Just the Tip is a bi-weekly sex and relationship column from queer non-monogamous kinkster Jera Brown. We feature interviews with sexuality researchers and educators as well as smart and compassionate responses to anonymous questions. If you would like to be interviewed or have a sex or love question you’d like Jera to answer, email firstname.lastname@example.org or DM Jera on Twitter @thejerabrown.
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I have a few people in my life who don’t fit easily in any category. They are friends, but sometimes also lovers, or maybe we snuggle together but never kiss. If we don’t label them, how do I know if they are healthy? Is it better to get comfortable with these ambiguous relationship statuses, or better to attempt to label everything? What’s a good category for “friends who I love but we aren’t necessarily dating, but it feels like more than just friends and sometimes we are physical with each other”?
Let’s start here: Is it better to get comfortable with these ambiguous relationship statuses or better to attempt to label everything?
Ambiguous relationships tend to feel less secure and less stable. How do you maintain a relationship when you’re not certain what you mean to each other or what your expectations are? How do you suss out these things without using defined roles?
And therein lies the danger of labels. As prepackaged ideas about what a relationship is, they seem to offer security and stability. If you put a name on it, you can know what to expect, right?
Say you choose to call someone a partner. Do you assume that healthy partners talk every day or contain a sexual component? Is it possible that this partnership might not follow those rules and still be healthy?
Labels always carry a ton of baggage with them: from the media, from cultural expectations, from past relationships. Whether we mean for them to or not, we all have assumptions of what it means to be a partner, lover, girlfriend, spouse …
For labels to be useful, you need to be aware of the assumptions you have about them. What I find helpful is to see labels as conversation starters, not closers.
Say you want to call someone a partner. Ask your beloved what the word “partner” means to them. What does it mean to you? Would you expect anything to change about the way you communicate or approach the relationship based on the adoption of this word?
When you’re able to challenge what labels mean, I think they can be useful tools in a relationship. We often name things that are important to us, so giving someone a defined role in our lives can be validating and affirming.
Use labels as conversation starters, not closers.
But they’re not always necessary. Unlabeled relationships can still be healthy.
Think about the foundations of a healthy relationship: things like mutual trust and respect. None of this depends on a label. Unlabeled relationships don’t need to be situations in which anything goes.
How does this work? Well, like any relationship, you’re allowed and encouraged to communicate how you feel and what you need.
Something a friend said recently really stuck with me. They said that even their unlabeled relationships contain various forms of commitments. They choose what to expect from each other, like regular date nights or rituals. There’s also simply a moral commitment to try and do right by each other.
So, you asked: If we don’t label them, how do I know if they are healthy? This, I believe, is the most important question you asked, because we need to stop using labels as a lazy way to consider a relationship healthy or not. There are so many better, more important ways to evaluate this.
Pause for a minute and consider what a healthy relationship looks like for you. I encourage you to build a list of attributes. Here are some of mine:
- We feel comfortable being goofy and serious with each other
- I feel comfortable in my own skin around them
- I feel safe talking about tough and scary topics with them
- We challenge each other
- I feel energized after spending time with them
If you’re stuck, check out more signs of healthy and unhealthy relationships.
So yeah … no easy answer to whether you should define a relationship or not. But I want to end by telling you what I struggle with on the topic.
I tend to have unlabeled relationships for two reasons.
They tend to be unlabeled when they are still rapidly evolving and haven’t reached a stable point that is easily definable. And maybe this easily definable place never happens, and that’s OK, too. These are often the “more than friends” folks you described. I tend to refer to or introduce folks in these situations as “someone I care about” or “someone special to me.” When no word seems to feel right, I’m fine not forcing it.
But sometimes I’m too scared to broach the topic — not just about what someone might want to be called, but simply what we want from each other. This happens when I feel insecure about our connection. Maybe I worry I’m being a placeholder or that they just don’t feel strongly about me. At other times, I’m worried someone might want something from me that I can’t give them.
Almost always, my concerns boil down to fear of rejection: either my fear of rejecting others or fear of being rejected by them. Leaving our relationship unlabeled or discussing how we fit into each other’s lives is a way of not rocking the boat.
For all the reasons mentioned above, I believe that seeking a definition — some word that is supposed to provide stability and security — is not always the right move. But open and honest communication almost always is the right move. Because why should any of us want to be in a relationship where we’re afraid to be ourselves?
To be healthy, all relationships — labeled or unlabeled — require bravery. Bravery to be honest with each other and to trust in each other. And, sometimes, we need to be brave enough to stay in the unknown.