If a tree falls in a forest and there is nobody there to hear it, does it make a sound? By the same token, does an undefined relationship imply there is nothing to mourn if that connection is severed?
When a committed couple part ways there is said to be a breakup. Plain and simple, though the breakup itself may not be. Next there comes a period of mourning, complete with a wide range of socially acceptable emotions. And then, hopefully in due time, both individuals heal and move on.
But what happens when a label-less relationship, or a non-relationship relationship, ends? What is the protocol then?
This is where expectations tend to get confusing. The original interaction may have had some, if not all, of the characteristics consistent with a committed relationship, yet somehow lacked the requisite commitment to make it official. Such a distinction, however, becomes a mere technicality when matters of the heart are involved, and a decision to say goodbye may nonetheless engender intense feelings similar to those experienced during a “traditional” breakup.
For anyone who has gone through it, a breakup of a marriage or other committed relationship is one of the most painful experiences a person can endure. For one or both people involved, the relationship was, for whatever reason, not working and unable to be sustained. Though the time following dissolution may be gut-wrenching, the once committed couple can usually take some comfort in knowing that once upon a time efforts were made to foster the relationship’s success.
But where a commitment was never established, where a relationship remained label-less and in a state of limbo waiting for its potential to be realized (at least in the eyes of one of the couple’s halves), its ultimate demise may be even more painful than the conclusion of a relationship that had been properly attended to and had duly run its course.
In a modern era where exclusivity has become an elusive prize, it remains questionable whether unwillingness to label a relationship does actually afford any benefit in the long run.
Usually the party who keeps a relationship label-less does so to ensure limited fallout or assignment of blame should there eventually be a separation. In line with this reasoning, if the relationship is never defined, then either party, particularly the aggrieved, should not feel any sadness or regret if and when the relationship does not work out.
This is not always the case. In fact, the exact opposite often holds true. Instead of progressing through the five stages of grief when a relationship ends, the person in a non-relationship relationship, the one who always wanted and hoped for more, sometimes becomes stuck, waiting endlessly for a day that likely will never come. As for the one who denies exclusivity? That person similarly loses out, never knowing what might have been.
When reality does eventually set in that a relationship is indeed over, one or both members of a couple are suddenly forced to confront emotions common during a formal breakup, but without the label deemed necessary to justify the depth of feeling being experienced. The effect can be isolating.
Although a formal commitment may never have been established, the emotions experienced when a relationship ends, whether a friendship, romance or something altogether different, are justified. That today’s dating etiquette reflects an increasing hesitation to define a relationship’s status means little. Breakup or not, hearts are still broken.