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Labels in Relationships: Thinking Out of the Box

By HERWriter
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Relationships & Family related image Photo: Getty Images

My generation is a cluster of contradictions. In Liberal Arts college we are taught that putting a label on someone is inconsiderate, narrow-minded and hurtful. We become increasingly aware of the gray areas that exist in a world we previously interpreted as black and white, and therefore, are increasingly defensive (and pretentious) when others “put people in a box.” We go out of our way not to stereotype or “define” different groups of people at the risk of becoming one of the dangerous “-ists”: sexist, racist, classist, ageist, etc.

However, despite this careful avoidance of political incorrectness or judgment of others, we are obsessed with acquiring a label through which to define ourselves. We are constantly striving to become someone or something that is clearly recognizable and will fit under a certain title. And we are always looking for phrases or perspectives that can help to put parameters on who we are and what we do: Winner, Doctor, Boss, Over-Achiever, Teacher, Mother, etc.

There is no space that we try harder to define or label than in the context of relationships.

How many times have you been part of the early relationship discussion that asks “what are we?” and how many times have you settled upon using one of the hackneyed phrases we seem to accept as gospel: “in love”, “friends-with-benefits”, “boyfriend/girlfriend,” “just friends”. How often are you asked to describe your relationship with another using only black and white identifications: “dating”, “hooking-up”, “breaking up”, “it’s complicated” (thanks Facebook), etc.

Why are we so eager to find a certain name and way to contextualize our interactions? Doesn’t it go against everything we learned in school – that each person is his/her own individual with unique needs and desires, that labeling an individual (or multiple people) only limits his/her capabilities and narrows opportunities? Somehow, we still have some unavoidable urge to fit each of our relationships into a tidy box with perfect parameters and straightforward definitions.

Perhaps we do this because we are so terrified of the unknown.

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EmpowHER Guest

It depends on the people in the relationship. I went about 2 years dating a guy and putting no label on it. He went to another school, so no one else thought him to be taken. He told me he was exclusive only to me, but I felt if he truly meant that he would put a label on it. Comfort purposes. I also talked to a girl friend of mine, who was all for the label-less relationship. But now she just recently told me that she and her boyfriend are going by the labels. She told me, "So what if it's a stupid label? People think those with labels are insecure, but I think those people are too caught up with a term. Yes, he is my boyfriend, and yes, we are exclusive. I'm proud he is, I don't need to hide it from people."

When my current boyfriend and I started dating we went with no label for about four months. At that point, we agreed we both liked each other enough and did not care what others thought of the label, and made it official boyfriend/girlfriend.

Maybe labels are overrated. But I'm with the guy I care about, and yeah, he is my boyfriend. I really don't care if people think I'm insecure.

You bash labels, but c'mon, they're just a part of human communication. It is natural for us to be curious about others. I think you are too concerned with labels.

July 23, 2011 - 2:49pm

interesting. just removethe labels...

February 13, 2011 - 7:00am

I think this is a really great article that offers really valuable advice.

Labels can be so problematic because they mean different things for different people. Words like "dating" or "relationship" or "boyfriend" or "girlfriend" mean different things to different people.

I think it's much more productive to talk about what you actually want. Let the person know what your own needs, desires, and boundaries are. Some people are reluctant to enter into a relationship because they think it means a certain thing (exclusivity, or a certain commitment of time and energy, or a certain degree of emotional intimacy), and others enter into a relationship but then are upset when the other person doesn't give them what they want. The reality is, the things that a relationship means all vary from one person to another. There are polyamorous people who are not interested in exclusivity (and many people who might really want this are, unfortunately, not honest with themselves about it and have a chronic problem with cheating in monogamous relationships), then there are busy people who may actually not want a major time commitment (and this varies from time to time in their lives), there are private people and more rational/logical people who may not place as much of an importance on sharing of emotions. Rather than assume that a relationship needs to mean a certain fixed set of things, it's always good to think about what it means, share with your partner (or potential partner), and ask what it means to them and what they want.

The problem I've run into most often, especially when dating younger people, is that our society does not encourage questioning of labels. We are often raised with implicit assumptions: they come from our parents, often from religion, and from our peer groups and the media. Often, these assumptions can lead to a lot of unnecessary pain and suffering, when people assume that everyone has the same assumptions--the reality is that they do not; it's not safe to assume that things mean the same to you as to another person.

This article is encouraging questioning and looking deeper, and I think that's really a great thing.

January 31, 2011 - 9:11am

Thanks everyone for your comments and insight. I love hearing your perspectives and I'm glad I could spark a little controversy.

November 21, 2010 - 5:51am

Well I have a label stuck firmly to me and I get treated badly and excluded because of it. It's the label that most people would hate to have most in the world. It's a label that unfairly compares me to others and I am defined negatively by those others because of this comparison.

