“Let’s not put a label on things,” he says, after you’ve been seeing him for a couple of months already. “I definitely like you, and I want to keep seeing you, but I’m just not in a good place for anything ‘official’ right now. Let’s just enjoy what we are.”
You really like this guy. It’s been months (maybe even years) since you’ve found a guy that can get you this excited, and things have been going great. Yet despite what feels like a nearly perfect situation, you still have to have the awkward “so what is this?” conversation.
After some awkward, unproductive explanation of what you both expect from the relationship, you are still no closer to the answer you were hoping for, feeling confused and frustrated. You are chest-deep in what I call the “confusing, undefined modern relationship,” and it’s more common than you might think.
You don’t want things to end, but you also don’t want to get screwed over. Contrary to popular opinion, it can work. Here’s my advice for how to handle it, how to make sure you don’t get burned, and how to ensure the situation is of the most benefit to both of you.
This situation typically occurs among super type-A, career-driven high achievers who highly value control over their own lives and destinies. Consequently, the idea of getting into an exclusive relationship and accepting responsibility for the needs of another person can be quite scary for such people. The undefined relationship alleviates this fear by allowing one to enjoy the benefits of a romantic relationship without accepting any of its heavy responsibilities. When you haven’t technically made a real commitment, you are free to pursue your own needs (career, personal growth) whenever you deem necessary “without consequence” (at least that’s the idea).
In any romantic relationship, there’s an unspoken contract of “I will provide for your needs if you provide for mine. I will entertain you, I will give you emotional fulfillment, I will satisfy your sexual desires, and you will do the same for me. That’s the deal.” These are needs that every human shares.
In the beginning it’s all about having fun and getting to know each other. The question of commitment is a non issue when you’re still deciding how you feel about this person. Once you’ve decided to stick around for a while, you realize that you need a sense of stability in the relationship. You need to know that your partner plans to stick around with you as well and you won’t be left high and dry.
And this is when the confusing undefined relationship becomes a thing. You like each other, you want to keep this “thing” going, but one (or both) of you isn’t ready to make the long-term commitment of “exclusive, boyfriend-girlfriend relationship.” After some awkward conversation you settle on an unstable “no labels, no responsibilities” relationship and keep having fun with each other.
Unfortunately, the notion of not taking responsibility for your romantic partner’s needs is not sustainable. Technicalities (such as not labeling your relationship as “exclusive”) do not override your own emotions. Eventually, with unchecked expectations, misunderstandings will arise, someone will get hurt, and drama will ensue.
Unless of course, you follow my advice:
1. Have a good idea of what your priorities in life are, and how a relationship fits into that agenda. Take some time to really understand what you want out of the new few years. What are your career goals? What do you want to accomplish in your personal life? What do you want to cross off your “bucket list?” Make a concrete list, and get an idea of where these goals will take you.
If quitting your job and moving to China to teach english this year is a priority of yours, you’ll know that committing to a relationship at home probably isn’t the best idea right now, and you’ll be able to properly communicate that to your potential romantic partners.
2. Make your expectations clear from the beginning. Once you’re seeing someone regularly and you get a sense that it’s time to have “the talk,” you must be honest and forthcoming about your expectations for the relationship. Tell your partner how often you want to spend time with them. Tell your partner how long you expect it to last. If you don’t want to commit to something serious, tell your partner so. Honesty may be tough in the beginning, but it is a much better alternative to dragging things out and giving someone false expectations.
3. Agree upon level of exclusivity. Answer this question ASAP. Are you both allowed to see other people, and do you want to know if your partner does so? This is probably the most important question when setting expectations. It’s also a matter of safety. If you’re seeing multiple people, you have to make sure you’re using proper protection and keeping each other safe from pregnancies and STIs. An open or polygamous relationship may be untraditional, but they can be valid, fulfilling relationships provided that expectations are managed and that you consider each other’s safety.
4. Communicate, communicate, communicate. You’re avoiding long-term commitment because you have priorities outside of the relationship. Sometimes those priorities will conflict with expectations with your partner, and it’s important to let your partner know if you’re planning to take a step back. Misunderstandings will happen, and they will lead to drama if you don’t properly communicate what you’re thinking and what’s going on.
So what if the undefined relationship isn’t doing it for you and you want to move to a committed monogamous relationship?
Again, make sure that you’ve reviewed your priorities in life and that a stable, monogamous relationship is what you really need. You are risking the possibility that your partner doesn’t want the same thing, so you need to be sure.
Then admit to your partner that you are human, and in order to feel secure in the situation, you have needs that your partner has to acknowledge. Yes, it sucks to admit vulnerability, I know.
Tell your partner it’s not about labels, it’s about acknowledging each other’s needs and agreeing to take some level of responsibility for them. Ask what risks he or she is afraid of and discuss those fears together. Make it a team effort. Yes, you’re both going to have to admit that you have emotions and communicate them together. It won’t be easy, but it will be worth it.
After this conversation, you’ll have a much better idea of where you stand. Then you can both make a decision for where to take the relationship rather than staying in this frustrating limbo together. It’s real progress.