We've all dated that one person who asserts they're "not into labels" when it comes to relationships. Or maybe that's you.
Do labels matter in a relationship?
Labels are all about being clear and honest with each other about how you're viewing the relationship, according to relationship therapist Shena Tubbs, MMFT, LPC, CSAT-C. And to that end, even the most casual, uncommitted, purely sexual relationships need labels so that all those terms are clearly spelled out.
"What people mean by 'labeling' a relationship is defining where each person is in the relationship, their expectations, and desires. This can be as simple as discussing whether or not you are just friends, friends with romantic intentions to move forward, or in a committed dating relationship," Tubbs tells mbg. "It is so important to be clear from the beginning to avoid any heartbreak, feelings of being used or misled, and to protect the nature of the relationship as you both probably came together because you really liked each other."
It's about being kind to each other and about protecting the feelings of both of you. Misunderstandings hurt, and communication is really the only way to avoid them.
"Language matters," adds sex and relationship therapist Shadeen Francis, LMFT. "Our experience changes based on the words we use."
It doesn't feel good to be in a nerve-wracking fog of assumptions and hopes, nor does it feel good to feel like you need to withhold affection or dodge certain types of activities as a means of passively asserting your detachment. When you've agreed on what you're doing with each other, you can both stop having to dance around the unspoken truth and simply enjoy the relationship for whatever it is.
"Labeling can be a helpful way for people to begin to clarify, change, or negotiate the terms of their relationship," Francis tells mbg. "Talking about label-related topics like commitment, fidelity, and mutuality are opportunities to establish realistic expectations and build trust and security within the relationship. Even if the behaviors in the relationship don't change, people's experience of the relationship often differs under different titles."
A relationship without labels.
There are situations when a relationship without labels might make sense, Francis says. Oftentimes, a person who says they "don't do labels" is using that as a way to say they don't want to be tied to certain relationship expectations or commitments that don't currently appeal to them. But what's important to understand about relationship labels is that they're not necessarily about making a relationship more committed, more serious, or exclusive.
"People form commitments [and] expectations even without labels, and all labels can be negotiated," Francis adds. "We create words to capture and reflect the world around us. Not talking about the terms of your relationship does not mean you don't have one."
Types of relationships.
Important note: Even if you both agree on a label you both want to use, you should always have a conversation to make sure you're both in agreement about what that label means.
"There is rarely universal meaning for the words we use," Francis warns. "While labels are a helpful shorthand, they do not mean the same thing to each person. Agreeing on a word isn't a shortcut to having a real conversation about your relationship. Ensuring you're on the same page about the expectations, boundaries, and roles helps your label represent the relationship you're trying to have."
Without further ado, here are a few of the most common ways to label a relationship:
1. Talking or hanging out
These types of terms often refer to a new spark: Someone you recently connected with on a dating app or exchanged numbers with at an event, for example, and now you're getting butterflies sending each other texts. It's often been clearly stated that there's mutual interest in each other, though there's usually no assumed accountability or exclusivity just yet unless both people state otherwise. Tubbs describes it like this: "We are communicating anywhere between sparsely or regularly as we mutually are getting to know each other. We know that we are romantically interested, but we're still trying to figure out if we want to move forward to commit to dating regularly and spending time together."
"Hanging out" obviously implies you've spent some time IRL together, and both terms can continue to be in play even after you've had sex. Although they often refer to an early flirtation stage, some people continue to use these terms after weeks or months of knowing each other. In these cases, it becomes basically synonymous with "in a casual relationship" (see below).
2. Dating or seeing someone
In simplest terms, people who are dating are literally just two people who are going on dates together. "Dating" someone can be synonymous with "seeing someone," though the latter may imply a bit less permanence and a bit more of an evaluation phase. "Dating may or may not be casual and is not necessarily short term. People can choose to date one another consistently and exclusively, without having explicitly formalized a long-term commitment," Francis says.
Some people do see "dating" as more serious or even closer in meaning to being "in a relationship." That said, dating doesn't necessarily imply exclusivity, Tubbs notes. If you're not sure, ask.
3. In a relationship
When people say they're "in a relationship," they're usually referring to an "official" and "serious" committed relationship. (Think that term "Facebook official," as in a relationship that one is comfortable posting about on social media for all to see.)
Usually this label assumes monogamy unless nonmonogamy is mutually agreed upon (see below). Tubbs describes being in a relationship as a "committed partnership between the two of us, which means I am invested in healthy interdependence where I care for you emotionally, mentally, and romantically."
A helpful distinction for understanding the difference between dating and being in a relationship: "People in a relationship may allow their relationship mates to make requests of them and have influences on their lives that they wouldn't for a person they were dating," Francis says.
4. Casual relationship
A casual relationship is usually one that's situational and nonexclusive and doesn't involve heavy emotional investment or obligations. That said, a casual relationship can be filled with a lot of care and affection, and some casual relationships can be exclusive depending on the people's preferences.
