Although every relationship story is unique, one of the most common today still deals with labels. “We’ve been seeing each other for several months,” a twenty- or thirty-something woman will soooo often tell me, “and he says he doesn’t want to put a label on it. What should I do?”
Although we’ve embraced ambiguity a bit more these days, which I’d argue is a positive development, many women still ask me about labels. And I get it. Labels give people a sense of how to behave, a natural boundary line, a commitment — if not to a full-fledged relationship (“boyfriend”/“girlfriend”/“partner”/etc.), at least to a person (“exclusive”).
Applying a label tells you what to expect, in a culture where people often seem to disappear and reappear unexpectedly. We’ve all had a bad experience or two, where we’ve been ghosted or blindside, which in turn makes us more hyper-focused than ever on the questions of, “What are we?” and “Where’s this going?”
Among my closest friends, I know several long-term couples, now married or living together, who emerged out of a label-less beginning — specifically, from a situation where one wanted the label and the other did not. This caused some friction, often for months, but they stayed together and figured it out.
There are tons of reasons for refusing the label, but the primary one perhaps is that Americans are delaying serious commitments. The age of first marriage is currently resting at about age 27 for women and 29 for men. During the twenties, and then again at subsequent times over a lifespan, it’s common to forgo serious relationships to focus on yourself and getting on the right trajectory. I see this especially among men, where the pressure for career success and “having it together” has been emphasized since birth — and must come before you couple.
If you’re seeing someone who doesn’t want to put a label on it or “doesn’t want to get serious right now,” and you do, you need to decide how to best handle it. You can’t force someone into a commitment, or even to want a label. I’m a firm believer that there are no universal right answers, only the approach that you feel best about. But let’s break down what you should be considering when this divide materializes.
What connection do you feel?
When you’re open or looking for a relationship, it’s easy to get attached to the investment you’ve made in a person — like a few months of dates, for instance. However, if someone tells you they’re not on the same trajectory toward commitment that you are, you’ve got to take a hard look at what you feel.
Connection is not about investment; it’s about energy and long-ranging compatibility, and how you align intellectually, emotionally, and physically. Can you talk about anything, for hours? Do your energies mesh to create a sustainable balance? Is the physical side of the relationship easy?
You want someone who you feel strongly for on all three levels — which isn’t the easiest thing to find. Sure, a relationship can develop, but it’s easier to let go of someone who doesn’t want the exact same things you do when you can acknowledge there’s a little something lacking anyway. You’re better off moving on. If you feel strongly for the person, then ask yourself the next question.
Why don’t they want to label it?
If you feel a million times better with a label in place, then you’re unlikely to ever feel completely comfortable and compatible with someone who is dead-set against labels. I’m talking, dead-set against them period. Ever. That’s a massive compromise to make, so have that discussion as soon as the person you’re seeing expresses that they don’t want to label it.
On the flip side, there are definitely people who just need to warm up to a label. Maybe they decided that they were only going to casually date, as they recover from a divorce. Maybe they’re focused on their career, and they’re struggling to see how both love and work can coexist right now. In some ways, labeling a relationship makes it real. They might want real, and simply didn’t plan on it coming around so soon. So if someone is typically label-inclined and you want the same things long-term, it’s worth it to wait it out.
Do you like the behaviors you see?
Another random quirk of our generation is that behaviors don’t always match words — and not always in the way you’d think. In the past, you’d often run across “sweet talkers,” a.k.a. people who would tell you exactly what you want to hear in order to get out of a situation, or get something from you (like sex, for instance). In all my discussions with young people today, though, I’m finding it’s frequently the opposite.
In my interviews with couples, where one person wanted a label and the other didn’t, women especially often stuck around because their significant others were acting like a partner despite an undefined situation. For example, one woman told me she knew her now-husband could not possibly be seeing someone else, what the label was meant to establish, because he was spending all his free time with her. Once, I even had to explain to a guy friend of mine how the relationship would likely improve if he just clarified a commitment to his now-girlfriend (who wanted one); today, they are happy as can be. Sometimes, people just need to see that serious commitment doesn’t have to feel like a burden, or something that will slow them down.
At the end of the day, actions, and patterns of action, matter more than words. Of course, it’d be great if words, actions and patterns all aligned! But life isn’t perfect, and you can re-address again if you keep seeing each other. The baseline that you need to see? You’re moving together, and you ultimately want the same things. Also…
What are the boundaries?
No matter what situation you’re in, labeled or not, both parties need to accept and verbalize some boundaries so trust and respect can be established. What are you okay with? What makes you feel comfortable? Maybe you don’t want to have sex without the label. Maybe you want to be explicitly informed if the person you’re seeing decides to see others. Maybe you to see someone with a certain regularity, or call it off. Only you can decide your boundaries. But make sure you verbalize how you feel, as soon as you start to want something more from your growing bond.
Labels make sure everyone is on the same page — and that’s why people like them so much. A label-less relationship is inherently more fragile in early days, because you don’t have any gauge by which to measure the person’s intentions. And of course, the person could theoretically just want to date you, hook up, come around occasionally, etc. without being held accountable for their actions. You have to trust in what you see and feel, instead of that spoken commitment.
Remember that everyone moves at a different pace toward commitment. But never forget that at the bare minimum, you should be searching for someone you feel a connection with, who respects you, and who ultimately wants the same things you do.
Jenna Birch is a journalist, a dating coach, and author of The Love Gap (Grand Central Life & Style, January 2018). Her relationship column appears on Yahoo every Monday. To ask her a question, which may appear in an upcoming post, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with “YAHOO QUESTION” in the subject line.
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