On not labeling your relationships

A friend of mine recently told me, “I’m seeing two people. But I never refer to either of them as ‘boyfriend’ … they are always just ‘friend’, both between us and with other people. The minute you give the relationship a label – boyfriend, girlfriend, husband, wife, whatever – you’re screwed.” I had never thought of this, but you know what? It made a whole lot of sense to me.

I’ve long wished that we could learn as human beings to see love and friendship as boundless – without prior restrictions on where such relationships must go. The best relationships, the ones most nourishing to our soul, have no name: whether the person is technically your parent, your child, your spouse, etc. does not define the relationship by itseld – if it is a relationship you hold dear to you, that you genuinely desire to be in, it is something else, independent of lawful and family-mediated ties. When a relationship is good and nurturing, and you know inside of yourself that it makes you a better person to be in the relationship, any name you try to give it will fall short.

Relationships also change over time, and often, the labeling technique that we use to identify these relationships becomes inadequate: for example, a significant other may become a non-romantic friend, or vice versa; why should it be thought that the non-romantic part of the relationship is less important? Because sex and physical closeness is not involved? I find for myself that I begin thinking this way only if I am not getting enough sex and physical closeness myself. Once I have those needs met, I am free to see equally the value in all my chosen relationships, and not dive into one at the expense of the others.

Finally, comparison, competition, and jealousy is often the unfortunate fruit of relationship labels. Since when is a boyfriend / girlfriend more important than a non-romantic friend? I often think the reverse can be true – that your non-romantic friends can be more meaningful over a lifetime than your significant other. But here’s the thing: terms like “just a friend” or “friend-zone” or “full relationship” or even “best friend” reveal the large gulf we create through our language between different categories of relationships. Without even choosing to, we’ve already defined somebody in very hierarchical terms. We immediately imply, thus, that some people are more important than others.

And of course it’s true that some people are more important to us than others. That’s not the problem for me; the problem is how public we often are forced to make such declarations – how, just through talking normally, we are publicly assigning levels of importance to the relationships in our lives. I think this is as unnecessary as declaring that you do non-romantic events in Relationship A, have sex in Relationship B, do BDSM in Relationship C, and so on; these are private things, that we should have the right to reveal about ourselves when we so choose, as opposed to having our language structured so as to reveal things automatically. After all, it is assumed, as soon as you say Person X is your “boyfriend/ girlfriend” that you are having sex with them, and you know that folks often start forming visuals and assumptions in their head the moment you say the words.

Lest anybody get confused here: this is not an argument against openness – rather, this is an argument about having choice. Having the choice not to categorize your relationships according to a pre-defined hierarchy of terms that “tip off” what activities you engage in with which people. Most of you who read this will probably go on using such labels. That’s okay, as long as you know you have the choice not to…

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16 Responses to On not labeling your relationships

  1. Me too! Living in a world of labels makes it hard not to use them, but you’re right — we all have a choice, athough it may be confusing to others.

  2. A very thought-provoking post! I’ve never thought of that, removing the labels… It’s true that at some point labels just attracts trouble. Best to have no name and name none.
    Thanks for sharing!

  3. It is obvious, that the average individual is incapable of living a solitary existence. We have been programmed to think that we truly cannot live without the company of others. That is false. We were born alone, and we will die alone. That is the process of life.
    If you have found another in this existence that shares enough similarity to, or acceptance of your way of living, then you are truly a blessed individual. It is very efficient to share the loads in life. You will always find those whose assistance to you, and assistance they gain from you, changes both of your existences.
    Communication is the key. How well do you communicate your needs to others? How well do you respond to others’ demands of you? Remember it is always business, never personal. Economics run by the law of supply and demand.
    Who is asking for what? Where is the most efficient source for that demand? Where is the most lucrative market to exploit the supply of that demand? If the products in question are Love and Friendship, the law still applies.
    You are now offering several personal hours of your life, as well as many potentially traumatic emotional experiences, to some individual or groups of beings. What do you believe you are worth? If you were to put a price on your time, what should it cost others to utilize your time and talents?
    Never sell yourself short. Each of us has a set of abilities that no one else has. You must know your own abilities. Find that which makes you different from all others. Value your uniqueness. It is this resource that you control in each marketable conversation. Communication is the key.
    • You cannot communicate your needs if you have no idea of who you truly are.
    • You cannot have efficient and marketable trade, if you don’t know the value of your product.
    • You must sell yourself in all situations.

