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He wasn’t my boyfriend. But it still hurt like hell when it ended.

(Washington Post illustration; iStockphoto)
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When my boyfriend broke up with me, he had a friend tell me he was leaving me. Then he told me himself. He asked me to return the necklace he had given as a gift a few months earlier. I shouted. I cried. I said I was going home to flush the necklace down the toilet.

We were 11.

I was upset and confused. But there had never been any confusion about what we were to each other. From the moment we decided we liked each other, I was his girlfriend. In the three years that we were “a couple” — yes, our romance began in third grade — we held hands a lot and I kissed his cheek twice. When we broke up, it was definitive: You were my significant other, and now you’re not.

Adults should not date like they’re 11. But sometimes I think back on that breakup and how everyone expected me to be devastated. (I remember feeling mostly relieved but sobbing like the jilted girl that I was.) The acceptance of how upset I was — which came simply because I had that official “girlfriend” title — made it easier for me to express and embrace it.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve had quite a few relationships that lasted significant amounts of time but without boyfriend-girlfriend labels attached. These “all intents and purposes boyfriends” did boyfriend-like things and behaved in boyfriend-like ways. But we never made a genuine commitment and sometimes that was fine.

But other times there’s an implied casualness that has made me feel as if I’m not allowed to grieve the relationship, or feel broken, when it ends. After all, if he wasn’t my boyfriend, it didn’t make sense to be that upset, right? But even casual relationships, when they go on long enough, become more serious, regardless of the titles attached. Why was I letting a label — or lack thereof — make my feelings seem invalid?

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I can think of one guy in particular. One minute I was calmly eating a Mediterranean omelette at brunch with my friends, asking the waitress for a second (okay, fourth) mimosa. And the next, my tone of voice was skyrocketing into a barely audible squeak, tears pouring down my face.

“This is so ridiculous,” I choked out. “He wasn’t even my boyfriend. It wasn’t even SERIOUS.”

But it was serious, in a way: We had been in each other’s lives for close to a year and now we wouldn’t be. I had loved him, even though we didn’t say it out loud.

My friends sympathetically nodded, because they, too, know that sometimes emotions trump logic. They know that even when undefined relationships end, and they don’t look like breakups, they often feel like them.

I often try to come up with a word or phrase for what happens when you break up with someone who is not your boyfriend. When you’ve spent a decent amount of time with someone, that deserves recognition. When you have spent entire days curled around someone in bed debating whether Andy’s boyfriend in “The Devil Wears Prada” is a tool (he is) and why people think stoner jokes are the funniest (they’re not), you’re forming a connection. When you’re sending links all day, every day, to articles because they mention ONE thing we know the other finds interesting, that says you’re thinking about each other even while you’re apart.

What to feed a broken heart

When months of time together passed and my non-boyfriend laid his head on my torso one night and said that being with me was his favorite place in the whole world, that was the moment I realized I was in love with him. And that I’d have to “break up” with him.

For me, it was almost worse than when I broke up with a different guy who was definitively my boyfriend. I had to tell my non-boyfriend that I wanted a real commitment. For us not to see other people. Hearing him say he felt everything was fine the way it was prompted me to say, “Okay, well, then I know I can’t do that, so it’s probably best if we’re just friends.” To which he replied, “Danielle, we ARE friends.” And I was forced to hastily add, “Well, friends who don’t see each other naked then!”

Hearing that, to him, we weren’t much more than friends felt like a solid blow to my chest, a pain I felt in my entire body. But I survived.

And it taught me that sometimes, while trying to be progressive or eschew old-fashioned traditions in relationships, I ignored my own emotions. It’s not about needing the girlfriend title, although in that case I realized I wanted it. It’s more about admitting to myself how I’m feeling about another person and not allowing a label (or lack of one) to dictate my emotions after it ends.

Maybe it’s still not worthy of being called a breakup. But I loved him, I ended it, and it still hurt like hell. And that’s allowed.


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