Does the term 'unhappy ending' apply to the characters? Or to the reader? Or to both?
Take the two following scenarios (I'm not going to make it fandom, pairing or even gender specific, just imagine they are your favourite pairing or any other two fandom characters in a longish term established relationship).
Character A and Character B have been lovers for about ten years. They love one another, their relationship has been good, had its ups and downs, but basically they've been happy. Then they suddenly both realise that even though they do still love one another, like one another, care for one another, respect one another, they are no longer happy in the way they were. They both know their relationship is over and they mutually decide to part as friends; to go their separate ways, and try to find happiness elsewhere. There is no other person involved; it is purely them. They are both content with their decision, there is some sadness at the parting, at the break-down of their relationship, it has been ten years after all. However, basically they know it's the right thing for them to do, and they are peaceful with their decision, their mutual decision. They part. The story ends with absolutely no possibility of a reconciliation; neither of them want that; goodbye is goodbye.
Character A and Character B have been lovers for about ten years. They love one another, their relationship has been good, had its ups and downs, but basically they've been happy. Then out of the blue Character A realises that for him/her the relationship isn't working; he/she still cares for his/her partner, likes the other person, but love has died. Basically Character A is unhappy and wants to move on and out of the relationship, there is no other person involved. Character B, however, is still very much in love, happy and doesn't want the separation. However, the do separate with much bitterness and sadness, especially on Character B's behalf. Character A goes off to start a new life, leaving Character B hurting and in pain and unhappy. The story ends with absolutely no possibility of a reconciliation; goodbye is goodbye.
Which of these scenarios would warrant the term 'unhappy ending'?
In the first the characters are happy, as their parting was a mutual decision. However, the readers are likely not to be, because their favourite pairing, or at least a pairing about whom they care, have separated with no hope of getting back together.
In the second Character B certainly isn't happy as the parting wasn't of his/her choice. And the readers are also likely to be unhappy because their favourite pairing, or at least a pairing about whom they care, have separated with no hope of getting back together.
Which of the above would warrant a warning for an unhappy ending? I know that a lot of people don't like, want or need warnings, and in fact avoid putting them (pretty much like me and ratings). However, I would think that most people, whatever they do on their personal LJ, website, mailing list they own, conform to the rules of the fandom specific community/mailing list/web archive and fanfic challenge communities. Thus, if one of the things for which there should be a warning was 'unhappy ending' which of the above would you believe warrants such a warning? Is it the characters' happiness or the readers' that is of primary importance? Or are they of equal consideration? My feeling is that if you are warning for an unhappy ending, you are doing so for the reader more than for the characters, basically that both of the above scenarios would warrant an 'unhappy ending warning', but that's just my opinion.
When posting a story to a community/archive which lists 'unhappy endings' as something for which there must be a warning, which of the scenarios described above should have a warning for 'unhappy ending'