Defining a ‘Relationship’ in the 21st Century

Does anyone really know if they’re dating anymore? All too often, I hear that people are ‘seeing each other’ — but could there be a vaguer phrase? Technically, I ‘see’ people all the time –but if I go for coffee with someone as a friend, we are ‘meeting up’ rather than ‘seeing each other.’ Through subtle nuances such as these, the language surrounding dating has become hazy. Although there is definitely a difference between the two, it is not a difference I can precisely discern.

We use so many different words to describe our relationships that it is hard to keep up with them: exclusive, friends-with-benefits, dating, fling, fooling around, affair, it’s complicated, open relationship… While some are clearly different from others (such as being exclusive vs. an open relationship), the difference between friends-wit- benefits and an open relationship is more blurred. Personally, I interpret the difference to be one of emotional attachment. If you are in an open relationship, your emotional attachment should be to the other person. Despite this attachment, however, you recognize the inevitability of human attraction and, therefore, accept physical relationships outside of that.

Whereas, the bond between two people is prioritized over other affairs in an open relationship, it is not the same in a friends-with-benefits scenario. If you are friends-with-benefits, everyone is on an equal footing –similar to how friends are.

Despite our numerous words for defining relationships, these words themselves don’t even maintain the same meaning. This leads to the question: What should your assumptions, if any, be at the start of a relationship? I used to assume that if I was dating someone, we were exclusive and if not we would clarify otherwise. Now I assume the reverse, that if I want to be exclusive, then I should clarify that. Honestly, I’m not at all sure what to go into a relationship expecting anymore.

In some ways, I think this lack of expectations can be a good thing. I’m glad we’re moving beyond our idealisation of monogamous, heteronormative relationships that will inevitably end in marriage and children. I think that narrative is incredibly harmful to the LGBTQ+ community, other cultures, other ideas and alternative ways of finding fulfilment. Whilst I may want a monogamous relationship, I think it is wrong to assume that that is inherently a better kind of relationship than an open one. We need to be more inclusive in our dialogue around love and relationships and perhaps talking about these different terms can help us achieve that.

However, my concern is that these labels are actually shutting down our ability to communicate. So many people are still uncomfortable talking about sex that we hush the details up through labels that hint at what we really mean, but don’t ultimately clarify anything. The problem, as I have already touched on, is that we don’t know what they mean. We create multiple labels because we think that will fix the problems of exclusivity –yet we are still trying to shoehorn our relationships into particular categories.

In my opinion, we should throw out our old ideas of what makes a good relationship, and clear away the clutter of cultural norms. I think any relationship can be healthy and happy as long as you are consenting and communicating. Do what works for you, and don’t let others instruct your ideas of what a relationship should be, or judge you for the form it takes.

This is harder to get right, since the process of communication has to be ongoing. This communication, however, is conducive to better relationships in the long term. Rather than just slapping the label ‘open’ or ‘exclusive’ on your partner, keep talking about what you actually expect and want. Forget the labels and find ways of making you and your partner happy. #youdoyou