Do You Have To Break Up With Someone If You Aren't Officially Dating?

Photographed by Ashley Armitage.
If you're in a casual relationship, or have ever been in one, you probably can't pinpoint when it started or ended. That's the whole point of a casual relationship — keep it laissez-faire and loose. But all too often, it's assumed that you can just let a casual relationship fizzle out and end without officially pronouncing it dead (a.k.a. ghosting). Even though lots of people do this, it's not necessarily a good thing.
So do you have to actually break up with someone if you weren't in an official relationship to begin with? Yes, but it's complicated, says Samantha Burns, LMHC, a millennial relationship expert. "There are so many nuances to dating and entering into a relationship these days, that calling things quits before it ever really takes off can be a confusing situation," Burns says.
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There are plenty of reasons why you might not want to have an official breakup conversation — namely, it can be awkward and seem dramatic. Or you could feel like the relationship just didn't really warrant a breakup. Or you could genuinely be friends with the person you're seeing, and you're afraid you'll wreck what you have. Your reasons for avoiding a talk depend on the circumstances of your relationship, but Burns says she has one rule that usually helps her clients figure out what to do: "If someone expresses interest in meeting up with you, but their feelings are not reciprocated, you owe them a let-down response." Pretty simple advice, but judging by the popularity of ghosting, it's not common practice.
Burns says that her rule holds true at any stage of a relationship, whether you're chatting on an app, being asked on a second date, or deciding whether to DTR. You owe it to the person you're seeing to tell them that you're not interested, so you can move on and they can, too. If your gut says that you're not interested, or if you sense that you would rather be dating someone else, then you'll probably feel better after having a breakup conversation, even though it can be awkward.
On the other hand, what if the person you're seeing doesn't actually express interest in meeting up with you again? You should still have a talk with them. Even if you don't think the person would care that you're ghosting, or you think they may also be ghosting, it's better to be the bigger person and close the loop, because you shouldn't assume that you know how other people feel. "Ghosting is damaging to someone’s self-esteem and wastes emotional energy that could be better off invested back in the dating market," Burns says.
So how exactly should you phrase this kind of breakup? That depends on how long you've been seeing a person. Burns says if you're just messaging on an app, you can send a simple, straightforward text that says something like, It's been fun chatting with you, but I don't think we're a match. Best of luck on here! If you've been on just a few dates, you can still breakup via text message, but Burns says you should at least thank the person for going on the dates, and tell them, I just don't feel a connection. That might sound like a cliché line from The Bachelorette, but it's actually more sincere than lying and saying you're "too busy to date right now."
If you and the person you're hoping to dump have been out more than five times, then you should probably be a touch more sensitive. "At this point, you’ve likely developed emotional intimacy and feel a sense of connection, so a phone call or in-person conversation is warranted," Burns says. During the talk, you can address the fact that you didn't sense a spark, or even explain that you felt like you had "mismatched core values," Burns says. These are just jumping-off points for you to start a conversation. But no matter what the reason is, you should try to articulate it, because your partner or date is going to wonder where you went, or they might worry about what they did wrong that made you disappear.
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And whatever you do, don't compromise during this conversation, Burns says. You don't owe anyone the right to be in a relationship with you, even one with hazy boundaries. In the end, having a breakup conversation is a small courtesy you can do to encourage open communication in relationships, which ultimately would dissuade people from ghosting at all. Just remember: You may one day be the person on the receiving end of a casual relationship breakup — and don't you think that you deserve closure?