In adulthood, relationship labels don’t happen immediately — and that’s a good thing. I mean, just imagine if dating resembled seventh grade: “Will you be my girlfriend? Circle yes or no.” Despite the abundant grievances amid early dating woes, there’s something absolutely exhilarating about the chase before any sobering DTRs are demanded.
The French (of course) have a perfect saying that captures the essence of this in-between time: je ne sais quoi (“I do not know what”). Is it an electricity in the air? A twinkle in the eye? A punch in the gut? I do not know what it is — but it’s there!
Eventually, though, you either are or aren’t something. One way or another, a label must happen if you’re going to move forward with your life, even if the label is “not for me” or “not right now.” Cohabitating on the island of Je Ne Sais Quoi can only be a temporary thing, even if you think you’re too cool for labels. If your non-relationship lives there too long, the rum runs out and everyone goes crazy.
So it is very ironic that the French have much simpler methods of clarifying relationship statuses than their American counterparts. There are the few exceptions — of course — but in general, when a man kisses a woman in France, the meaning is implicit: we are a couple. The kiss signals exclusivity. You are my girlfriend, and I am your boyfriend.
For most of us in America, though, there’s no universal clarifying signal when it comes to DTRing — so kissing and disappearing is extraordinarily common. A kiss is not a promise in this country; and without this implicit understanding, many of us have experienced dating purgatory — or what is now being called “situationship.”
No Labels, No Drama — Right? (Spoiler alert: Wrong.)
For the record, situationships aren’t always “friends-with-benefits.” They can include that girl you impulsively text on the weekends “just to talk,” or that guy you’ve been writing long emails to on the daily. It’s someone you routinely do the boyfriend-girlfriend things with — but no one is calling it anything, despite the fact you’ve been situationshipping for a long time now.
Nearly five years ago, The New York Times published an essay detailing the problems of the American situationship in their Modern Love section. The word “situationship” hadn’t caught on yet when Jordana Narin’s No Labels, No Drama — Right? first appeared. But man, her reminiscing sounded familiar. By the end, hot tears were streaming down my cheeks. I wasn’t alone. In fact, this was actually a phenomenon.
Maybe I was years removed from her predicament, recently married and in my mid-twenties, but her story captured the essence of millennial non-dating transience that I very much experienced before meeting my husband. She states, “I think my generation is venturing into some seriously uncharted waters, because while we’re hesitant to label relationships, we do participate in some deviation of them.”
You see, even us tech-savvy, career-driven millennials cannot escape the human need for an intimate connection — yet we fear labels because of their weight and their consequences. But does this make life easier? Narin explains:
But by not calling someone, say, “my boyfriend,” he actually becomes something else, something indefinable. And what we have together becomes intangible. And if it’s intangible it can never end because officially there’s nothing to end. And if it never ends, there’s no real closure, no opportunity to move on.
Basically, situationships suck because they enrapture us without giving us boundaries — be them physical, emotional, and even spiritual. Because there are no boundaries, it’s impossible to measure the hold this situationship has over our lives, which causes it to more easily spiral out of control and hurt both parties, in both the long-term and in the short-term.
In other words, we can’t just “get over it” because half of the frustration is figuring out what, exactly, “it” is in the first place. A situationship devalues our emotions and our time as it never gives the people involved the dignity of a defined status. Thus, we “fixate on a person who may not be right for us simply because he never wronged us,” Narin says. “Because without a label, he never really had the chance.”
Removing labels doesn’t remove complications. More often than not, it inflicts them further.
So, I’m in a situationship — what do I do?
If you’ve ever found yourself surrounded by the murky waters of label-less stagnancy, you’ve probably been in a situationship. And if you’re currently in one, chances are, this is not your dream life. There are a couple of ways you can turn this around, but unfortunately, all of it involves actually labeling things and some upfront communication — starting with yourself. Ready?
- First, be totally honest with yourself. This takes a moment, but it’s crucial. Take some time to meditate or pray about your situation — and have the courage to unwrap and examine the truth of what’s going on and really confront what you really want. Let go of any fear that’s fogging your clarity. Are you stringing this person along for comfort? Are you afraid of confronting this person because they’ll let you go? Examine why your particular situation is less than ideal, and explore why you haven’t changed it. Remember, stagnancy is good for no one, including you and your non-partner.
- Talk about how you both deserve better. Find a neutral place where you both can talk, and explain your thoughts on your situation. Be thorough, but succinct. It helps if you write things down and rehearse beforehand — and if need be, include note cards and just talk on the phone (seriously). Tell your situationship non-partner what you want — clearly. Examine what this looks like for both of you. Does this mean moving on, or calling your situationship an actual relationship? Things have been murky enough. It’s time to really talk.
- Find an accountability partner. This could be a friend, mentor, or even a licensed professional counselor. Essentially, this accountability partner will hold you accountable for establishing different routines that transform your situationship into actual intentional dating — or starting from scratch and not returning the stagnant non-relationship out of emotional comfort. For instance, if you chose to end the situationship and have the sudden urge to text your situationship non-partner — consider texting your friend instead. Or if you decided to move forward and turn the situationship into an actual relationship, talk to your friend about how it’s going. Are things different? And is this difference better?
Some relationships take a while to blossom — and that’s okay. This is an art, not a science. It’s rough to move beyond what you know, even if what you know is mediocre. If your situationship is holding you back from real emotional growth, don’t settle for “okay” — the best relationships (of any sort or status) continually challenge us to grow.