Relationship Labels: Useful or Problematic?

 Today’s post covers a topic I’ve been thinking a lot about for a long time, and also follows on from a conversation my beloved Nomad and I had a little while ago. Today I want to deal with the issue of relationship labels.

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?’
‘Not exactly.’

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.*)

21 thoughts on “Relationship Labels: Useful or Problematic?

  1. B.Minstrel says:

    Once again, lots of interesting things to talk about here.

    I think labels are useful as a starting point. In a quick conversation they get you on the same page pretty quickly. If you desire more clarity of understanding, there is never a replacement for talking. It pays to remember that something like a relationship is far too complex and unique to be described by a single word even if everyone agreed on a precise definition for that word. If “partner” was specific enough to describe most of the features of my relationship with someone it would probably be too specific to be of use by most other people describing their different relationships. So really I’d need a bunch of looser descriptive words. Before you know about, that collection of words is a “conversation”🙂

    Primary, secondary etc: I was (and sometimes still am) uncomfortable with these terms. I am a bit more prepared to use them since someone pointed out to me that they labelled the relationship not the partner. I can call my wife — who I live with, spend most of my time with and share finances with — my primary. Then again, I can call her my wife and the understanding imparted is similar. Secondary I’m less comfortable with, particularly the connotation of “comes second”. For right or wrong, I find it very difficult to see anyone I care about as second to something or someone else. I try to find a way to make sure everyone is treated fairly and is happy rather than say, “Sorry, but A trumps you.” (This can be very dangerous but that’s a whole ‘nother post). But if I see someone once a week, don’t share property or finances and am not expecting to settle down with them, I suppose grudgingly I accept that it is a “secondary relationship”.

    Finally (really, I’ll stop talking in a moment😉 people /are/ in general very keen to put things in boxes, but it’s not so much that it’s more of a problem in the poly world as that the poly makes the fact that it’s a problem clearer. People are less familiar with things so they ask more questions and spot more differences. In the mono world we have a simple label: “married”. Everyone knows what it means. “A and B are married.” Good! Put them in that box and think no more about it. But just think for a moment about how many shades that covers. Is it a marriage where A is the head of the household and B does as she’s told, or one that is more equal? Is it a very closed and private thing or are they actually swingers? Do they spend their lives together or have largely separate soical worlds and just share their domestic space?

    Just think of the number of agony aunt columns devoted to questions of the form, “I am married. Is it OK to do xyz?” Why does the question crop up? Because “married” is just a loose label and it means different things to different people. Putting things in boxes is a comforting thing to do if you like everything to be simple and organised, but to a large extent you’re fooling yourself because nothing really is that simple or easily organised.

    • missamaranth says:

      Wow, thanks for posting such a long and detailed response!

      I agree that labels are a useful starting point. However they don’t necessarily result in everyone being on the same page, I think, because of the issue I mention in the post of people defining things vastly differently. As you say, no amount of labelling is ever a substitute for talking and conversation. I tend to find that even if I label something, I end up describing it. Back when I ‘officially’ had a primary partner, I’d say ‘my primary’ and poly people would often ask what my definition of primary was, and mono people or those unfamiliar with poly terms would ask ‘what does that mean?’ Every relationship is different and unique so no one word is ever going to accurately encapsulate all that a relationship is.

      I’ve done a lot of thinking myself about primary/secondary terms. I’ve generally come to the conclusion that ‘primary’ is a term I’m willing to use but ‘secondary,’ never. Some people argue that by definition all partners who aren’t primary are automatically secondary, but I don’t see it like that. I’m not absolutely opposed to the idea of ‘ranking’ people as I’d be lying if I said everyone I’m involved with has an equal place in my life….. but they ARE all important and significant and to me, ‘secondary’ says ‘less important.’ Does that make any sense at all??

      It’s definitely true what you say that the issues are more magnified in a poly context. In monogamy, it seems to be either ‘in relationship’ or ‘not,’ or ‘married’ or ‘not married.’ But even then, as you say, these things can mean a million different things to all the people who use them or fit into those ‘boxes.’ In poly it just gets more complicated because there’s more people, more labels and more possibilities for types of relationship involved.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts!🙂

  2. Nomad says:

    Another nice entry, my Love!

