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Do You Have To Define Your Relationship While You're Apart?

Illustration by Angelica Alzona.

A reader asks:

My girlfriend and I split up a couple of months ago, as she was traveling abroad for awhile and I started a job in a new place. However, we never really stopped talking. Even though we actually split up, nothing about our communication has changed. We clearly still like each other and miss each other. She’s coming back to the US at the end of the year. Do I have to bring this up and “define the relationship” anytime soon?


In a word: Yes.

I am the world’s foremost proponent of “defining the relationship” because of my own personal discomfort with ambiguity and awkward silences. But even I fell for the temptation of letting a good thing drag on after a distance-based breakup failed to take. My high school-turned-college boyfriend dumped me in an email from New Zealand within the first few weeks of his six-month study abroad. For the rest of the separation we maintained a quasi-romantic email and video chat relationship that any freshmen psych major could see was unhealthy for me, after my ex insisted we wait till he was again stateside to clarify the situation.

So I waited, wasting my time at college calculating time differences and taking care of the two dwarf hamsters he’d gifted me as a going-away present. Even finding out that dwarf hamsters have a nasty cannibalistic streak failed to fully elucidate the embarrassing absurdity of my situation.

When he returned—half a year after I’d stopped dating him but refused to start dating anyone else—we got back together right away. I was ecstatic, until a week later when he dumped me again.


This didn’t make any sense to me. Hadn’t he had months to decide what he wanted? Of course he did! But rather than mope about New Zealand wondering if he should stay with his high school sweetheart, this not-unreasonable dude spent his six months abroad bungee jumping and wallaby hunting (or at least one of those things).

Meanwhile, I had been ignoring well-meaning advice that I should focus on getting over him while he was gone in favor of investing in our hypothetical future. I figured, why put effort into something I hoped wouldn’t be necessary when instead I could just accept an increasingly marginalized version of the relationship we’d had before? This wasn’t a boiling-frog scenario—just the opposite. The shock of the physical separation and the ostensible breakup had left me so shaken that I was content (or at least complacent) to hang my hopes on a relationship that I would have never let linger in limbo while we were together.


I don’t know how serious you two were before, who incited the breakup, or what your ideal version of this relationship would be now and after she returns. But presumably you used to talk about things like your expectations of each other—or at the very least, there was an understanding so evidently implied that you didn’t wonder where your relationship stood.

I believe that you “clearly still like each other and miss each other,” but I can’t believe that nothing has changed about your communication. For one thing, you presumably communicate less in person. For another, you’re less willing to ask your girlfriend if she is, in fact, your girlfriend. I don’t say this to be pedantic; it’s the very point. What has changed, it seems, is your comfort with making your expectations explicit.


By avoiding a conversation that you know is merited enough to at least ask about, you are shifting the terms of your relationship in a way that’s not good for anybody. You’re refusing to hold the relationship up to a reasonable standard for fear of losing it altogether and in doing so, you’re papering over something. Someone thought the other person—or they, themselves—couldn’t remain faithful, or couldn’t put forth the necessary effort, or just didn’t want to be bothered to do so. You both deserve to find out what kind of situation you’re dealing with, even if you opt to not change your behavior.

You don’t have to issue an ultimatum, or even have the same kind of relationship while you’re apart as you would while you’re together. There’s a certain amount of ambiguity in every relationship, and it’s understandable to have it fluctuate based on logistical parameters like a separation. There’s also no guarantee that anything you decide while she’s abroad will hold true when she returns, since you might not realize just how much you’ve each changed until faced with more familiar circumstances. But the only reason to avoid talking about where you stand now is that you’re worried her answer might be different than yours—which is something you should find out sooner rather than later.


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