Conflicting Definitions Of “Casual”

I’ve realized recently that in spite of being generally more averse to labels than most, I have still managed to fall into one of the traps I associate with labeling.

I was having a conversation with a friend from out of town this week where I referred to our relationship as “casual”. When she told me she didn’t think of our relationship as casual, it clicked in my brain that my definition of the word “casual” is not the same as it is for many people in the context of sex. I can remember other conversations with friends of mine where they said they don’t do casual sex, and sometime after that they and I had started hooking up in a way that I interpreted as casual. It was strange at the time, but makes perfect sense in light of this realization.

My instinctual interpretation of the idea of a “casual” sexual relationship is one that isn’t serious. Effectively, this means that all of the partners I have had in the last year and a half or so, maybe more, have fallen into the “casual” category in my brain. This doesn’t mean that I haven’t cared about any of them – I have. I just haven’t thought of any of them as Long-Term Serious Relationships, and in my mind the term “casual” encompasses all relationships that don’t fall under the umbrella of Long-Term Serious.

The impression that I’m getting is that many people think of “casual” as indicating little-to-no emotional connection or interpersonal familiarity. I definitely would not describe my feelings toward most of the people I have had sex with as lacking emotional connection or familiarity. My reflex is to think of my relationships with most of the people I have had sex with as casual, but also to think of most of them as friendships, and both emotional connection and a sense of familiarity are important for friendships for me.

I feel like I need a new word, now, for the logical complement of the Long-Term Serious Relationship category, to avoid unintentional miscommunication. Is there such a word?


10 comments on “Conflicting Definitions Of “Casual”

  1. I’ve been seeing a rather lovely guy for the past year and a half now, on an ad hoc basis, who refers to all of his current sexual relationships as ‘Intimate Friendships’, which I think is a wonderful phrase.
    He calls himself ‘single’ rather than poly, whereas I’ve defined myself as poly for several years, and singlish poly for roughly the last couple. In fact, over time I’ve realised that his definition of ‘friendship’ maps nearly one for one on to my definition of ‘love’, but he almost has me convinced to switch over to his terminology. As he points out, the ‘intimate’ part of it honours the connection we share, and the connection he also shares with others, but the refusal to use words like ‘boyfriend’ or ‘girlfriend’, ‘partner’ or ‘lover’ and focus on being a Friend neatly sidesteps a tendency folks have to make assumptions about being on the ‘relationship escalator’ or otherwise about what being ‘in a relationship’ means… and as someone very much on the anarchist end of poly, I find that lack of assumption refreshing.

    I would also like to submit for your consideration the concept of being an ‘Outdoor Cat’ (which I’ve also nicked from an acquaintance but think is equally lovely, especially if you’re a cat lover 🙂 )

    • I’m definitely going to have to roll the outdoor cat analogy over in my brain. Food for thought. The intimate friendship thing doesn’t fit into my brain intuitively as easily, but regardless, I could definitely see how it might be a better term overall. Thanks for the food for thought 🙂

  2. I’ve had the same problem, and it was worse before I became poly or spent time with the poly community or used poly terminology. I always used “casual” to refer to the level of entanglement, commitment, and intent in a relationship, but not to refer to the level of emotional connection. To me, my friends were Friends, with a capital F – people I held in high regard, people I cared deeply about, borderline intentional family. It’s just that the romantic or sexual aspect didn’t come along with any intentions or implications of a big-r Relationship like potential marriage, living together, going on dates, presenting as a couple, etc.

    I occasionally use the term “um-friend” too, but, to me, it has implications of the illicit. It came about from *sometimes* people being unexpectedly confronted in a public place by people they’re not “out” to and having to quickly find a way to introduce the person they’re with. So, like running into your boss with your girlfriend who knows you’re married but doesn’t know you’re poly – “This is my, um, friend, Sally.”

    Now, of course, it also has a lot of lighthearted, sometimes even tongue-in-cheek usage, so it doesn’t automatically mean you’re trying to hide something. Quite a lot of people (including myself) use it when they go to introduce someone and realize that there isn’t a good title or relationship connection label to use, or that using one would cause more confusion or take too long for the situation.

    I like labels and I like categories, so not having a term to use for someone bothers me. I have recently started separating even the various “casual” partners. I have Boyfriend for someone who is clearly and obviously a romantic partner with long-term intentions and possibly primary-like status (I won’t go off on a rant about primary/secondary here). I use Partner interchangeably with Boyfriend but I also use it for anyone with a sexual connection when it’s relevant to reveal lines of sexual contact, i.e. any safer sex talk.

    I still use “casual” in the way I stated above, but lately I’ve been saving it for when I’m trying to explain that I *don’t* “do casual” in the meaning that others use. In other words, when someone is interested in one of those no-emotional-connection type sexual relationships, I’ll tell them that I “don’t do casual”, using the term the way they understand it to better be understood.

    I’ve begun to separate um-friends from Friends With Benefits from Fuckbuddies, and I’m not entirely clear on the delineation yet. FWB, to me, emphasizes the friend part while still explicitly including sexual connection. These are those emotionally close, yet non-entangled kind of relationships that I actually mean when I say “casual”. Fuckbuddies, to me, are a lesser emotional connection (buddy being closer to “acquaintance” than “friend”, in my head) that emphasizes the sexual aspect of the relationship first and the friendship second.

    Um-Friend, when I use it, means a friend of some sort with an ambiguous or undefined sexual element. This might be a friend I have a strong sexual tension with, and have done those types of activities that often fall in the grey area of what counts as “sex”, like kissing, “snogging” or “necking” or “light petting”, cuddling, flirting with intention, sharing sleeping space with a sexual “feeling” but no actual sexual contact, the kind of sexually suggestive dancing that makes other people raise their eyebrows, or even some non-contact sexual activity like masturbation or mutual masturbation in front of each other. To me, it’s what I might call someone who is not just a platonic friend, but who really isn’t a “partner” of the sort I would have to disclose when discussing my STI status.

    So, this has gone on for much longer than I intended, but thank you for your post, which gave me the opportunity to clarify in my own head what I mean when I use certain terms. I’m not intending to dictate to others how they should use the terms I used here, and I’m willing to accept a bit of variability without getting into semantics debates about each of the terms. But I’m defining my own use of the terms for my own clarification and perhaps to give other people another perspective on what they might mean to someone else.

  3. I wrestle with this too. I tend to think of relationships in terms of how emotionally invested or logistically entwined/habituated I feel I’ve become.

    This mostly comes down to: If my romantic/sexual connection with this person was to end today, how much pain or disruption would that probably cause me?

    That answer, for me, always exists on a spectrum. But personally I don’t tend to get sexually/romantically or otherwise intimately involved with people where the answer would be “not at all.” Although sometimes the answer might be “a little, but not too bad.”

    What bugs me is when people use the label “casual” as shorthand for license to treat people callously or disposably — or to lie to them (actively, or by withholding crucial information — like that ostensibly monogamous marriage they neglected to mention for the last few months).

    • I think of them pretty similarly. I sort of like referring to level of seriousness as analogous to how “tangly” the relationships feel. I definitely agree about the last part. I’ve become fond of saying that any relationship you take on that doesn’t feel like you’re adding responsibility to your life is probably one you’re not getting into with both eyes open.

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