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…