The Evolving Language of Exclusivity Means You're Not in a Relationship

This isn't math. This is linguistics.

I recently had a conversation I’d already had, word for word, many times. The talk always begins the same way then dives off in one of two directions. “Are you her boyfriend?” is the question I ask — the logical question to ask — when a male friend describes a woman he’s been seeing regularly and exclusively. Sometimes the guy says yes. Sometimes he says, “I don’t know.” It’s as though relationships are the same as good weather, something that just happens to you.

Is being exclusive the same as being someone’s significant other? My mom would say yes. Old me would have said yes too, but now I think I’m changing camps. I no longer thinks it’s possible to accidentally end up in a relationship. You can back into one, sure, but it isn’t anything until it has a name. 

We’re trained to assume that relationships happen in five stages: initiating, experimenting, intensifying, integrating, and bonding. Developed by Mark Knapp, the Relational Development Model (also aptly known as “Knapp’s Theory”) is the sort of theory that you know about without actually knowing about. During “experimenting” you are realizing you both think fedora hats are stupid. At “bonding” you’re planning on making babies. But it seems like the “intensifying” and “integrating” phases are becoming hazy in modern dating: You’re a couple at a BBQ, but you don’t want to use labels. You’re not sleeping with anyone else, but they aren’t your girlfriend.

What makes this harder to navigate is the fact that people interpret social relationships so differently. A man who has chosen to go anonymous but said I could refer to him as a “freelance lovemaker” thinks exclusivity and being significant others are one in the same. 

“If you’re only going to sleep with one person and you only want to sleep with that one person, that person is your boyfriend or girlfriend,” says FL.

But are you that person’s significant other? What if they aren’t being exclusive too?

“When I’m exclusive with someone I like, it’s primarily my desire that I don’t need to worry about if she is being with other people,” says 25-year-old Bryn. “When you’re not bf/gf’ there is less of a pressure to analyze that relationship in terms of having a defined future with them. There’s also a difference in that, if someone is my girlfriend she is representative of me, which I wouldn’t equate to someone I’m just exclusive with.”

Researchers will tell you that relationship limbo is part of “hookup culture,” but that’s not necessarily a bad thing — it’s just a thing. Yes, dating is much more informal now and can’t be fit into a neat box like maybe once before; however these sorts of liaisons can be a key part of intimacy building. In 2013, researchers wrote in the journal Emerging Adulthood that there has been a shift in dating and relationships in the past several decades that has led to a greater desire to delay marriage, less importance on being married, and more sexual permissiveness in emerging adulthood.

“Because social and economic circumstances in today’s world are highly unstable, working through these tasks has become difficult,” wrote the Bowling Green State University authors, “leading emerging adults to postpone long-term commitments in favor of less restricting short-term involvements.” 

This has led to a split in categorizing one’s love life — on one hand you have your “romantic relationships” i.e. official significant others, and on the other you have your “romantic experiences” aka dates, crushes, and hookups. You can’t confidently define these “romantic experiences” as negative. In a 2012 paper, young adults stated they considered “friends with benefits” (FWB) a good way to test drive a relationship — 25 percent of the men and 40 percent of the women hoped it would progress into something more committed. But the authors also offered this caveat:

“It is easy to argue that the patterns of behavior in FWB relationships may hinder the development of relationship processes deemed critical to healthy relationships, specifically the development of commitment.”

I read that sentence to Bryn after asking him to define what the commitment levels of being exclusive are. He sit backs and nods before saying, “That is probably completely accurate.” But then he comments that he thinks the standards of real relationships are higher than before in part because people are more committed to finding someone they are deeply, irrevocably in love with than they once were. 

In the debate over whether exclusive relationships are official relationships, the importance of language can’t be minimized. Stephanie Amada, a faculty member in the Department of Writing, Rhetoric, and American Cultures at Michigan State University, told me that she sees being significant others with someone as entirely separate from being exclusive — because words.

“I don’t know if I can put my finger on what makes it different, but as someone who works with language, I think the words we use are really important,” says Amada. “How we identify ourselves, with words, is important. When you put a label on it, an identifier, it [the relationship] does feel more serious and more important.”

When a woman I know, Janelle, first began dating her boyfriend exclusively, she thought she didn’t care if they used the titles “boyfriend/girlfriend.” They joked around that they were “just friends” even though it was obviously not true.

“But one night some emotional trigger goes off in my brain and I finally explain that the ‘just friends’ joke is too vulnerable for me,” says Janelle. “He feels awful about not being clear — he thought we both loved the ‘just friends’ joke — and asks me to be his girlfriend. There was something really comforting and bonding about having that title. Being ‘exclusive’ felt nebulous and unsteady.”

In their paper in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, professors Jesse Owen and Frank Fincham deduce from their research what you would probably hear from your best friend (but it’s nice to know that there is an academic study to back it up): “If ambiguity about the level of commitment [from a FWB relationship] continues into their exclusive romantic relationship, then it is likely to affect negatively their relationship quality.”

Sure, some people may think that if you’re exclusive, you’re also officially together.

But the research (and probably your best friend) says that you might not be. There’s only one way to tell: Use the words. They’ll take or they won’t.

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