People fear this label so much that people like me are neglected in society. We don't often appear in a list of oppressed minorities. quote "We go out of our way not to stereotype or “define” different groups of people at the risk of becoming one of the dangerous “-ists”: sexist, racist, classist, ageist, etc." Even when we give a list stereotypes we drop off the list. Even women ignore the inclusion of people like me.

My label is "disabled" even tho I function and live well. Bugger labels.

November 20, 2010 - 11:40pm
EmpowHER Guest

Dear Writer,

As always, good stuff.

The points you make are sharp and important. But here's one more idea I wonder if you skipped over or forgot.

As a writer, you'll know that conciseness can be key. Isn't that another function of labels? -- to be able to talk about yourself/whoever/whatever without being so long-winded? I mean, if someone asks me to describe my relationship status (or asks me to identify myself in any way, for that matter), should I really "stick it" to labels and say "I'm a person with my own individual, unique needs and desires, and labeling me only limits my capabilities and narrows opportunities?"

But I guess this brings us back to another key point that you made. The "need" for labels: is it put on us by others (who ask me to describe myself) or self-imposed?

You seemed to also equate label-lovers with relationship-ists. I wonder if you've also considered that seem people are just a little more geeky or collection/hobby-oriented and into thinking about the world in terms of how things are categorized, as Howard Gardner of Multiple Intelligences Theory believes. (The Naturalist Intelligent person is alllllll about thinking about the world in categories - http://www.infed.org/thinkers/gardner.htm) Or maybe other readers have already put it best in their comments that some people just value their relationship so much that it's a necessity for them to make sense of it through talking about it, or trying to describe it with language, or, eventually, a label.

And a final puzzle for all readers to think about and respond to: Can one person even avoid labels for themselves while labeling other people as labelers or non-labelers?

Anyway, nice piece. I love your work,

November 20, 2010 - 12:56pm

I think it would be amazing if we could all move away from labels (at least negative ones), but that's how we make sense of things. I think relationship statuses are there basically to make sure two people are on the same page and to sometimes show off to family and friends. They also hold people a little more accountable - ideally communication in general should do that.

For example, if a woman is interested in a man and they're dating and she wants to take it to the next level, but he doesn't want anyone else to know (aka doesn't want it on Facebook or announced at all to family or friends), this might raise some suspicions. He could be messing around with other women so he doesn't want to ruin his chances by announcing it on Facebook or to friends (worst case scenario).

Especially in college, people are experimenting and playing around and don't necessarily take "relationships" seriously - but for the people who are taking them seriously, this can be hurtful. Hence labels are sometimes necessary.

Another scenario - a man doesn't want to confirm a relationship with a woman who wants to be with him officially. However, he acts like a boyfriend in all other ways. The truth is, he probably doesn't like her in the way she needs, so time to move on. Or maybe he just sees things in a different way and thinks labels are absurd. Who knows. Labels can be both confusing, necessary and unnecessary. Depends on the situation and individual.

November 18, 2010 - 5:46pm
EmpowHER Guest

First off, thank you. It's amazing how when you least expect it, you come across exactly what you needed to hear to get you out of a slump. I've struggling to move on and losing a lot of sleep since my break-up. It wasn't until I read your post and reflected on it that I realized my biggest worry was what my next relationship means or how to define it (I know it sounds weird since most dwell on losing the relationship). Again, thank you. I wish I could make it up to you.

Well, on to my commentary. I think the line in your post that best explains why relationshipism is a necessary evil, or a largely unavoidable evil, is "Perhaps we do this because we are so terrified of the unknown." We become so emotionally and mentally invested in relationships that we don't allow room for what excitement the unknown can bring. I feel that channeling one's liberal arts education is easier said than done.

I believe that whether or not a person is able to live without labels depends, in part, on someones upbringing. For example: my ex's father was emotionally distant to my ex and my ex's brother and their parent's fought a lot. My ex became obsessed with knowing exactly where our relationship was and was going to be in so many years until it ruined what we had. How you were raised and your life experiences play a large part in your openness to undefined relationships and I envy you for it. It takes real strength and a vigorous, independent mind to (at least try) not fall into the same traps so many of us do.

It's become such a cliche to blame the media, but I also blame the media and commercialism. Why the f*ck are there shows about elementary and middle school kids in "committed" relationships? Why are we trying to influence and persuade children to grow up faster than they can or should? Why is it that when I was working in an elementary school that I saw at least 15 FIRST AND SECOND GRADERS wearing shirts like "100% flirt" and "I'm all tease"?

Sorry for digressing, I got a bit off topic. Obviously I don't expect you to answer those questions. I guess to summarize: Labels are safety blankets. They provide comfort to people whose significant other doesn't communicate their feelings effectively or for those who get paranoid easily.

November 18, 2010 - 1:39pm
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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.

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