Why can’t I stop thinking about someone I never had a relationship with?

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This week, our resident sexpert Olivia Petter talks situationship heartbreaks and why they can be just as hard as break-ups, if not worse

Friday 3 March 2023   By Olivia Petter   Illustration by Darren Shaddick

As someone who writes a lot about sex and dating, I am often asked questions by strangers on social media. There are the classics – ‘how do I get over a broken heart?’ and ‘will I be single forever?’ – that people have been asking for a millennia. And then there are the ones that completely capture the quirks of the modern dating landscape, symptoms of a digital-first age where everyone is looking for love at first swipe.

Your question is one of those. And it’s something I often ask myself, too. Let’s break this down a little, because contrary to popular belief, there could be a few reasons why you have become attached to someone you haven’t been in a relationship with. 

The first – and most obvious – is that you simply had a crush on this person. Perhaps they were someone you pined after from afar, or a close friend you wished could become more. The second possibility – and slightly murkier one – is that you have been in an undefinable romantic partnership with this person. 

You might have kissed them a few times, possibly even slept with them, or maybe you’ve just spent a few fumbling evenings together. This is what us ‘extremely online’ folk would call a ‘situationship’. In short, this label can be attributed to any kind of sexual or romantic partnership that has no label. But that doesn’t mean it can’t have a huge emotional and psychological impact on you, particularly if it feels out of your control, or comes to a sudden end.

It might feel strange to be so deeply affected by something that was ostensibly meaningless. But it’s not strange at all. How could it be, when so many of us are feeling it? Towards the end of last year, the writer Grace Samuel examined why the end of her own situationship hurt more than the end of her five-year relationship in a piece for Refinery29. ‘I was mortified,’ she writes. ‘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?’

Samuel goes on to reference a viral TikTok video by someone who, like her, had recently come out of a three-month situationship feeling more bereft than when her long-term relationship ended. There are a few theories as to why this pain can feel so acute. The first is based on the nature of your situationship – it’s casual, there’s no clear starting point and there’s no clear end point. At least, there wasn’t supposed to be. And so, when the other person does impose an end point out of nowhere, it can be jarring and difficult to accept.

The main reason, though, I think, is that when a romantic situation isn’t defined, there are gaps with regards to what it all means. And if you’re anything like me, you will take all the creative license you have to fill those gaps. You will dream about the endless possibilities you might have with this person. How your connection will flourish organically. How it will eventually transition into a relationship. How you’ll wear Vivienne Westwood at the wedding.

When a situationship ends, you will be forced to mourn an imagined future. A fantasy you have created in your head. And when you get a brutal reminder that’s all it was, nothing can feel quite so heartbreaking.

If you’re currently going through this, my advice is to be kind to yourself. Acknowledge that what you’re feeling is real and valid. Let that pain in and then, when the time is right, you can let it pass. But please know that nothing about what you’re feeling is strange or abnormal; it’s quite the opposite.

Got a question for Olivia? Please email dearolivia@sohohouse.com. All submissions will remain anonymous. 
Olivia Petter is the relationships writer at The Independent and author of Millennial Love, which is out now in paperback with 4th Estate