Not A Fling, Not Quite Official: What Are Micro Relationships?

Beware those fleeting romances.

Beware those fleeting romances.

Chances are that either you or someone you know is struggling to recover from a micro relationship right now. 

What the hell is a micro relationship, you ask?  They’re the 1-3 month romances (give or take) that sit somewhere between a fling and a long-term relationship. You know the ones.. those relationships where you're pretty much exclusively dating someone, but wouldn't be comfortable dropping the 'boyfriend/girlfriend/partner' label just yet? Those ones. The kicker is that they can take what feels like a ridiculous amount of time to get over. Are we not blessed? 

For years, I have both felt and witnessed the agony of finding these micro relationships way too difficult to move on from. So what’s that about? Shouldn’t a six-week-whatever-the-fuck be relatively easy to put behind you?

Not necessarily. 

Getting over a micro relationship

“I fell in love in 2018 and the ‘relationship’ lasted about four weeks”, says Morgan*, 23. It ended when the guy she dated said he was moving overseas.

Morgan recalls the intense reaction she had when the romance ended with that partner. “It was awful”, she recalls. “I remember chest pains and just feeling physically terrible”. It wasn’t until a few months later that things started to improve. “I wasn't completely over him but I'd moved on enough to know he wasn't right for me”, she says. A few months later, she was able to recover completely and gained new perspective on the whole thing. “My view of him had completely shifted.  What I once found charming, I now found kind of pathetic”, she laughs. “But yeah, seven months felt like a long time to get over someone I only dated for one month”.

Morgan's not alone. Reddit is packed with the testimonies of heartbroken people who can’t understand why they’re struggling to get over these micro affairs; months or even years down the track. 

“It's been so many months but I keep replaying the break-up over in my head,” admits one anonymous 30-year-old male. “We only dated for just under three months. I know I shouldn't still be sad about this but I am… it's completely irrational.” Another user found themselves in the same boat. “We only really dated for two months. So that would warrant maybe three nights of feeling miserable? Maybe a bit sad? I've been in long term relationships before and when we had broken up I think I spent about a month to feel better about myself but I usually am not really outrageously sad.” She later writes: “It was such a short relationship, but my feelings are still feeling real. It's insane. I can't reason with myself.” 

What sticks out about these stories is not how long many of us take to move on, but the shame that is felt for taking that time in the first place.

That micro dating shame

Where does that shame come from? 

It’s not an easy question to answer. But perhaps what makes micro breakups, (and same goes for micro cheating), so tricky to recover from is their weird, ill-defined nature. That messy 'Justin Bobby and Audrina' back and forth is so much harder for a person to get out because of how casual it all is. It's a headfuck we've seen play out way too many times.

As these aren’t your standard, cookie-cutter attachments (Truth and Time Tells All, remember?), we lack the language to talk about them in a validating way. The words that we traditionally use to talk about love, e.g. 'partner' ‘boyfriend’, ‘breakup’, ‘ex’ and even ‘relationship’ – feel overdramatic and inadequate. This makes it harder to articulate these experiences, both to others and ourselves. 

This means we can end up feeling as though we lack a ‘right’ to these feelings. As Morgan recalls, “It wasn’t a ‘real’ relationship, so I struggled to feel that my pain was valid”. God. If it’s not shitty enough to deal with a breakup, micro breakups make you feel bad for feeling bad. Come on. 

Psychologists have long agreed that language matters. As researchers from the University of North Carolina found in 2015, “language plays an integral role in emotion perceptions and experiences, shaping the nature of the emotion that is perceived or felt in the first place”. The mere act of giving your emotional experience a cultural label, for example, ‘I’m recovering from a breakup’, reduces activity in bits of the brain associated with uncertainty, like the amygdala. This helps us to calm-the-hell-down and process an experience. 

This could mean that experiences that have a less defined place in our culture – like micro breakups – end up being more painful than they need to be. When experiences can’t be named, we’re left in an anxious fog of emotions that have nowhere to go. 

One answer to this hot mess may be to make room in our culture for the many types of romantic attachments that exist. After all, our brains are complex. A shorter relationship isn't always going to be less painful than a longer one. And one way of acknowledging that complexity is to give those other types of relationships a name. 

“I keep reminding myself that having feelings and emotions is human and good,” Morgan says. “Being heartbroken is shitty but I suppose feeling that way about someone who feels the same about you must be pretty incredible? And it takes feelings and vulnerability to find that.” 

*name has been changed for privacy

Main Image Credit: Portrait Of A Lady On Fire, Lilies Films

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