Where We Stand: Conceptualizing a Relationship

Gone are the days of “going steady” with the person you like. Welcome to 2010, the age of ambiguity in both relationships and non-relationships! When I talk to friends and peers, I find that many of us can’t seem to agree on what defines a relationship, or how to know for certain that you’re in one.

The debate on this subject reminds me of a discussion we had in my communication research methods class. Our professor explained that before you could really begin any experiment, you had to define your variables into tangible terms so that people knew exactly what you were referring to. When we used “relationship satisfaction” as an example of something that each of us might perceive differently, I realized that relationships themselves could be a tricky subject to deal with when studying our particular age group. After all, before you start your research, you must know what you’re trying to measure, and so it is important to define those variables in as concrete a fashion as possible (and using a dictionary, of course, only leads to more ambiguity in your topic).

The difficulty is that many of us seem to have varying opinions on what qualifies as a relationship, as well as how to define some of the terminology that has to do with relationships. For example, does “dating” imply that two people are together, or that they quite literally have been going on dates? Do relationships form because one person says “Will you be my ___?” or do they just happen gradually, without so much as a word? The first image that comes to mind is from the film Donnie Darko, a scene in which, after Donnie has walked the new girl Gretchen home, he asks, “Do you wanna go with me?” and she replies, “Go where?”

Our generation seems to have forgotten what it means to go on dates and meet new people in that sense, rather than hook up with someone at a party and then decide whether or not to text them the next day. (Even the term hook up has different connotations for different people.) Those who choose to keep “talking” to the person (which, again, has different meanings) may differ in when they decide to call these exchanges a “relationship.”

Obviously there are couples who agree that they are in a relationship, so there has to be a definition out there somewhere. But then there are these one-sided flings in which one person thinks that their tryst means a lot more than the other one does. People disagree on their relationship statuses all the time, and many don’t even know where they stand with their potential significant others. While communication is obviously key, it’s kind of sad that in this day and age, so many people are sexually intimate without even knowing much about how their partners feel about them.

Having said all this, are labels even important? Social media certainly enforces that notion — we list ourselves as “Single” or “In a Relationship” but there are so many undefined statuses that will never fit into Facebook’s little box. Even “It’s Complicated” extends out to “____ is in a relationship and it’s complicated,” on one’s News Feed, but what if the major complication is that the two do not consider themselves to be fully in a relationship? Also, those who are not exclusive with their partners are not likely to list themselves as being in an open relationship, since generally one of those two people does want something more serious out of it.

So, my lovely readers, you tell me. Does our society place too much emphasis on finding a label for your relationship status, or not enough?Tweet this!

8 thoughts on “Where We Stand: Conceptualizing a Relationship

  1. Paul says:

    I don’t think we’ve place too much emphasis on the labels, but I agree that we don’t really have defined terms so there is much ambiguity.

    In my mind (and I’m considerably older than you) saying you’re in a relationship means you have an established “partnership” with someone. It is a step beyond just dating but short of engaged. Certainly that can cover a lot of ground, but hey. so what.

    I don’t think we should necessarily decide that relationships are exclusive because to some couples that may not be important.

    As with most things, as soon as we try to put a specific label on something, individuality comes into play and we realize we can not really specifically label ANYTHING having to do with humans.

    Great post as usual.

  2. Valerie says:

    I guess that’s true, that some couples don’t care as much about exclusivity (and some feel even more strongly about that — after all, polyamory does exist and it’s fine if both parties agree to it), but what I meant was that sometimes the people want two different things — one wants exclusivity and the other wants the freedom to be with whomever.

    Labels CAN be dangerous; I think the biggest problem in all of this is a lack of communication between two people. As long as they agree to the terms of whatever relationship or non-relationship they are in, then good for them! πŸ˜€

    Thank you for your comment!

  3. Kevina says:

    Hmmm… good question.

    I think that being in an official relationship relies 100% on communication between you and your partner. I think that if you haven’t talked about it, and if neither of you have reached a clear consensus about how you see your relationship, then you aren’t in an “official relationship.” I think this is also interesting because sometimes when we talk to people about our past relationships, I’ve heard them say, “oh, he/she doesn’t count.” Well, what makes these specific people count or not count? Some friends (obviously guys) have said that some girls never counted as exes because apparently they “never did anything and she was prude.” Well, I guess it just depends on the person… so… I’m thinking society doesn’t place enough emphasis… which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because we’re all individuals with diverse opinions and experiences… yeah I guess that’s what I think, haha. Sorry for the ramble! πŸ˜›

    • Valerie says:

      I agree… I think the biggest problem is when people can’t communicate over these things or aren’t mature enough to talk about them. And I hate the whole “he/she doesn’t count” thing because maybe to that person he/she did! I’ve heard people use the whole “if you’re not having sex, then you’re not in a relationship” argument and I find that such BS because many people choose to wait — either till marriage or until they find someone they are comfortable with — and also there are many parts of a relationship that are worthwhile and DON’T involve the physical (even though that IS generally important).

      Thanks for your comment and for sharing your opinion : ) I’m calling you at some point this weekend, btw.

  4. mantatheeloquent says:

    Not enough.
    Everyone seems to want their semi-anonymous hookups to seemlessly segueway into loving relationships, but how often does that really happen? If people were honest with each other about their interest or lack of in the other person as a partner in a relationship, there would be less of the tumultuous, 2-or-so-year-long relationships that everyone seems to get trapped in nowadays. Dating today has become a form of emotionally draining torture, and we only have ourselves to blame for it.

    It would be great to be able to specify your relationship status confidently and without confusion, but labelling your relationship has become somewhat taboo. (Commitment-phobes rejoice!) Is it asking too much to want to know what you’re getting into?

    Well, that’s my two cents. Haha.
    Thanks for the thought-provoking post!

    • Valerie says:

      Thank you for your comment! That’s very true… people try to find meaning in an entirely meaningless hookup and then they get stuck with someone they are completely incompatible with. I really wish our generation was more open to just dating casually before launching into something really serious… and by dating casually, I don’t mean jumping right into bed… I mean getting to know one another and talking and doing non-sexual things that the two people enjoy, finding common ground that way instead of just following lust.

      I agree — some people are afraid of commitment and therefore unwilling to put in a label. But at the very least, you want to know how exclusive a relationship is and what to call the other person when introducing him/her to your friends or family (or if things are even headed that way).

      Thank you for your comment : ) I’m glad you liked!

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