While terms like orbiting and ghosting explain the often-shitty aftermath of these early, not-yet-official relationships, there isn’t simply isn’t an apt way to describe them in their prime.
So, by way of traditional closure, your prospects are slim unless you’re willing to confront your sort-of ex (I’m not). Instead, focus on what you can control, namely yourself. Below are expert-approved tips for how to handle a breakup—or rather a non-breakup—from a non-relationship.
Keep reading for 4 steps to heal after a non-relationship ends.
1. Acknowledge your feelings (and their validity)
In traditional (read: defined) relationships, there is an accepted grieving period following a breakup, says Carolina Castanos, PhD, founder of MovingOn. When the situation may not seem worthy of the emotional bells and whistles that tend to accompany full-blown breakups, however, the recovery period here can take on a different, less identifiable form. “In a non-relationship, grief can take a different shape, as there is uncertainty regarding what you meant to the other person,” she says.
“Ambiguous boundaries of the relationship do not diminish the feelings you may have developed.” —Jess Carbino, PhD
This can make parsing your feelings on the matter difficult because it can give way to notions of unworthiness. Still, Dr. Castanos champions the importance of not only identifying your emotions, but understanding that you’re allowed to feel all of ’em. Jess Carbino, PhD—a doc and Bumble’s in-house sociologist—agrees. “Ambiguous boundaries of the relationship do not diminish the feelings you may have developed,” she says.
2. Sort your emotions
Next, Dr. Castanos says it’s helpful to wallow with purpose. “Allow yourself time to grieve, and make sure you know who these feelings are toward,” she says. “Feel them and put words to them.”
In my situation, I was frustrated with myself for not being shrewd, and angry with him for being dismissive and emotionally manipulative. Decoding the confusion helps to clear the general fog.
3. Contextualize the relationship
You may never know how the other person regarded your relationship, but Dr. Carbino says you can analyze your own opinions about this to great effect. “In terms of finding closure when boundaries or definitions or unclear, it is helpful to consider how you defined the relationship and what it represents to you.” By doing this, you can draw boundaries that’ll help your see clear closure for yourself.
4. Find the silver lining—because there is one
One borderline-positive effect of my situation is it forced me to think about what I need from a partner. While defining the relationship has always been a panic-inducing topic for me because it always seems to indicate more seriousness than I’m prepared for, Dr. Carbino says it’s a good idea to still at least have The Talk with yourself. “We all need boundaries so that we can have clear expectations about how to operate in the world,” she says.
Do I need strict definitions and boundaries, a traditional union, or simply more emotional openness punctuating a still-ambiguous setup? I don’t have the exact answers yet, but at least I know what I’m not looking for: a non-relationship rooted in a complete lack of communication.