I remember once stumbling across a book called It’s Called a Breakup Because It’s Broken. Though I never read it, the title came back to me years later after a situationship ended and I was left feeling, well, broken. The problem was, there was technically no “break-up” to be found. Had we stayed up until dawn talking and texted incessantly? Yes. But we’d never left the talking stage, let alone become social media official. And yet here I was, feeling like a pit had opened where my heart should have been. It felt illegitimate, like I had no right to hurt this way when nothing had actually happened, so I didn’t think it was worth bothering my friends with my feelings. I knew what they would say: “Just get over him already.” Nevertheless, it all felt painfully real.
I know I’m not alone in mourning a relationship—or potential relationship, even—that didn’t go anywhere. And yet we tend to minimize this grief because other people don’t seem to understand. After a divorce, soothing platitudes are plentiful; when a crush or short-term fling becomes a failure to launch, there’s less support to be had no matter how devastated you might feel. And it’s common enough that there’s a name for this phenomenon: disenfranchised grief.
“We have still formed a significant attachment which gives us feelings of connection,” says grief psychologist Bêne Otto, who has dedicated her practice to normalizing the grieving experience and helping society become more grief-literate. “When this is lost, we grieve the hopes that we had for the relationship; we grieve the path untraveled. This is incredibly painful.”
So why is it called disenfranchised grief? “Grief becomes disenfranchised when the people around the griever deny them the right to grieve by failing to acknowledge the loss or by invalidating the grief,” Otto explains. People can experience disenfranchised grief for a number of reasons—the loss of a pet, the death of someone you hadn’t been close to for some time, the ending of a friendship. And yes, failed relationships. The grief is real, regardless if people around you behave like it’s not.
“When people do not recognize your grief or invalidate and minimize your experience, they likely won’t understand your need for support,” Otto says.
Katie, 35, finds this all too relatable. After being rejected by a potential romantic partner, she felt like she had to go through the grief of getting over her crush completely alone. “The friends I told were supportive but brushed it aside, saying, ‘Let’s move on to my problems now because there’s nothing we can do about yours.’”
Luyanda, 19, experienced something similar. “When [my crush and I] stopped talking, I was hurt,” she says. “But it was hard to voice that because we were never official, and I felt like I would seem crazy or clingy. I was desperate to talk about it. No one bothered to ask how I felt. No one knew what to say. It made me feel terrible about bringing him up again.”
Courtney, 22, had a potential relationship end early due to bad timing and distance. “When I realized that it wasn’t going to work out, it hit like a ton of bricks,” she tells me. “You grieve even though it’s not something that came to fruition. A lot of people don’t understand that you can grieve things that you hoped would be.”
Owethu, 20, describes the isolation of going through disenfranchised grief as being the worst part. “I was left devastated for months,” Owethu says, after it became clear a prospective romance wasn’t going to happen. “People I thought were my best friends were like, ‘The two of you didn’t even date, why are you so upset?’ I felt very isolated because I disregarded my own hurt. The time and love that I had invested was still there. It was okay for me to mourn the loss of what could have been.”