What is a relationship label?
Ever agonised over what to call your relationship? Are you friends, partners, friends-with-benefits, or any of the myriad other options available? Primary, secondary, tertiary, or somewhere in between? Ever struggled with the connotations of certain words or wished there was exactly the right one to quickly and accurately describe your relationship?
Yep. Me too.
So why do we use labels, and why can they be useful or problematic?
Labels are a quick way of naming things and describing or explaining them, both in our own minds and to other people. Before we even get onto poly-specific labels, if I say a person is my partner/boyfriend/girlfriend, people understand basically what that means. Then again, even these are used very differently by different people. Is somebody a partner if you see them once a year? If the connection is casual? What if your definitions of the word are different to those used by the important people in your life? I know some people use ‘partner’ to describe anyone they share an emotional and/or sexual relationship on any level with, and I also know people who use the word only to describe those they’re in love and in a committed relationship with. Personally I’m somewhere in the middle, though generally if I say ‘partner’ I mean someone I’m quite committed to, and if it’s otherwise I might clarify with a term like ‘casual partner.’
Then there are those terms like primary, secondary, tertiary. There are very different views on these. I, for one, hate the term ‘secondary’ with a passion. I refuse to use it at all and prefer not to have it used about me (though the latter is something that can be got around if we properly negotiate exactly what it means.) I’ll fully admit that the reaction I have to this term is overly emotional and perhaps a bit knee-jerky, which comes from having had it used against me in a past relationship, as a synonym for ‘be there when I want you and it’s convenient for me, otherwise go away.’ My reaction and my preferences are personal, and I’m not going to tell anyone else what words they should or shouldn’t use. I’m also sure that, to most people who use it, it doesn’t mean this at all.
These, too, can be defined in different ways. Plenty of poly people don’t see ‘secondary’ as a problematic term at all, and that’s fine. Others dislike all these terms and the ‘ranking system’ which they suggest. No definitions are more correct than any others, but it can be an issue when people define things drastically differently.
Take my relationship with Nomad as an example. How do I describe that to people?
‘He’s my most serious/currently only serious partner,’ I say.
‘So he’s your primary?’
I’ve actually had people argue with me at this point, insisting that my most serious partner is definitely my primary, despite this not being a label we’ve decided to put on our relationship. This makes me rather uncomfortable. I usually just say ‘that’s not a term we’re using at the moment’ and leave it at that. So what is it? It’s a relationship. And it’s serious and committed. And I love him. For me, at the moment, that’s plenty of labelling.
Then again, what about the connection I share with a lovely person with whom I’ve never negotiated a formal relationship (the opposite, in fact, we actively discussed when it began that we wouldn’t put that label on it for various reasons.) We act like a couple when we’re together – sometimes. Then again, sometimes we’re more like close friends. So what is it? Friends, friends-with-benefits, casual partners? Part of me wants to know exactly what to call it, yet there’s another part which just thinks who cares? It is what it is, and it works, so why worry any further than that?
On a slightly different but related note, one thing I’ve found problematic with relationship labelling is that my mind and my insecurities decide to place far too much importance on them, and assume that if I haven’t ‘achieved’ a certain name or label in my relationship with someone, I’m somehow failing. Rationally, of course, I know this is complete rubbish. Whatever you do, or don’t, call something, if it makes the people involved happy then it’s successful in my book.
People like to know what to call things, and to be able to put them into a category or a box. Thing is, there are plenty of things – some of them absolutely wonderful – which just don’t fit into a box at all! For the record, I think ‘undefined’ is a perfectly valid definition in itself.
I think the most important thing it boils down to – like all things in poly – is that magic word, communication. Define your terms however you like, and accept that others may not define them the same way, and talk openly with your partners about which labels you’re using, if any (and even if you’re deciding not to use any, that’s important too!) and what the words mean to you.
What do you think, lovely readers? Do you label your relationships? Which terms do you prefer and what do they mean to you? Which words do you really dislike? If you don’t use them, why not and how does that affect things? I’d love to know your thoughts!
So in conclusion – useful or problematic? I think, for now, I’m going to have to say ‘both….’
(What? I’m a bi-poly-switch! Don’t expect me to pick a ‘one or the other’ on anything! *grin.*)