    How much are you worth? If you bring nothing, you must be looking for charity. Nothing from nothing leaves nothing.
    Build upon the image of your most successful vision. Make it happen. The only one who can stop you from living your dreams is you.
    No one else can see your dream, or share in the dreaming. You must find the needed material in your spiritual identity to fashion the reality of your dream. You were born with all the needed equipment to renovate your individual reasoning.
    Unlock the codes in your nature to release your greatest potential. It is when you shine with your own light that causes people to take notice. It is the radiance of independence that attracts others to your way of being. Live to love yourself, so you can love to live as yourself.

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  5. Paula Bomhof says:

    I’ve had a friend try this concept of ‘not naming’ and, really, it didn’t work. We all looked at each other after she told us he wasn’t her boyfriend…they were just seeing each other and weren’t going to call each other boyfriend and girlfriend until ‘they’ were ready. Well, we all could see that they were already, and this made the both of them seem…immature, naive, in denial..I could go on. Sometimes, status is a way of belonging – my husband is my husband because I only have one, only want one, and only want it to be him. Why wouldn’t I want to share that with everyone? And what easier way than by labeling him so everyone can know exactly what I mean when I say it, succinctly even?

  6. Taboo says:

    This is a terrific write up. I think realizing that we have a choice in how we label our relationships is just a first step toward embracing true fluidity in our relationships.

    Upon accepting my polyamorous nature, I realized that I’m not interested in having multiple boyfriends and girlfriends. Rather, I hope to establish a potential equality between all of my relationships. I love all of my friends very much, the mode of expression just differs from one person to the next.

    I really appreciate you clarifying this thought and sharing it.

  7. Rosa says:

    Love, Love, LOVE this post.

    Yes, I too have issues introducing intimates (whether sexual or not and regardless of gender) to others. They are not “just friends”, either. How insulting! As if the “just friend” is less important.

    I have no issues using standard terms for blood family. It’s clear and everyone knows what those terms mean. But even “family” takes wildly different contexts. Extended families, poly households, BDSM leather families, BDSM house members. OY!

    This: “I think this is as unnecessary as declaring that you do non-romantic events in Relationship A, have sex in Relationship B, do BDSM in Relationship C….”, is EXACTLY my situation.

    So now I introduce as, “I would like you to meet my very dear friend so and so.” People can assume what they want and always will. But most leave it alone and don’t ask for details this way. That suits me.

  8. By saying this is MY friend you are still giving them a label or title…I introduce, partners, sexual partners, friends, and coworkers alike. By their given or name they choose to go by, thereby, not confusing any situation or giving them a title to live up to or for people to assume them by. For example…”Hello Billy, this is Matthew”… or “Oh, Jane…Meet Kelly” I find this does not tax my relationship with said person…and can be a great way for the persons introduced to start a conversation… “How did you meet Kathy?” “Or how do you know Kathy?

  9. Fiona Wang says:

    I think most people need a label because they are afraid of being played, and this is more evident in women. We are afraid that the man we are seeing may be seeing other people too, because we are not labelling it, so our partner is free to see and even hook up with other people, without commitment. After a few months or weeks, the person that we thought we are seeing can come back and say they are now dating someone else, and yet, we have no control over that, because we never put a label on it and we never made it monogamous. Also, it’s difficult to know your boundary if you don’t label your relationship. I find it difficult at times, should I buy this present for him? What is my status in my life so that a present would seem too much or too less? I think a lot of the things we do for our significant other would depend on the label and status. For example, I can just buy a gift card for a guy I’m seeing, but if I’m married to someone, I can book a vacation or plan a trip, and that won’t be too much because we are married, and we know we’re on the same page. Too often, man use the “no label” excuse to avoid commitment and to avoid emotions from women, so they end up using women for sex.

    • Sounds like you are saying that labels are necessary in insecure relationship situations, where trust is not established (which can happen even among married folks, of course). I am not completely against the use of labels – I just think that people should also know that they don’t have to use them, especially when using labels makes more trouble than it solves.

      Very often, the question of “what do we call ourselves” seems to be used as a substitute for talking about actual feelings, needs, and desires. After all, if I am your “husband” then there are a certain amount of musts that commonly get assumed from that, which often are not true when you peel back the layers. I think we should talk about what we actually want in our relationships more than we do (e.g. “I’d like to be monogamous sexually, how do you feel about that?”), because the latent disagreements around what the social “boxes” mean can cause so much hurt and insecurity when left unclarified.

  10. A strong and insightful piece, thanks for writing it. And i agree that labels are often a detriment. What is also true is that some of us need to be pioneers. “Wait, you have 2 lovers?” The labels drive conversations that need to be happening in the public sphere about how relationship topology is more complex than mainstream media might lead you to believe.

    And i appreciate your point at the end about being at choice. I would encourage people who have thick enough skin for it to be willing to risk the judgement and misunderstand that label can engender, in hopes of clarifying and educating some who might listen.


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