I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about labels and titles in a relationship. I know I’ve talked before about titles in this post but that led to me thinking about my particular relationship with titles, how I feel about them and why.
I’ve discovered, or already knew but confirmed, that I do not like prescriptive titles. I do not enjoy getting close with someone and deciding -we are going to be this word to each other specifically, that is just what it is-. I don’t like being someone’s boyfriend, I’m not keen on the idea of being someone’s spouse, except in the case that it’s necessary for the legal benefits it confers (and that would have to greatly outweigh my hesitation there). I don’t like the decision that myself and another person have confirmed that because we right now have a certain dynamic shape, that we now are -that- and intend to continue being that for the long term with all it implies. Prescriptive titles often come with specific expectations. In monogamy for example, the boyfriend title would come with the expectation of sexual fidelity. In polyamory, I’ve had folks who expected that because I was their boyfriend, I would drop everything to be with them when they needed someone at 3AM. I mean sure, I usually will do that, but sometimes I will not, sometimes I need my fucking sleep as much as you need me to listen about your latest problem with your other partner. And the fact that I’ve been told “that’s what a good boyfriend does” as though having this word means that I can either be succeeding or failing to live up to the title, but they do not feel their friends are equally failures for not being there at that time, that makes me shy away from those.
I may often take the boyfriend shape, but I do not want to make it official in a way that heaps the constant expectations on me, especially the subversive hidden ones that don’t get discussed, that most people never even realize they have. The other thing with prescriptive titles is the idea of a break up. When you’ve made a big decision that you and someone else -are- this thing, this word, then deciding it no longer applies is a whole ordeal. People tie up a lot of their identity in being someone’s boyfriend/girlfriend/lovefriend or wife/husband/spouse. To suddenly change that is often traumatic for most people, they feel they are losing a part of themselves.
I do like descriptive labels. I like discussing with someone the words that seem to describe our dynamic. Not one word, words plural. There is no one I would consider a partner who is not also a friend. As a relationship anarchist, I don’t consider friend to be a lesser descriptive word, simply a different one. Partner to me implies a connection that shares a possibility of romance feels, and a greater likelihood of physical intimacy. Friendship is platonic for me for the most part, though there have been some exceptions. Partner also for me is something that I use sparingly, for people that have a level of longevity and intertwinement in my life or an intent for such that is more constant and steady then most of my platonic friendships. That is not to say friendships don’t have that, but for example there may be a financial intertwinement in my friendship as I give a friend money to fix their car one time, but one of my partners and I share finances monthly in taking care of the needs of our cats. The thing with descriptive titles is we use the ones that are suited to the time and situation. I’ve spoken of Kelev before, a person who holds a very central roll in my life. We often cohabitate, we have pets, we share sexual intimacy, we got to each others doctors appointments, we share a bank account, there is a lot of levels of intertwinement there. Sometimes when we’re joking around at the grocery store and elbowing each other while exchanging sarcastic remarks, and we run into a person I knew from one of my times in college, I might introduce him as my best friend. It conveys the dynamic we are sharing at that time, it gives the information necessary for that interaction and is most accurate to what we are sharing in that moment. If I go with him to the doctor and the nurse gives me a questioning look when I follow him back for a procedure to hold his hand, that “who the fuck are you look?” because people don’t expect two masculine presenting people, especially of such varying ages, to be together, I say “I’m his partner”. It conveys what I need to at the time, that by their normal ideas of societal privilege being centered on one main romantic relationship, that I deserve to be there, I have that right. If I say I’m his friend, I’m usually asked to wait behind, despite him wanting me there to offer comfort, and my comfort is just as effective regardless of what word we gave them. It doesn’t matter that the intimacies we share that are tied to partnership for how I define it aren’t relevant in that moment, it’s the word that makes the most sense to convey who we are to each other in the way they need to understand.
With descriptive labels, when the dynamic transitions in a way that one of the words no longer applies, it often just falls from usage more naturally. Since we’ve discussed that we are using words as they are relevant, though ones that we have consented to and feel apply, if the dynamic shifts and a word drops from relevance, it also just drops from usage. Often there is a discussion, I love communication and being open and checking in about ALL the things ALL the time, but I’ve found it is less of a traumatic change. Also in regards to expectations, I’ve found this leads to less unrealistic ones. With descriptive labels, what we are doing is allowing for actions to occur and the words to follow, rather then deciding on the words and changing our actions to fit them. That usually negates the problem of “your actions aren’t measuring up to this word we’ve decided we are”.
Another thought I had that crystallized this for me was related to my focus on honesty and authenticity. I had a titled partnership with someone in my life that I recently untitled. I realized that the title, regardless of whether pressure was put on me or not from the other person, did come with some unspoken expectations of behavior. I was not measuring up to those, there were things I simply did not feel a want to do regularly or consistently enough that the word partner made sense to me. Like I’ve said, some of the associations I have with the word partner, even as a descriptive word but especially as a prescriptive one, is a certain constancy or consistency. When I was not acting in the way that partner implies to me, in a dynamic where partner or boyfriend was a prescriptive title we had decided upon, I felt inauthentic. It felt like I was lying to refer to that person with those words at a time where I wasn’t fulfilling the expectations of that dynamic. I was not meeting many of the needs and wants that person looked for in a relationship of that sort, so with the title, I either was a shitty partner, or I was using a word that was quite dishonest to what we were. My response was to recognize that and un-title things. Thankfully I tend to relationship in all forms (platonic, romantic, sexual, partnership, friendship, lovefriend, queerplatonic, etc) with people who are accepting of fluidity and change, so this was received in a compassionate and understanding way. We spoke of how we would use descriptive labels with others to describe things accurate to how they were with us in that moment or in such a way as was relevant at the time.
Now I understand that this may seem like splitting hairs. Does is really make a difference if you are using a prescriptive or descriptive title? Ask most people (especially a monogamous or hierarchical polya person) how they would feel if their partner were to remove that official label and the expectations that came with it, and no longer be obligated or beholden to that role. The same people who say that it doesn’t make much difference, are in my experience often quite upset at that suggestion. Words have power, and so do the contexts we use them in. My goals are to have flexibility in my relationships, to allow for fluidity and for each dynamic to stretch out into whatever role is most comfortable and makes the most sense at the time, and to live an authentic and honest life. So, I take how I give those words power and what power I allow them to have over me, very seriously.