When the person I’d been seeing for a few months told me that he was getting back together with his ex-girlfriend, effectively ending our situationship, I went a bit light-headed.
It did not help that it was at my favorite bar on a Saturday night, I hadn’t had much sleep and we’d had six double G&Ts between us. Passersby stubbed their cigarettes out in the ashtray on our table as he emphasized how gutted he was because I had been “so much fun“. He told me I was so cool, so pretty, so smart, so funny. “You’re sexy,” he added for good measure, “I really rate you.” To my brain, the subtext was obnoxiously clear: I like fucking you but I don’t like YOU. If the ground had split in two and swallowed me up in that exact moment, I would’ve been thankful.
After I broke up with my boyfriend of four and a half years, I convinced myself that nothing could rival that discomfort, especially not something that by its very nature was intended to be fleeting. Somehow, this pain eclipsed it. With the relationship breakup, I felt an ache for almost a year. It would flare occasionally. This pain was red-hot and restless. I tried my best to put it aside but it was constantly on my mind, even days later.
The spontaneous, undefined nature of a situationship can mean that you go quickly from speaking to each other every day to being unfollowed, ghosted or blocked without another word.
When I went out onto the balcony of my new apartment, I found myself glaring at the limp cheese plant he’d bought me and debating whether to toss it onto the driveway below. It all came to a head a week later, when my flatmate chirpily relayed the details of her own similar situationship and to my surprise (and embarrassment) I burst into tears – howling, hyperventilating, headache-inducing tears.
I was mortified. I knew I didn’t love this person, even care for them the way I’d cared for my ex, so how could this hurt so much? The next day I relayed my confusion to my best friend, who nodded understandingly and said: “I’ve seen a TikTok about this.”
In the TikTok in question, a woman asks the camera if anyone can explain why the breakdown of her three-month situationship hurt more than getting out of her five-year relationship. It was a question that seemed to come up time and time again, in comment sections, Twitter threads and conversations among friends. I was reassured to know it wasn’t quite the phenomenon I first thought it was but, like many others, I was desperate to know the answer.
Oloni, sex and relationships expert and author of The Big O, explains that the reason why a situationship breakup can hurt more than a relationship breakup is because usually, one person doesn’t see it coming. “With situationships, it’s fun, it’s full of fireworks – you never really know what’s gonna come from it,” she says. “You never know if it’s gonna turn into a relationship or if it’s just something that’s for the now.
With relationships, you kind of know where it’s heading.” The unpredictability is part of the situationship appeal. Oloni explains that with a long-term relationship, typically there is an awareness, even if it’s subconscious, when it’s coming to an end. There could be a discussion (or several) before the breakup actually happens. You might even get back together several times before you definitively call it quits. “Because you have that preparation, it doesn’t hurt as much… It’s a bit more of a slower burn.”
The spontaneous, undefined nature of a situationship can mean that you go quickly from speaking to each other every day to being unfollowed, ghosted or blocked without another word. Spotify Blend playlist removed; iMessage thread deleted. There’s a natural desire to know exactly why they didn’t choose you, what you did wrong and what you could’ve done better. Simultaneously, there is a belief that you aren’t within your rights to ask because that person was never officially yours. “I feel like we’re in this culture, if I can’t call you my boyfriend or girlfriend, you don’t really have a right to question my feelings or question my authenticity or question where I [saw] this relationship going,” says Oloni.
After he broke the news, the person I was in a situationship with asked tentatively if I had any questions but I, worried about appearing too bothered (pedantic, crazy even), especially in a public setting, said no. In reality I had several. He eventually admitted that he had been seeing his ex-girlfriend the whole time he was seeing me. Was I simply a placeholder until she was ready to take him back? Did he ever actually like me? Without warning and without clarification, the dissolution of the situationship fed into my insecurities. Even though he insisted that it was nothing to do with me, I still had a lurking feeling that my actions had caused this.
“For people who lack a secure attachment style, a situationship breakup can feel especially painful because it confirms a fear that is developed during early childhood: that someone they care about might unexpectedly one day abandon them, or cannot be depended on.
There are ways to try and mitigate this kind of spiralling, which is all too common when it feels like any semblance of control has been yanked from our hands. “I suggest creating a pie chart. What are all the reasons why it hasn’t worked out?” says clinical psychologist Dr Omolola Olukotun. “People probably put 80% of themselves in there, [the rest] might be because something hasn’t worked out for some other reason. Then we would say take yourself out and actually, by taking themselves out, they can think of more reasons why it might have ended.”
Dr. Olukotun also explains that for people who lack a secure attachment style, a situationship breakup can feel especially painful because it confirms a fear that is developed during early childhood: that someone they care about might unexpectedly one day abandon them, or cannot be depended on. Long-term relationships that were once secure don’t typically evoke the same level of anxiety. “If you were with someone for a longer time and you’ve both identified that I am yours and you are mine, [breaking up] doesn’t activate that sense of abandonment or the sense of fear of dependence per se.”
Having an attachment style that is not secure can mean you are instinctively attracted to the insecure nature of a situationship and the person who comes with it, even if it leaves us perpetually anxious. Dr. Olukotun encourages people who find themselves in these situationships to examine what makes them feel safe and comfortable.
“So working out actually, what do I want? And is the person I keep trying to go for, do they make me feel safe? Or do they remind me of early life experiences?” Once you know what you need to feel comfortable in a situationship, communicate this and establish clear boundaries so that you aren’t taking the situationship further than either of you are prepared for. “Opening up [outside of these established boundaries] can run the risk of emotional dependency which is not what a situationship is actually for,” says Dr. Olukotun.
For it to stop hurting, I needed to forgive myself for being so upset that it ended. I had to (albeit reluctantly) admit that I had genuinely liked this person and that I had simply not anticipated that he would choose someone else, even though he was entitled to do so. I had to speak to my own therapist about it, get into my best friend’s bed and cry about it, write about it.
Are situationships always bad, relationships always good? No. A situationship can be a lot of fun and allow you to discover what you can tolerate in a potential partner or relationship. But it’s important to remember that while you might not want to label it a ‘real’ relationship, the people who enter it are real and so are the emotions that come with them.
A version of this article originally appeared here on refinery29.com