This Is When A Relationship Without Labels Doesn't Work

Contributing Sex & Relationships Editor By Kelly Gonsalves
Contributing Sex & Relationships Editor
Kelly Gonsalves is a sex writer and editor. She received her journalism degree from Northwestern University, and her writings on sex, relationships, identity, and wellness have appeared at The Washington Post, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.
Expert review by Kristina Hallett, Ph.D., ABPP
Board-certified Clinical Psychologist
Kristina Hallett, Ph.D., ABPP is a board-certified clinical psychologist, Director of Clinical Training at Bay Path University, and an associate professor in Graduate Psychology. She has a private practice in Suffield, Connecticut.

Image by Javier Díez / Stocksy

Relationships often suffer from too many rules.

People can get constricted by narrow definitions of what constitutes a relationship, including expectations that they must be monogamous, must be between men and women, must be marriage-oriented, must involve five days a week spent glued at the hip, must involve a certain amount of sex, and many other rules. But in reality, relationships aren't one-size-fits-all.

This reality leads some people to prefer being in relationships without labels. But that might not exactly be a solution to the problem of suffocating norms.

What is a relationship without labels?

When people talk about labels in a relationship, they're usually referring to terms like "dating," "in a relationship," "boyfriend and girlfriend," and the like. (Here's a full guide to the most commonly used ones.) A relationship without labels is any arrangement between two people who are choosing not to adopt any such terms to describe their relationship. A relationship without labels can be exclusive or not exclusive, and it can fall anywhere between very casual and strictly sexual to totally emotionally invested and committed.

"Relationship labels are not good or bad; what works for some may not work for others," sex and relationship therapist Shadeen Francis, LMFT, tells mbg. "While labels can be helpful, they are not necessary to co-create a satisfying relationship. Sometimes the pressure to live up to a certain set of behaviors keeps people from relationship labels. Labels come with expectations, and if both parties are struggling to negotiate those expectations, forgoing or delaying the label might be the right move."

Labels may be associated with expectations that a particular couple isn’t interested in, Francis says, such that taking on those words might create unnecessary pressures. For example, the words "boyfriend and girlfriend" might carry a lot of weight and assumptions about the nature of that relationship for some people. While some people might love the implied closeness or coziness of those words, others might not really vibe with the implied emotional investment. Some women might not resonate with the "girlfriend" label because it may carry assumptions about their emotional investment in the relationship or make them feel like they need to act a certain way toward the other person.

Others might also treat the two people differently depending on the label they give, Francis points out: "The social response to a label may not reflect what your relationship is and may discourage folks from wanting to label their relationship at all. For example, maybe your families may relate to you being partners in a way that doesn't make you feel comfortable."

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A relationship without labels vs. a relationship without commitment. 

Do not conflate these two things, says relationship therapist Shena Tubbs, MMFT, LPC, CSAT-C. People often confuse labeling a relationship with making it more serious, committed, or monogamous. But having words to describe your relationship is simply about clarity, not commitment.

"Some people may choose not to label their relationship because they're afraid of being tied down too quickly or in a place where they feel trapped," Tubbs explains to mbg. "However, one should understand that you maintain full autonomy of yourself in every relationship you're in, and you are the one who is responsible for communicating what you need, what you want, and what you don't want. So if you feel you're at a place where you cannot (or don't want) to date one person exclusively, that should be communicated to your partner so that [they] can make a decision about whether that works for them."

Having a label is not the same as having commitment. Labeling your relationship does not necessarily mean you're in a committed relationship, nor does saying you "don't do labels" absolve you from having a conversation about commitment. If you don't want to be in an exclusive or committed relationship, you still need to have a conversation to define the relationship. (You can just settle on a label or set of terms that works for you, such as consensual nonmonogamy, casual dating, or friends with benefits.)

Is labeling your relationship a good idea?

Yes, according to Tubbs. As far as she's concerned, the lack of clarity causes more harm than good. 

"Labels should be put on the relationship from the beginning," Tubbs tells mbg. "Are we just friends? Are we friends who do a little bit more on the side? Are we dating exclusively or non-exclusively? Are we boyfriend/girlfriend? 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."

Words do matter. Although Francis recognizes why some couples may not want to adopt a specific label loaded with baggage (and that forgoing the label can be the right move for some), she does say it's important for couples to be able to get on the same page about what they're doing together. "When people 'label' a relationship, essentially they are defining their connection and agreeing on how they will refer to their connection and each other. Labels are helpful heuristics (mental shortcuts) for describing or communicating about a relationship," she explains. "They give us shorthand to describe the significance of our bond and an opportunity to have constructive and clarifying relationship conversations."

Importantly, however, both therapists clarify that labels are not about putting ourselves into boxes and not a substitute for having an actual conversation about what each person wants. Francis adds, "Labeling a relationship can be unhelpful when we don't take the time to define labels clearly within a relationship or use them to pressure others into dynamics they do not want to be in (e.g., 'a good boyfriend would ______' or 'if you want to be my ______ you need to _____')."

Whether or not you're feeling a label for your relationship, it's important to make sure you and the person you're with see eye to eye about what you're doing and to make sure that the relationship is healthy, fun, and fulfilling for both parties.

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