    None of this will come as news to you, but I see labels as something to be applied “after the fact”, as it were. In other words, in order to avoid letting the label shape the development of a relationship, I like to let things evolve first and then, when they are clearly at the stage of X, call them X. Does that make sense? (If not, it will teach me to write comments just after waking up! *grin*)

    I am very glad to see that you know, at least on a rational level, that you have not “failed” if a given label is not applied yet. Relationships develop and deepen on a continual basis — it isn’t one big step change when a label is applied.

    I love you lots, Sweetie! Can’t wait to see you on Monday… and will talk to you soon!


    • missamaranth says:

      Thank you, Love!

      Yep, I am pretty familiar with your take on this stuff, as we’ve discussed it in some detail before (which is, as it says, partly what inspired this post.) But thank you for sharing your thoughts here! I think your system is a really good one, actually, and it fits in with the rule which I _try_ to stick to about not forcing relationships into boxes, and letting each one develop naturally as it wants to.

      I partly have you to thank for the understanding I’ve come to about ‘achieving’ a certain label not necessarily being the be-all and end-all of goals in strengthening and deepening a relationship. I didn’t really realise that that was what was going on in my head until we talked about it a little while ago and you helped me put it onto words.

      Love you…. lots and lots! And will see you in three days (yay!)

    • B.Minstrel says:

      > I see labels as something to be applied “after the fact”
      This is the “descriptive” vs “prescriptive” labels question. Labeling something in order to make it into a shape rather than labeling it to help identify it.
      There is I suppose an appeal to the idea that one can constrain a relationship to a desirable shape by labeling it and for some people this does seem to work. Personally I’ve found any attempt to do so is about as successful as labeling a dog “cat” in the hope that it won’t need walks when I don’t have time.

  3. Ludi says:

    Totally. ‘Partner’ is a big and serious enough term for me. The problems kinda start when my system-of-labels clashes with other peoples’!

  4. Jules says:

    I know what you mean. I use the term ‘partner’ or ‘The other half’ to describe my relationship, which has led to interesting complications especially as The Boy does not have a gender specific name *grin*. I don’t like the word ‘boyfriend’, I don’t feel that it adequately describes the man that I live with. It sounds so ‘young’, like I’m hanging around bike sheds at school. And when people refer to my mum’s other half as a boyfriend – ick!

    Oddly I don’t have the same reaction to girlfriend. Hummmmm. *ponders*

    • missamaranth says:

      What you say about gender is really interesting! More than once, I’ve referred to Nomad (or A when we were together, too) as ‘my partner’ and people assume, because I said ‘partner’ and not ‘boyfriend,’ that I’m talking about a woman.

      Interesting, too, that you don’t like the word ‘boyfriend’ but don’t have the same reaction to ‘girlfriend.’ Again, I guess everyone’s naming/labelling preferences are personal and the only way to really know is to talk about it!

      Thanks for reading and commenting!🙂

  5. Maeve_sp says:

    That’s funny. I use partner all the time, and they assume it’s a man! I prefer it to boyfriend because it’s genderless and sounds more committed. Boyfriend/girlfriend I use for less committed relationships.
    I hate secondary with a vengeance too. What you say about “go away when I say so” is part of my experience too, and I think it’s quite intrinsic to the word (after all, the primary comes first, so when primary needs secondary must yield). I prefer to use other terms. I’ll use primary but avoid secondary.

    • missamaranth says:

      Absolutely! I think you’ve just articulated really well a huge part of the reason why I have an issue with the word ‘secondary.’ It’s really good to hear of someone else who feels a similar way about it as I do.

      I agree about partner sounding more committed – and it’s really interesting the differences we seem to have experienced in people’s assumptions about gender when we use the word ‘partner!’

      • Maeve_Sp says:

        It’s funny, because when I used it in Spanish (genderless, same root), people look confused (might it be a woman?). But in the UK people have either been ok with not knowing the gender or assumed it’s a man. Maybe it has to do with age as well? When you’re over 25 (just to set a random age), if you say partner they assume you are living together and if you’re younger they might think you are too young to live with a partner so it’s a word used to substitute boyfriend/girlfriend? Just a thought.

