Have you ever had a relationship that felt like it ended without officially ending it? The end may have started slowly. When you first met, you went from texting each other throughout the day to having sudden significant delays in correspondence. You once felt like a priority and someone who your significant other was excited to see. And then at some point that changed and maybe it became unclear why things shifted. Did they meet someone else? Are they just too preoccupied with work stress? Or are you reading too much into unimportant cues? In any case, it is very painful when things feel promising to then feel an unexplained change in direction.
Psychologist Pauline Boss, PhD, coined the term ambiguous loss that refers to a relational disorder caused by losing an emotional connection to a loved one and being left with ambiguous facts surrounding what happened. Ambiguous loss is different from grief as grief implies mourning someone who is no longer alive and ambiguous loss occurs when someone is physically present but emotionally distant. Dr. Boss will even share that ambiguous loss is more complex than grief. She shares, “Ambiguous loss can freeze the grief process. People can’t get over it, they can’t move forward, they’re frozen in place. Unlike with death, there is no proof that allows for any sort of conclusion. There’s no funeral and there’s no script, so to speak, to follow.” When a romantic encounter ends, it’s very common to experience ambiguous loss.
The term ambiguous break-up is defined as having a lack of clarity on when a relationship is over. Likewise, when experiencing an ambiguous break-up, it is so common to also go through the experience of mourning an ambiguous loss including having depressive and anxious symptoms. We currently have a dating culture where terms such as ghosting (the act of abruptly — and seemingly without reason — stopping all communication), orbiting (the act of stopping direct communication and engagement but continuing to monitor your social media presence), and breadcrumbing (someone who is interested in you romantically via occasional texts, calls, and social media likes, giving just enough attention and engagement to keep you interested yet unsatisfied) are becoming increasingly common.
Many often utilize distancing tactics towards the end of a relationship such as breadcrumbing and orbiting as a way to help people slowly acclimate to getting out of a relationship that isn’t working. But ambivalent endings come at a cost! Incomplete endings can offer false hope of a reconciliation. Likewise, ambivalence causes anxiety. Why do you think so many people have found themselves inside of ambiguous breakups? For example, 80 percent of single people of shared that they've been ghosted before, according to a Plenty Of Fish study that was reported by Bustle. Quite often we avoid the ‘what are we’ conversation when things start to feel like they are heading in an unclear direction, as a way to avoid rejection. Avoidance often leads us to an illusion of emotional safety. Many falsely believe that lack of clarity around relationship status and/or discussing shifts that occur within the relationship will protect us from a painful and confrontational ending.
Endings are hard and often bring up a lot of abandonment wounds. Whether a romantic connection was monogamous or even situations where you have dated without a relationship title or were friends with benefits, everyone is owed a respectful and direct ending. Let’s not prolong each other’s ambivalence and do a better job at supporting each other with the respect of a healthy ending. While ambiguous break-ups are so common, they also rob us of the clarity and freedom to move forward. Sharing tough break up news and bringing a relationship to a close, allows us each to walk away with certainty along with maturity and respect.
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