5. Friends with benefits
This term implies the two people involved are having sex but aren't romantically involved. There are a lot of assumptions about friends with benefits, including that they're inherently shallow or unemotional. "In fact, most FWB relationships have a pretty high level of care, connection, and commitment," sex researcher Zhana Vrangalova, Ph.D., recently told mbg. "People start FWB relationships because they are not ready to commit to something more serious in that moment, or they don't think this particular person would make a good long-term partner for them."
Unlike some of the other early-stage relationship labels, being FWB usually isn't forward-oriented. These types of relationships are usually designed to remain exactly as they are without progressing into anything more serious.
6. Boyfriend, girlfriend, or significant other
These terms are usually synonymous with being "in a relationship," Tubbs says. Monogamy is similarly the expectation, though not the rule. What sets these particular terms apart is perhaps an added level of sweetness, as they're meant to specifically indicate each one's significance in the other's life. Francis adds, "People who choose [these labels] may be hoping to establish a relationship that has shared goals and is a co-created experience. These typically come with expectations of boundaries and commitment to one another, even if they are not partnering monogamously."
"The term partner has historically been used by primarily non-heterosexual couples to refer to their other half," psychologist and relationship coach Shula Melamed, M.A., MPH, recently told mbg. "Recently it has become more popular with married or unmarried couples of all gender combinations for a variety of reasons."
Some people use the term to express alliance with the LGBTQ+ community, while other couples might use it when they've been together a very long time but aren't married. "Boyfriend" or "girlfriend," to some, might feel like a "young" term or may not express the full gravity or weight of their relationship in the way that "partner" does.
8. Open relationship
An open relationship is one form of consensual nonmonogamy. Consensual nonmonogamy refers to any relationship arrangement that doesn't involve limiting the partners from having sexual, emotional, or romantic relationships with others. Some consensually nonmonogamous couples might agree that it's OK to sleep with other people but not date other people, some couples might agree to only sleep with other people when they're together (through swinging or sex parties), and some couples might say anything goes.
An open relationship is one in which the partners involved are currently open to sexual encounters and/or romantic connections with others. It's sometimes used interchangeably with consensual nonmonogamy, though the latter is really an umbrella term that may include non-open forms of consensual nonmonogamy. Being in an open relationship usually implies the individuals involved can go off and get intimate with others on their own without the other partner present, though sometimes there might be certain rules or expectations they've agreed on.
In a polyamorous relationship, partners are specifically open to dating other people and being in love with more than one person. Your girlfriend could get another girlfriend of her own and be dating both of you, for example.
Polyamory is sometimes used interchangeably with words like open relationship and consensual nonmonogamy. Importantly, not all polyamorous units are open to new partners (and thus are not open relationships), and some people practice consensual nonmonogamy only with regards to sex (and thus are not exactly polyamorous since they're not open to more romantic relationships).
How to figure out the right relationship label or definition for you.
Maybe none of the above labels feel right to you. Maybe several of them do. Maybe you resonate with one of them, but you're not sure how your partner sees things.
When in doubt, talk it out. Sit down and have that define-the-relationship conversation with your partner to see where you both stand. As far as how to frame that conversation, Francis recommends actively stating how you're feeling and what you're wanting: "Instead of asking, 'What are we?' which tends to be a passive question that puts the power and responsibility on the other person to name the relationship, share what you think and want for the relationship, and invite them to do the same in an open, low-pressure conversation."
A few questions she recommends talking through with your partner:
- What words do we feel good about?
- What are our needs for each other?
- What are our expectations of each other in terms of commitment, monogamy/exclusivity, time spent?
- What words do we feel comfortable using around friends? Family? On social media?
- What behaviors would be outside the boundaries/feel disrespectful to our relationship?
You might not land on a single word that feels like the right label for you, but as long as you're on the same page about what you're doing in the relationship and what the expectations are, that's what really counts.
Kelly Gonsalves is a multi-certified sex educator and relationship coach helping people figure out how to create dating and sex lives that actually feel good — more open, more optimistic, and more pleasurable. In addition to working with individuals in her private practice, Kelly serves as the Sex & Relationships Editor at mindbodygreen. She has a degree in journalism from Northwestern University, and she’s been trained and certified by leading sex and relationship institutions such as The Gottman Institute and Everyone Deserves Sex Ed, among others. Her work has been featured at The Cut, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.
With her warm, playful approach to coaching and facilitation, Kelly creates refreshingly candid spaces for processing and healing challenges around dating, sexuality, identity, body image, and relationships. She’s particularly enthusiastic about helping softhearted women get re-energized around the dating experience and find joy in the process of connecting with others. She believes relationships should be easy—and that, with room for self-reflection and the right toolkit, they can be.
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