      • missamaranth says:

        That’s really interesting! I guess different people/different groups just have different preconceptions and assumptions about what certain words might mean.

        I hadn’t thought about it having anything to do with age, but now you mention it that’s a really interesting point. Very few people I know who are around my age (21) use ‘partner’ to describe their boyfriend/girlfriend, and tend to think it’s a little strange when I do… I think it has connotations of a level of seriousness which, from what I’ve seen, is something people my age generally (and this is a generalisation) don’t tend to get into with relationships that often. I lived with my ex, A, from the age of 17…. and people certainly thought that was really weird and unusual for my age!

  6. I am congenitally labelphobic. I sometimes use the word ‘partner’ as shorthand for ‘person I sleep with on a regular or semi-regular basis’, but I’m not terribly comfortable doing so. I don’t believe in romantic love, either. There are:
    * people whom I love, in the non-romantic, friendship/family sense;
    * people with whom I sleep;
    * people with whom I am infatuated, or on whom I have a crush;
    * people to whom I am committed, in the sense that I would feel obliged to consult them before making a major life change such as moving far away.[*]

    I can imagine a situation in which someone fits in to all of these categories, but part of the joy of polyamory for me is not having to fit relationships into the mould of having to be, or at least be a step on the way to, that ideal.

    I’m sure I would never overthink this, especially not with bullet points. And semicolons.

      [*] This category is empty just now.

    • missamaranth says:

      Yes, absolutely! One of the things I love about it too is not having to fit a relationship into a certain mould. All relationships don’t have to be all things, and I’ve found trying to force them to be is almost always rather destructive!

      Your take on the word ‘partner’ and all the things it can potentially mean is really interesting. Thank you for sharing!🙂

  7. Rachel says:

    I’ve recently developed a dislike of the terms “primary” and “secondary and the ranking system they imply… partly because I feel that the label of “primary” on one relationship might be causing the partner in another relationship to hold back emotionally, and I’m just not okay with that. I’m not really into casual relationships at this point in my life (my professional life has enough casual to last that), even for friendships, and I give everyone the same opportunity to invest in the Bank of Rachel, as it were (all accounts insured for up to 250,000″heart”s), and I don’t like labels on relationships making people think that they don’t have the same access to my affections/etc.

    • missamaranth says:

      Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts – really interesting! I think it’s certainly possible that using a label, or not, might affect how much someone holds back emotionally. I know that not using the ‘relationship’ label at all has made me significantly hold back emotionally in some of my connections, mostly out of self-preservation and worry about getting hurt. What if I fall in love and they don’t? That sort of thing.

      “Idon’t like labels on relationships making people think that they don’t have the same access to my affections/etc.”

      ^ ^ Yes! This!🙂

  8. Dragonmamma says:

    This is interesting and I think in some ways refers back to an earlier post of why people seem to be afraid of polyamory.
    I think that traditionally we like to put things in boxes with labels on them as it makes us feel “safe” because we know where we are.
    When I say “We” here , I mean people generally,and probably up until this generation.
    One of the things about Polyamory it seems to me is that it makes labelling difficult and therefore scares people.
    I also agree with some of the things said abve that you should never use the label to restrict the relationship and alsso that the label itself may well not tell the true story

  9. Dragonmamma says:

    Ooops! that posted itself before i was finished.
    What I meant was that a label though in some ways useful can be indicating a completely different scenario from reality. For example I am “married”, but I have actually been separated for nearly 10 years now and although I still see my “husband” and we have become friends again over the years, in no way do I think of this as my main relationship.
    The point is that every scenario is different and cant really be contained ina box, but unfamiliarity scares people so we keep on trying to define things in a way that is meaningful to others.
    I am still trying to work out a definition of my current situation with my “Gentleman Friend”. Partner? Secondary? Live out Lover? Dont like any of them. And like Nomad said, why not wait till after the fact to do the definition.

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