We hear it all of the time – “We’re not putting a label on it,” or “They just don’t believe in labels.” Ditching titles like “dating,” or “in a relationship,” even “boyfriend / girlfriend,” is a relatively new phenomena and a lot of us are still struggling to get used to it. Even so, that impending “So, what are we?” conversation is systematically stressful and awkward, given that ambiguity surrounds the state and expectations of the relationship.
Should we start giving relationships and connections more time to grow and mature without giving them a “title”? Or is this rationalization more of an excuse to sidestep commitment? It isn’t as complicated as it seems.
I’m a serial monogamist. In my experience, most noncommittal or casual relationships end up crashing and burning. But over the past few months, I’ve found that a lot of relationships have too many rules – and it can be suffocating. Seemingly more often than not, a lot of relationships tend to become performative, and partners act in a way that makes their relationship look appropriate within the confines of normal social conventions. Relationships have never been a “one size fits all” affair, so why treat them as such?
So, say you’ve been on a few dates with someone. You like them, you feel like you’re connecting, and you’re ready to ask where you stand. When they say they don’t want to put a label on things right away, you might feel some frustration, confusion, and a whole wealth of romantic rejection. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, even though you might be tempted to run for the hills. This increasingly common predicament oftentimes places more of a focus on easing into a relationship, first building a strong foundation of deeper connection and emotional intimacy, having much less to do with how much or how little they care. However, what is important is minimizing uncertainty and ambiguity concerning expectations. Will you be seeing other people while you’re taking the time to get to know one another? What’s the ideal level of communication for the time being? How often will you be seeing each other? These expectations are important to clarify as you begin to get to know one another in a deeper and more meaningful way, without applying the pressure of calling someone a boyfriend or a girlfriend – with which comes the pressure to act a certain way, regardless of how well you really know them.
Sex and relationship therapist Shadeen Francis told one publication, “Relationship labels are not good or bad; what works for some may not work for others … while labels can be helpful, they are not necessary to co-create a satisfying relationship. Sometimes the pressure to live up to a certain set of behaviors keeps people from relationship labels. Labels come with expectations, and if both parties are struggling to negotiate those expectations, forgoing or delaying the label might be the right move.”
Now, a relationship without labels is very different from a relationship without commitment. I’ve spoken to friends who have admitted to using the “no labels” line as a means of keeping their options open. As one friend put it, “If I ever say that, I have no intention of having a committed relationship with them” (Bryan, 23). However, it’s important to remember that simply saying that you “don’t do labels” doesn’t allow you to skirt the conversation of whether or not commitment is on the table.
Part of the charm of new relationships is that you and a partner can determine together, how they operate, fleshing out the terms and conditions to fit each of your needs. It’s difficult, yes, but try not to get caught up in what might look best to other people, or what you might be used to from past relationships. A label on the relationship might offer some degree of security, surely. But the greatest security is undoubtedly found internally when time has allowed for trust, understanding, intimacy, and connection to build up throughout its course. At the end of the day, the label isn’t what’s holding your relationship together, rather, it’s the connection which you have established over quality time.