The message lands like a body into ice-cold water.
You deserve better. I'm sorry.
There were other words. But it all boiled down to the same thing. The "it's not you it's me-ness" of it all lapped over me as I stood, prone in the kitchen. My breath caught in my chest. Tears sprung in my eyes. I could feel my heartbeat drop deep into my gut. My body lurched into the oh-so-familiar physical reaction to romantic rejection, to heartbreak. The man in question? We'd only known each other two months, and been on just three dates. My sadness was visceral, but it also felt foolish. What we were to each other didn't have a name yet. So, why was I so upset?
It's hard to explain to anyone that has not experienced the merry-go-round of emotions that comes with single life in 2020-2021, just how quickly attachments can form, and how equally quickly they can disappear from view. But anyone currently on the ride (hope you're clinging on folks, it's been bumpy I know), will implicitly know the trajectory it takes. For those uninitiated? Let me walk you through it.
You "meet" in a flurry of messages. With the standards for a decent chat set depressingly low these days, when you get a good one, you just…know. It's like lightning in a cloudless sky. For me, and the man in question above, it was one of the best opening messges I've ever had. And believe me, I've had hundreds of them. Within minutes, there were inside jokes, memes, and nicknames. I just knew this one was a winner. And I wasn't wrong.
Three pretty brilliant dates followed. Because of COVID-19, and various boring life factors, they were very spread out, but in between we chatted, spoke on the phone, continued the rapport that had begun as a wee digital seedling. Now I look back with clearer, less rose-tinted vision, and there were some pretty glaring red flags. But ever-the-optimist, I sailed right past them without moderating my speed once.
Then, on the morning of what would have been only our fourth date—but one I'd been looking forward to for weeks—the message came. I didn't know what to say.
As a journalist, I have written about and researched heartbreak and its various physical effects on the body many times. I've had three big loves come to an end—relationships that lasted three to five years each—and know the devastation those particular emotional landmines leave behind. But what I've never felt before this year is the "micro" version of that grief. Being rejected by someone who knew everything there is to know about you is horrific. But being pre-rejected by someone who you feel had promise, who you had just started to let yourself imagine a short-term future with—but hadn't yet had any of the reality checks that come when you actually know someone—brings with it a different set of emotions.
"A need for fast romantic attachments has been particularly noticeable since the COVID-19 pandemic," says Dr. Angelina Archer, psychologist at Harley Therapy. "The extended lockdown periods have left many people feeling desperate for connection with another human being. Feelings that someone we meet and date might be our forever partner become heightened, and so do feelings of rejection when relationships suddenly end after a few dates."
Three dates is just enough time to start to future-gaze.
In a normal world, our lives are full of distractions that stop us from focusing too much on the dates we meet, and provide padding to cushion any emotional blows that might come from them. Lockdown also changed the way we date, with second and third dates often happening in people's homes instead of out and about. This catapults you into a level of intimacy with someone you don't normally reach until much further in. Instead of getting to know someone in a bar or restaurant, they are in your home or you're in theirs—you're cuddling on the sofa, and seeing how they live. It tricks you into thinking you know each other better than you do in reality. Plus, these days, with little else to occupy us, three dates is just enough time to start to future-gaze, to get excited about a person; especially if the person in question appears, on first glance, to be excited about you too.
"As with the end of any relationship, it is normal to think about what could have been, especially if you experienced what felt like a genuine connection. At the start, we build a complex system of meanings about the kind of person they are…and the nature of technology allows us to meet more people than we would in real life. But we only gain a limited perspective of the person. This is no reflection on either of you, but the picture we build of our date may not accurately represent who they truly are," explains Dr. Archer.
Her point about how others represent themselves is key. How the other party behaves, what they say, how they say it, plays the biggest part in how you feel if it ends. In this case, looking back, I think I had legitimate reason to feel excited, based on the facts presented to me. There was a spark. There was an intellectual connection. We cracked each other up. He even "we'd" me. Ever had that done to you early on? Where the other person uses the word "we" to talk about you both in the future tense? "We'd spend that morning in bed..." or "We'll go on that holiday." It's enchanting, seductive, and it's also really poor behavior if you have no intention of actually doing any of those things.
And herein lies the rub. Sometimes, when it comes to digital dating, you have what feels like two very stark choices: 1) Go into each new relationship expecting it to fail, assuming the other person is dating lots of others, in the hope you might be pleasantly surprised (I'm not bashing this, it's a legitimate coping strategy) or 2) Go in optimistic, taking people at their word and believing—like believing in the fairies in Peter Pan—that if you truly wish it, it too will fly. I consistently choose the latter, because it's who I am deep down. If you do too, then great! You are walking through life as an optimist. But, it can mean the eventual crash is tougher than for our more realistic friends.
I look back now and realize that in this particular situation, I turned the scraps of intimacy and shared connection he and I had into a quilt entirely of my own making; one only I could see. The Emperor's new relationship, if you will. It doesn't mean those moments did not happen, or that they were not real. It just means they meant more to me, and were interpreted completely differently by him.
The good news? It's totally normal to feel this way. I spoke to three different psychologists for this piece, and all of them were clear that when it comes to romantic attachments, it is not the time you spent with someone but the impact they had on you that matters most. It's okay to feel sad, to mourn. You felt something. In this current dating landscape, that’s rare.
When it comes to romantic attachments, it is not the time you spent with someone but the impact they had on you that matters most.
The hardest thing sometimes is explaining to yourself, and to others, why you are upset that something ended when it never quite began. A week after the date that never was, I was nearly back to my old self, but I was still giving myself a hard time for letting myself get upset in the first place. For that reason, I'd actually like to strike the question, "So how long were you with him?" from the collective dating lexicon. A better question might be: How did you feel about them?
Clinical psychologist Nicole McCance says, "it has more to do with the quality of the attachment bond, than the time you spent together. We are often attracted to certain people because of how they make us feel and this has nothing to do with time." For example, "if they made you feel secure, safe, special, or brought out the fun-loving part of you, it's going to feel like a loss when it ends. You are not so much grieving memories and shared experiences (because there may not be many) but you are having to let go of the future you thought you would have with this person." They are the lottery ticket that never quite came off. And she's right. In my case, yes I liked him, but more than that, I also liked the me I was when I was with him. The me that might exist in any future version of an "us" he and I would have had. The even better news here? I am the only constant that's going into the next relationship I make. And you are too. When it comes to the death of the three-date-relationship, recognizing that it's you who you like first and foremost might just be the best closure there is.
This article originally appeared on Cosmopolitan.com/uk. Minor edits have been made by the Cosmo.ph editors.