Relationship labels and imaginary boxes

Yes I know­, ‘boxes’. Snigger. Insert smut pun here. Innuendo aside, I have recently found myself thinking about labels. Relationship labels in particular. It somewhat goes with the poly territory; we do seem to have cultivated rather a lot. And the difference between some of them is often lost on the non-poly community; if I have to explain the distinction between an open relationship and a poly relationship  one more time because people assume we have no boundaries, I think I might explode. Obviously with love and tolerance. And a dose of eye-rolling exasperation.

It’s an old cliché to say we shouldn’t get hung up on labels, but sometimes they are useful. They set out a range of expectations and social cues. We rely on them to know what is expected of us and what to expect of others; to an extent they govern behaviour. But the danger is that the door swings both ways. Sometimes I find myself trying to fit a relationship into a box based on the label I have attached to it. Rather than the label coming from the relationship, I try to make the relationship fit the label. And that is the proverbial square peg in a round hole.

In poly circles we have a habit of overdoing labels: mono, poly, open, swinging, non-monogamous, asexual, triads, Vs, Ws, polycules, closed poly, networks, I could go on forever. I recently had to explain the term ‘unicorn hunting’ to a non-poly friend, which tickled them immensely. For those who don’t know, this term is used to describe an existing couple (often male female) looking for a casual third party (often a bisexual female). The reason it has been dubbed ‘unicorn’ is because there is generally a feeling that finding someone happy to play third wheel to an existing couple where the prior more established relationship will remain a priority over the needs of a casual addition is rare to the point of fantasy.

I recently found myself in a label tangle when I developed feelings for a (single) non-poly friend. As it turns out they are not entirely unreciprocated, but the poly setup was never going to suit this person. I found this confusing at first because there is clearly a mutual attraction and a fairly intense amount of flirting. And unsurprisingly some raised eyebrows from friends, because don’t we all get terribly interested if mutual friends end up getting jiggy (yes people still say that). It seems that outrageous flirting is considered inappropriate if you are ‘just friends’. I wondered if this is true. Does the flirting still confuse me? Is it not ok? And this isn’t a dig at said friends, because often flirting gives an afore mentioned social cue: game on!

But what if it doesn’t have to? What if that is just our unique dynamic. Do we need to conform to expectations set out by a social label? Do we have to stay at least 30cm away at all times or get naked together? And if we did sleep together, would that mean we aren’t really friends? Likewise, there are other friends who I am far less flirty with but who have actually been naked with me. And yet we are not together. I consider them some of my closest friends and the nakedness in no way spoiled things or created an expectation of anything particular. Yet many would say sex and friendship are not best bedfellows.

I have realised that relationships are like finger prints – completely unique with no two alike. The dynamic between two (or more) people is so complex and sprinkled with infinite subtle nuances, that no matter how useful labels can be, sometimes they just cannot capture something so subjective and individual. So now I am trying not to live in expectation of my relationships moving in certain directions, or allow them to be limited by labels. Instead I’m working on accepting each one as the unique, complicated, uncategorizable, and beautiful thing that it is.

2 thoughts on “Relationship labels and imaginary boxes

  1. Another truly wonderful post! I completely agree that labels are important for many reasons – but that doesn’t make them any less frustrating at times! I was actually mentioning to my partner yesterday that I sometimes forget that I’m currently in a ‘gay relationship’. I don’t think that has anything to do with the fact that I’m not gay, but rather comes from the feeling of ‘it just is’, if that makes sense.

    To be honest, I had no clue what ‘unicorn hunting’ meant – or most of those labels you mentioned previously. As eye-rolling-inducing as it might be to have to explain things over and over, as long as the other person is asking to genuinely understand rather than hiding behind a smirk, surely it’s worth it?

    Labels are a very human thing is /all/ walks of life – not just in terms of relationships and sexuality. But I think a big part of it comes from the desire to find your own ‘fit’ in the world. “I’m a grey demi-pan-sexual bi-romantic non gender-conforming woman.” might sound ridiculous, but that very personal label is probably super important to them.

    Food for thought!

    1. Hi Sara, thanks for reading and for your thoughts. I entirely agree that it is always worth explaining to those who really want to know. I am never offended or reluctant to talk about my relationships with anyone who has questions. It’s more the assumptions that are tricky. Exactly like you were saying, labels are a fact of life across the board – including labels we attach to individuals. My partner and I get a lot of presumptive labels flung our way due to misconceptions about being poly. Assumptions that we have no boundaries, are promiscuous, that our core relationship is somehow devalued, or that we have issues we are trying to cover up, etc etc. And that is ok when they are well meaning and we can set the record straight, but sometimes they aren’t well meaning. It can be tiring to live with a label you don’t feel fits you! But that said, it can also be fun to realise you have outgrown a label that you previously felt at home with. It helps you recognize personal growth and change. So, swings and roundabouts!

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