On Halloween of my freshman year, I sat with my friend on her bed as she looked down at the black streaks of asphalt on her palms, recounting how she had sat on the ground outside while the boy whom she had been seeing since Orientation Week “ended things.” I use this phrase because what she had gone through was not a breakup and he was not her boyfriend. Instead, he was the boy who I had seen squeeze her hand as they walked back from Fall Gala, the boy with whom she watched movies alone in a dorm room lit by Christmas lights, the boy who draped his arm around her shoulders as we all pre-gamed in stuffy rooms before parties—the music and our voices fearful whispers in the dark, perpetually terrified of a knock from an RA. But all of that was over now; they had ended, but they had not broken up.
The line between someone whom you “break up with” and someone whom you “end things with” is so fine that it is sometimes hard to tell on which side of it you stand. We all want to err on the side of indifference—to be the breezy, unhurt creatures who move in and out of frat party basements shielded by the cool armor of apathy. And we cling to this apathy because the time and energy a romantic relationship often feels too hard to justify. When so many Tufts students already claim to be exhausted or overworked, how can we rationalize another major commitment? Let alone one that we can’t use to bolster our resume. But our hesitancy to enter into anything serious results in a gray space, existing between “a one-time thing” and “significant other” —and is most often referred to as “consistently hooking up.”
We move in and out of this murky territory, calling ourselves modern, cool, proud for remaining unattached. And while sometimes two people can exist in this gray space together for long periods and then part neutrally, it proves to be a difficult balance to strike. Aiming for both emotional detachment and physical intimacy in a relationship that doesn’t end after a single night is a difficult task. And while it is possible to feel a sense of excitement and empowerment while emerging from a humid basement into the cool night air, prepared to walk back to a dorm room hand-in-hand with a beautiful stranger, it’s hard not to think about what will happen during the days to come.
Perhaps the only interactions will be half-glances in dining halls—or perhaps phone numbers will be exchanged, invitations for second and third encounters extended and accepted. And with the possibility of a real relationship out of the question for so many college students, how do we actually break out of this gray space?
Months later, my friend who had inhabited romantic limbo from Orientation Week until Halloween confessed to me how long it had taken her to get over the boy who had “ended things” with her, and how she never told us how much it hurt because she did not feel like she had a right to feel pain. They had not defined what they were, so how could she be hurt about the end of something that might have not existed in the first place? He wasn’t her boyfriend—he was something else entirely, existing between a friend and something much more. And she was hurt; but to her, this pain felt childish and irrational.
We call our half-hearted relationships with other people “things” because we can’t bear to label them, because to give this gray space a name would give it validity, therefore stopping it from being a gray space altogether. We feel the need to keep it ambiguous, to let it remain a space where we are simultaneously free from attachment and trapped in uncertainty. But there can be no closure for something intangible.
It should not feel like a challenge to let yourself be honest in your grief—and yet, in the terrain of gray spaces, it is. And the pain we feel about the end of a “thing” is exacerbated by our own frustration at ourselves for being hurt in the first place.
Gray spaces can function to prevent pain and attachment, yet they make us work harder to capture something intangible. All of us have been in a situation when we hope against all odds that we might be the ones to make it to the other side of this nebulous wasteland—that we might be the ones to emerge hand-in-hand with a person who was willing to fight their way out with us. But, too often, when two people are trapped in a gray space, one person gets swallowed in the quicksand.