terminal relationships
Destined to end the moment they begin, terminal relationships are becoming common among college students. And to avoid heartbreak, you have to be prepared. (Illustration by Jaila Desper, University of Maryland, College Park)

Love with an Expiration Date: Navigating Terminal Relationships

Till senior spring do us part.

College /// Thoughts x
terminal relationships

Till senior spring do us part.

The beginning of February also means the beginning of the season of romance. For some, Valentine’s Day is a meaningful time to express love and show appreciation for significant others, friends and family.

For others, Valentine’s Day means the end of cuffing season is officially on the horizon. It’s the last benchmark before warmer temperatures bring notions of “freedom,” and couples that spent Christmas thinking about forever suddenly start breaking up left and right.

Of course, none of this is to devalue the substance of their relationships. After all, nobody plans for their relationship to fail from the very start. Or … do they?

The answer is yes. College is a unique time because students have so many plans for themselves, yet their futures remain very uncertain. It can be difficult to make (and keep) a commitment to someone when you have no idea what your life will look like in a year, or even in a semester.

Does that mean you shouldn’t date anyone until you graduate? Of course not. But it does mean you need to be honest with yourself and with your significant other about the reality of whatever situation or stage of life you are in.

However, there are some people that take this honesty to a whole new level and set an expiration date for their relationship. Whether it’s an exact day or more of a general timeframe depends on the couple, but the concept is the same. They go into the relationship with a mutual understanding of its longevity.

Terminal relationships can occur for all sorts of reasons. A common one is incompatible post-graduation plans. Perhaps two people enter a relationship during their second semester of senior year. One already has a job lined up back home, while the other has been accepted into the Peace Corps in Senegal. They want to be together, but their futures simply don’t align.

Another common example of a terminal relationship is with exchange students or international students. Unless somebody is willing to move to a new country one day, it is often assumed that these relationships will end upon the completion of the exchange student’s studies.

Although it’s no exact science, I spoke with six people who have experienced terminal relationships, two of whom are currently in them. From what I gathered, here are seven tips for being in a terminal relationship.

1. Don’t hold out for something that might never happen.

You have to be okay with the idea that once you break up, you might never get back together again. If you go into a terminal relationship with the expectation or hope that the two of you will reconcile in the future, you’ll only be setting yourself up for heartbreak.

Of course, don’t completely shut the door on that possibility, but be prepared for a permanent split.

2. Live in the moment.

Your relationship isn’t going to be healthy if it revolves around the inevitability of the end.

Enjoy each other’s company while you can, and make as many happy memories as possible. This is much easier said than done, but it’s important. Solely focusing on the deadline will make both of you miserable.

3. Don’t worry about everyone else’s opinions.

Whether it be friends, family members or a random person in a coffee shop, everyone is going to want to give their two cents on your decision. This is usually true in any type of relationship, but it’s especially important to be prepared for the onslaught of unsolicited opinions in a terminal one.

If you value someone’s opinions, then take what they say to heart, but remember that, at the end of the day, it’s your relationship and your life.

4. Communicate, communicate, communicate.

Even in the face of an inevitable breakup, it’s still important to properly communicate when there’s an issue. It might not feel like it’s worth the effort, but your relationship will ultimately be much more enjoyable.

On a related note, don’t be afraid to open up. You’re not going to get much out of a relationship where you’re not at least a little vulnerable. Be honest with your significant other about who you are as a person. Let them in a little. Again, it might not seem like it’s worth it, but it can make the limited time you have together all the more special.

5. If you’re not happy, leave.

If communication doesn’t help and you’re unhappy, leave. You don’t need to stay in an unhealthy relationship just because you know it’s eventually going to end. You might just be trying to spare the other person’s feelings, but it’s unfair to them in the long run.

By continuing a relationship that you’re not committed to, you’re really just wasting your significant other’s time (and your own).

6. Be prepared for it to hurt.

Just because the two of you agreed on when to break up and why the relationship couldn’t last forever doesn’t mean it won’t still suck when it happens. Let yourself feel the pain and give yourself time to heal.

But don’t regret your relationship. The fact that it hurts doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t have done it; it just means that you really cared about the person. You should never regret having a real connection with someone, even if it was fleeting. And, even though everything ended, you probably learned a lot about yourself from the experience.

7. You have to know yourself.

Before getting into a terminal relationship, you have to think about whether or not you really believe you can do it. Will the deadline make your anxiety spiral? Will getting close to this person, only to break up later, completely devastate you for a long period of time? Do you truly like this person, or do you just want a boyfriend or girlfriend because you’re lonely?

These are the types of questions you should ask yourself. It’s going to be very difficult at some points, and you need to decide (hopefully beforehand) if you can truly handle it. You don’t need to know exactly how the relationship will play out, but you do need to be confident that you can work through the challenges.

In discussions of love, people talk about forever a whole lot more than they talk about an expiration date. But there’s something to be said about sharing your life with someone for just a snapshot of time, and a terminal relationship might not be as bad as it originally sounds. It takes a whole lot of guts to know you’re going to get hurt and decide that that person is worth the pain.

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