I just got off the phone with a friend of mine who’s been talking to a guy about how—or if—to define their relationship (dating, friends-with-benefits, going out, etc.). I’ve found that as I’ve gotten more experience, I’ve gotten more uncomfortable with labeling relationships. I’m not 100% opposed to it, but I’d like to talk about the reasons that labeling is not always a good idea.
Labels are useful insomuch as they make life more efficient. Calling your relationship with someone a “friends with benefits” thing saves time, which is why we have a word for it. It’s an efficient way of communicating a set of basic assumptions about the nature of your relationship to your partner.
Efficiency: good. Now to the bad.
The bad stuff is twofold:
First, everyone seems to have a slightly different definition for every relationship label. Sometimes drastically different (poly people, think of the fun times you have talking with mono people about the word “commitment”). This means that if you use a label, the best possible case is you have some explaining to do beyond the basic label in order to be on the same page. The worst case is that you both incorrectly assume you’re using the label in the same way. The worst case is an invisible time bomb.
“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”
George Bernard Shaw
Once when I was in high school, I went to lunch with a pair of friends. They spent the entire meal arguing about whether psychoanalysis was a legitimate form of therapy. One said that none of the methods had been shown to work and that many had been shown not to work. The other said that it was perfectly legitimate and helpful for many people. It was only after we’d all gone back to class that I realized what had happened. Friend A was taking a psych class, and had been assuming that they were talking about Freud’s theories. Friend B had not, and was assuming the colloquial definition of psychoanalysis—thinking about feelings. They had managed to spend an hour emphatically disagreeing with each other about something they almost certainly agreed on.
Within the last 6 months I’ve had arguments just like this with the word “relationship” and the word “monogamy”. Arguments that only happened because we assumed our definitions of the words were the same when they weren’t.
The risk (and it is a big risk) when using a term to define a relationship is that you will find out much later that your definitions were entirely different when you thought they were the same. Or worse, that you won’t find out, and the relationship will disintegrate for reasons you never understand.
The second problem with labeling relationships is roughly this: if you apply a label to your relationship, it’s a bit like you’ve added a third player. It’s not just the two of you that have expectations now. There are expectations attached to the label, too.
This problem came up for me once when a girlfriend and I were arguing about how much to talk on the phone. She wanted to talk every day, and I didn’t. There’s a phrase that tended to come up in these conversations that I hope I never hear again: “But I’m your girlfriend!”
We would have been much better off talking about the two of our wants and expectations. Instead we got sidetracked on what the expectations are for someone you call a girlfriend. Perceptions of how a girlfriend/boyfriend relationship is supposed to be got in the way of the only things that were actually important: what I wanted, what she wanted, and how we could figure out something that worked for both of us. There were a lot of problems in that situation, and the label added to them. It would’ve added to them even if we had completely agreed on definitions. Of course, we didn’t (see problem 1)*.
I’ve found that as I’ve gotten older, I’ve grown much less fond of the idea of asking “What are we?” and much more fond of asking things like “What do we want to do?” If I want to kiss someone, I ask to kiss them. If I want to do a kink scene with someone, I ask to do a scene with them. If I want to fuck someone, I ask to fuck them. If I wanted to live with someone, I’d ask them that. And I’d want it to be me asking. Not some feeling that it’s about time. Not, “Well, we’ve been Going Out For A Year, I guess we should.” Me.
Labels are useful if they save you trouble. Sometimes they do save you trouble, even after you do the math, but other times I don’t think that’s the case. Sometimes the alternative, talking about how you feel and what you want to do, is worthwhile, and it avoids the risk of thinking you’ve communicated when you haven’t.
*Another way of thinking about this problem is that adding a label to a relationship is, much of the time, like writing out a prescription for your relationship, and prescriptions are too static and standardized to work in the real world.