Girlfriend, partner, wife, friend, dating, seeing, hanging with, fooling with, banging (not a favourite); these are all labels that mean different things to different people, but that said, how much do we need these labels, what do they mean and what do they broadcast to the outside world?
From a street voxpop in Toronto, it appears “dating” and “seeing” represent two very different levels of commitment:
My house mate Ray had been seeing Sarah for four months. They had met each other’s parents, were in a physical relationship and saw each other every weekend. So, when I referred to Sarah as his girlfriend one day I was surprised to hear Ray protest, “She’s not my girlfriend! We’re not there yet. We’ve only been seeing each other four months”. When I expressed my surprise, Todd, my other house mate chipped in, “Some people just don’t like to put labels on things”. Fair enough, but I couldn’t help but wonder if his unwillingness to label was less related to a belief against categorising human relationships, and more about his unwillingness to commit to a certain relationship. If love is in the air, don’t these labels ward off any potential rival suitor shaped threats? By nature, humans are territorial, and as peeing a circle around our partner is not socially acceptable, isn’t simply labelling them as our other halves doing an equal, and cleaner job? I had my reservations about Todd’s theory.
My inclinations appeared to be confirmed a few weeks later when Sarah and Ray broke up following a talk, which led to Sarah asking Ray to confirm the status of the relationship. Were they girlfriend and boyfriend, or casually dating? She asked. Ray expressed his reluctance to label their relationship, and so Sarah broke it off. On hearing of this, Todd piped up once more. “She shouldn’t have put pressure on him to label it. This labelling business will always kill a relationship”. Was he right? Was labelling the issue here, or was Sarah picking up on an imbalance in the relationship and wisely opting to save time and cut her losses? After four months, isn’t refusing to put a label on it a label in itself? A label that says “uncommitted, hence no label”?
When we avoid labelling, are we waiting to find out more about what’s in the pot before we assign a label, or simply uncomfortable with what the label might say?