Why It Can Be Harder to Get Over Almost‑Relationships Than Actual Ones
A few years ago, when it took me longer to get over an almost-relationship that lasted for a few months, than it took me to move on from a serious relationship I was in for over half a decade, I was understandably taken aback; it didn’t make sense. Soon after, as I ventured into the online dating universe, I realized it wasn’t a one-off thing: it is surprisingly difficult to move on from situationships — not just for me, but for most people.
“My feelings seemed ridiculous and invalid because I was heartbroken over someone who was never my boyfriend… felt as though I didn’t have the right to mourn it like a real relationship,” says Oindrila, 32, noting that it took her almost four years to move on from the almost-relationship. “Earlier, when I had broken up with my boyfriend, the mourning felt rational and validated… We had tried everything to make it work, and when it didn’t, we broke up. I knew that I couldn’t give anything more to it, so I was mentally prepared. But the mourning of the situationship was extremely unsettling… I didn’t even know what I was moving on from.”
One of the stages of the often-quoted “stages of grief” is acceptance. It was easier for Oindrila to get there when she knew she had exhausted every effort to salvage her relationship. But when it came to her situationship, she didn’t know what she could have done better, and, consequently, found it more challenging to accept that the outcome was truly beyond her control. “I was in denial for a long time,” she notes.
Letters To Juliet, a 2006 book, states: “‘What’ and ‘if’ are two words as non-threatening as words can be. But put them together side-by-side and they have the power to haunt you for the rest of your life: What if? What if? What if?” The lines capture a universal human tendency: counterfactual thinking.
Related on The Swaddle:
“What isn’t, but what could have been, has an enduring appeal to human imagination… To think of the limitless, fascinating possibilities and hypothetical scenarios, how a twist in one’s tale could have had a ripple effect through time fascinates humans endlessly,” Saumya Kalia wrote for The Swaddle last year. The purpose of engaging in counterfactual thinking is to help people learn from their mistakes by indulging in “if only… then what?” scenarios so they can do better in future. However, there’s an unfortunate downside to it: a regret-themed depressive spiral, which can prolong the grief that follows the end of an almost-relationship.
The number of “what if’s” and “if only’s” can inundate one’s mind with fantasies of what could’ve been, making it difficult to break free. “After a usual breakup, you’d think more about the memories. For [situationships], you think more about ‘what could have been’ — if you were in a relationship, how well things could have gone, how many more sweet memories you would have had,” N., 20, says.
Further, according to Ankita, 31, when it comes to fantasies about the future of almost-relationships, it’s as if “you are in a relationship with your own mind,” which makes it decidedly difficult to escape from. More so, since “imaginations are not restricted by reality,” she adds.
But the curiously long process of recovery from almost-relationships isn’t governed by fantasies alone. Hormones may play a role here too. Given that almost-relationships are often short-lived, people may be in their “honeymoon… [or] initial love-drunk phase” when it all comes to a halt, as an article on Hauterrfly describes. At this stage, the dopamine and oxytocin that fills the mind can make the attraction seem stronger — and the break-up, more painful.
Related on The Swaddle:
In addition, when it comes to situationships, there’s neither a clear beginning nor a definitive end: how can there be a “break up” from something that, well, never existed? In a way, it makes it difficult to tell when a situationship is truly over, especially when one doesn’t want to believe that it is. This, too, can make acceptance difficult. “I didn’t stop hoping and waiting and I guess that made it worse,” Varsha, 29, says.
Without a clear beginning and end, almost-relationships also have a hot-and-cold cycle. One moment they seem into you, the next moment they don’t. On the one hand, it’s difficult to hold someone who never committed to a relationship accountable — making it difficult to communicate and determine if they’re coming back. This can deny people the closure they might need to put the situationship behind them. Moreover, unlike in a long-term relationship where you can often see the end coming due to problems building up over time, it may be almost impossible to predict the end of a situationship, and brace oneself.
On the other hand, the hot-and-cold cycle also starts mirroring on-again, off-again relationships, which are also known to trigger distress — exacerbating people’s insecurities and diminishing their sense of self. When added to the fact that people don’t know what they could’ve done better to make an almost-relationship last, situationships can also lead people to feel rejected — as if they’ are un-dateable, as if their love interests didn’t deem them worthy of commitment.
“[It] shook my self-esteem [and] triggered my anxiety… Even now, a little bit of fear lingers and it gets difficult to trust any man,” Oindrila says.