What Are We? How to Take On Relationships Without Labels

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Photo by Bram. on Unsplash

fter two breakups of year-plus relationships this summer, I declared that I needed some time to not be anyone’s girlfriend. I had been in serious relationships for thirteen years straight, hopping from serious coupling to serious coupling with a two week stint being the longest I’d spent without a label on what I meant to someone else.

I’ve been single — that is to say, not somebody’s girlfriend — for five months, and it’s been both liberating and lonely. I have long been defining myself by my relationships, always being the dutiful girlfriend, fiancee, wife. I defined myself by what I could be for other people.

And suddenly I was just Caitlin. Caitlin who has casual sex and friends with benefits and goes on dates but isn’t really dating anyone.

As an aspiring relationship anarchist, I am working to deconstruct the ingrained importance of labels in my mind when it comes to relationships. I am, surprisingly, not perfect at this. Sometimes I’m basically Veruca Salt from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory who wants to know what we are and I want to know it now.

Communication is key

The free-fall of just loving someone without society’s net to catch me when it’s scary is a bit exhilarating.

Working through several conversations, I’ve been able to navigate the no-labels thing and identify where I have hangups about it. Until recently, I have believed that a label means security. If I know what I am to you, then I have a set of expectations about what that means.

But I’ve had labels, and they did not mean security. I know, based on evidence and experience, that relationships last as long as they last and that breakups are not failures.

I am free at any time to leave any relationship that is not healthy or fulfilling. And my partners and friends are free to leave a relationship with me if it is not healthy or fulfilling.

The free-fall of just loving someone without society’s net to catch me when it’s scary is a bit exhilarating when I quiet the internal monologue asking, “But what does this mean?”

Definitions can be important to some people, and if that’s you, work with your partner(s) to find a compromise on how to refer to yourselves and your relationship. But letting go of that need to be a girlfriend, or a lover, or even a partner can be freeing in a new way.

Love is love is love

The security is in the relationship, not the label.

I recently asked someone “Should I refer to you as a partner or a friend?” and didn’t get an answer, because labels aren’t important to that person. I was still attaching myself to the idea that I needed a label to feel safe and secure in our relationship. I needed to know what the relationship was so I could know the rules for it.

The idea of there not being defined rules — because it was just a nice, mutually enjoyable relationship with someone important to me — was like jumping out of a moving airplane. Only it turns out that I had a parachute. This person listens when I’m scared or anxious, and we have yet to find a disconnect we can’t turn into a reconnect.

It’s a stark reflection on my past relationships that basic communication is such a surprise to me again and again. But it keeps happening. And I have been able to deconstruct my impulse to label things — because the security is in the relationship, not the label.

Every time I communicate with someone, I am connecting.

Every time I kiss someone, I am connecting.

Every time I laugh with someone, I am connecting.

And I’ve found that connections matter far more than labels.

When I let go of needing to define what I mean to someone, I’m more fully present in the connections we share. And I’m more aware of what I mean to them because I can see it reflected in their actions and behaviors toward me.

Prone to sudden bursts of encouragement. They/them. Queer, autistic author of bit.ly/GaslightingMillennials

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