A rose is a rose is a rose. And a partner is a partner, a [gender]friend, a paramour, a fiancé/e, a spouse, a lover – but what do these terms even entail? If you repeat a word enough times it starts to lose its meaning. Then you’ll have to find other words to describe it.

Shakespeare got one thing right about relationships | alexfelicia.net
Shakespeare got one thing right about relationships

When I first got into relationship anarchy, I had nothing against labels. As I have mentioned previously, relationship anarchy is for me more of a philosophical framework than a practical way to structure my relationships. Hence I don’t really see a contradiction in being a relationship anarchist and monogamous, for instance. The realisation that relationships are fluid and difficult to define, and that there is no fundamental difference between different kinds of relationships – that the labels we use only imply that certain components are present or missing in a specific relationship – doesn’t stop you from preferring to focus emotional and sexual interest on one person. And it certainly doesn’t stop you from attaching labels to your relationships.

Though this is still very much my view on things, I have become more and more wary of using labels myself.

Relationships don't fit in checkboxes | alexfelicia.net

The Power of a Name

In fantasy fiction, there is a trope about true names. A name that perfectly describe the essential nature of a thing gives you power over the thing itself. And I’m sure it’s easy to feel that way about relationships. We’re “dating”, we’re “in a relationship”, we have a “partner” or a “girl-/boyfriend”. If we’re poly, maybe we have a “primary partner”.

Perhaps we have discussed what the labels we use mean with the people involved, or perhaps everyone’s walking around assuming things. Either way, everyone involved will attach their own meanings to the terms. Limits are drawn, frames constructed. You get a feeling of stability.

A false sense of security.

For what happens when something changes? To use a common example: What happens when you’re no longer enjoying that new relationship energy, when the immediate passion fades? What happens if your feelings wax and wane? Or, for that matter: What happens if external circumstances break the label? Let’s have a look at an example.

Treacherous Crutches

Person A has a relationship with person B: someone they love, whom they call their primary partner. A also has a few lovers, some of whom they harbour romantic feelings for, but B is the only one they love. Until A’s feelings for one of their lovers start to deepen, and they realise that this is no longer true. There are now two people they love, and it suddenly becomes really difficult to justify calling one of them “primary” simply because B was there first.

They end up having to remove the label, not because the relationship itself has changed, but the circumstances around it. But this is not a painless process: B has used the label as a way of handling their jealousy. Suddenly bereft of this security, B is thrust into an emotional crisis, which obviously affects the relationship as a whole.

I’m not saying there wouldn’t have been a problem if they hadn’t used the word “primary” to begin with. Having grown up in the narrative of monogamous love, coming to terms with your partner harbouring deep feelings for someone other than you can be a difficult process. What this example shows is that using labels doesn’t necessarily make this process easier – and sometimes they do quite the opposite. If you come to rely on a crutch too much, you’ll be even worse off when it’s kicked out from under you.

Bending Versus Breaking

If a relationship is defined based on a specific emotion (such as romatic love), by definition that relationship has to dissappear when the emotion no longer exist. If a relationship becomes synonymous with its name, the relationship disappears if the name is changed.

Borders and limits are not moved easily. As the person who introduced me to RA put it: “When the mould no longer fits, it will break.”

A label can provide a sense of control over your relationship, and might make it feel stronger. But I would say what it actually does is make it brittle. Basically, labelling a relationship means that in all likelihood, sooner or later, you will have to break up.

Better, I think, to let relationships bend to be the shape they will be. At any given moment you might state that right now, the relationship encompasses certain emotional components, and involves a certain level of physical intimacy. None of this needs to carry an implicit promise of permanence. This is about letting go of expectations and learning to live in the now (trite as that may sound). And to avoid nailing a frame around what you have, only to later discover that the frame no longer fits.

A broken frame is not a broken painting. | alexfelicia.net
A broken frame is not a broken painting.

This is not to say that I, as a relationship anarchist, simply leave any troubles untouched. If I have an issue that I can’t solve myself, I bring it up with my partner and we talk about possible solutions. But I always remain open to the possibility that there may not be a way to solve a particular problem that doesn’t impose unacceptable limits on anyone involved. I may have to either simply have to learn with it, or accept that the relationship may have to change shape to accomodate.

This view of relationships as amorphous and evolving allows for continual renegotiation instead of getting stuck in that much too familiar rut of trying to fix the unfixable. Where you both/all end up growing ever more unhappy, and finally breaking apart entirely.

In Defense of Labels

I do miss labels sometimes, especially when talking to outsiders. When I mention someone close to me to my parents and call them my “friend” because trying to explain what role they have in my life would get too complicated and intimate, I sort of feel like I’m lying. But it’s not much of a price to pay for what, at least so far, has been a very fruitful way of handling my relationships.

Finally, all of this is of course a matter of preference. There are plenty of poly people who feel more comfortable with labels, definitions and/or hierarchies than without. I say what I always say: Whatever works, works.

Also, there are obviously physical circumstances that affect how you treat your relationships. If you cohabit with a partner, it’s natural to prioritise the health of that relationship over all others simply. As for promises of permanence, which I otherwise find very problematic, they are quite understandable if you want to start a family with someone, or make some other serious investment that will make it difficult to simply let go of each other.

In the end, what I really wish for is that more people spent more time actually considering what sort of relationships suit them best. If you come to the conclusion that you enjoy the narrative, feel free to stay in it – as long as you don’t just default to it without considering alternatives.

Like the relationships themselves, both my preferences and opinions on these things are always evolving. Writing texts like these is one way I help myself think deeper and decide what feels best for me. I hope that reading this blog post will have given you some insights of your own, and please do share them!

One thought on “On Relationships and the False Security of Labels”

  1. This is super insightful. I really wish that we could truly approach labels as descriptors rather than tools of enforcement and/or methods by which to avoid conversations.

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