"So what are we?" is a question often asked when someone is trying to assess where they stand in a relationship or how the other person feels about them. Are we just friends? Are we friends with benefits? Are we dating? Are we in a relationship? Are we exclusive? It’s less about the term itself, and more about knowing how to conduct yourself and what to expect from the dynamic.
People ask me when it’s time to label their relationship and if it’s "okay" that they haven’t put a label on a dynamic that’s lasted for years. My answers: "whenever you want to" and “that depends, is it okay with you?”
A "label" might be an off-putting term, but at its gist, it's talking about defining and gaining clarity about what the relationship is. It’s not about restricting the relationship by imposing any social contracts or expectations that don’t fit you, it’s not about reducing the complexity of the dynamic to something that feels inaccurate, and it’s not even about knowing which terms to use to explain your relationship to family and friends. It’s about gaining a clearer understanding and safety in the relationship.
Maybe you think you’re in a monogamous relationship, but they don’t. Maybe you think it’s a casual arrangement between friends, and they are picking out china patterns. Sometimes the discrepancy in understanding, expectations, and boundaries are not visible until you have a conversation or someone is hurt.
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If you are confused as to what to call the other person, how committed they are, or if there is a future together, it might be worth exploring how you both understand the relationship. In reality, even if you think you know the answers to these questions it's good to – once in a while – share your understanding and confirm that it aligns with theirs. If they don't want/need the same thing, at least you'll know.
Ask yourself the following questions:
How does not having a label/definition make you feel?
Is it too soon to try to define the relationship?
Are you clear about the boundaries and expectations of this relationship?
Do you want to label/define your relationship? Why or why not?
What are you hoping this dynamic will become? Is their intention clear?
How can you best communicate your boundaries/needs?
Can defining your relationship be helpful? Absolutely. Although arguably not always necessary, it’s equally important to ask yourself why you might be hesitating to do so. Many of us hesitate to ask clarifying questions because we don’t know how to start the conversation, we are scared of the answer or of appearing too "too eager" and scaring the person away.
Here are a couple of talking points that can help guide the conversation:
Tell them how you feel about the relationship and how you understand the dynamic (boundaries, expectations, future).
Share what terms feel right for you when speaking or defining the relationship.
Give them space to explain how they view the relationship and what terms/words fit for them.
Be open and curious about their perspective. It's not about convincing people to want the same thing as us or about pretending we want something different just to match their expectations. It's about seeing where each person is.
Remember, clarifying expectations, goals and terms of the relationship will not damage a healthy relationship. Healthy relationships thrive off honesty, clarity, and communication. Encountering a discrepancy in how you understand the relationship does not have to end the relationship, but it is a good starting point for evaluating how to move forward – together or apart. Defining a relationship is not about ultimatums or pressuring our partners into commitment, it’s about assessing the pulse of the dynamic.
Sara Kuburic is a therapist who specializes in identity, relationships and moral trauma. Every week she shares her advice with our readers. Find her on Instagram @millennial.therapist. She can be reached at SKuburic@gannett.com.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Relationship Advice: Are we dating? Should we label our relationship?