DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I recently started seeing my friend’s ex and we’ve slept together a couple of times. I was friends with both of them for 4 years before they started dating. A (the ex) and I always had a spark between us but it was the kind of situation where one of us was always in a relationship.
A couple of months ago my friend and A broke up. and A confessed his feelings to me. My friend is on board, but I’m not ready to be exclusive. I really want this to work and I honestly see a big future for us but I don’t think either of us are ready to be in a serious relationship.
I still want to explore my bisexuality and A has only ever been in that one relationship.
How can I define this relationship as “undefined” so that neither of us get hurt?
Keep It Casual
DEAR KEEP IT CASUAL: I think you’re asking the wrong question, KIC – or at the very least, coming at this from the wrong direction. The mistake you’re making is that you’re assuming that not “defining” the relationship is going to somehow insulate you from… what, a bad break up? Getting hurt if you decide you want to pursue something with someone else that allows you to explore your bisexuality? You don’t say… which, honestly, is the problem.
The problem with your approach to this is that, frankly, a lot of folks use the “I don’t like labels” or “I prefer our relationship to be undefined” are often really saying “I don’t want to be obligated to someone else” or “I don’t want to be monogamous, but I don’t to have to talk to my partner about it either”. The folks who tend to be the most outspoken of “I don’t do labels” know that if they were to tell their partner that they don’t want to be monogamous, their partner would probably leave. So by saying “oh, we don’t believe in labels” or “I prefer to keep our relationship undefined”, they think they get a “Get Out of Consequences Free” card for when they’re caught f--king around. “Oh, you can’t get mad at me, we didn’t have labels…”
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that’s what you are doing. But it certainly seems like you’re trying to avoid having potentially awkward conversations which is a mistake.
Here’s the thing: definitions – or the lack thereof – aren’t going to be what get you hurt or keep you from getting hurt. Definitions don’t hurt people; what they do is set expectations. When we say “this person is my boyfriend/girlfriend/partner”, “we’re dating”, or “we’re casual”, then what you’re doing is setting the expectations of what that relationship entails. If you say that someone’s your partner, then there’s generally an expectation of commitment; you may not be planning marriage and kids or even moving in together, but there’s a level of “this is what we expect from one another.” The same is true for a “casual” relationship, an open one or a monogamous one… you’re saying “these are what we can expect from this relationship.” You are, for all intents and purposes, laying the ground rules for what you and your snuggglebunny want and expect from each other.
Now obviously, if you break those agreements or fail to meet those expectations, then people get hurt. But not having those expectations or agreements doesn’t magically insulate you or them from pain; if anything, it can increase the likelihood of hurt feelings or tripping over a landmine you didn’t expect. All it means is that neither of you discussed things, and that’s not great for the short or long-term health of your relationship. In fact, not having any definitions can actually work against your stated goal of nobody getting hurt.
The issue with an “undefined” relationship is that a lot of folks take that to mean “well, we didn’t define things, so you can’t get hurt or upset if I do X or Y”, but that’s not how relationships work. Hell, that’s not how anything works. Because you didn’t discuss things, you have no real idea of what A is expecting from you, nor does A have any idea of what you want or expect. Knowing these things can be important, because it sets expectations and gives clarity about what is and isn’t going to happen and what you can expect from one another.
Just because you haven’t defined the relationship, that doesn’t mean that you or your partner aren’t going to accidentally step on each others’ toes. Potential break ups won’t be easier because the relationship didn’t have a name or a label. Nor, for that matter, does being “undefined” magically keep them from being hurt if you decide to pursue something with another person, or keep them from developing feelings for you. And not having a definition – or a mutually agreed up on idea of what to expect – ups the risk of things going badly.
As one example of how definitions or a lack thereof can help or harm, let’s talk about handling casual relationships. One of the issues that comes up with a casual relationship – especially one where the people involved didn’t define their terms – is that people take that as license to treat their partners casually. Ella Dawson has an excellent essay about how people handle “casual” sex, which is well worth reading. She describes the heartbreak of dealing with folks who clearly liked her and who she liked, but who seemed to think that any sort of consideration, kindness or even public acknowledgement might give the wrong idea.
So, rather than working to avoid labels, if you want to minimize the likelihood of unnecessary pain, then I would suggest you should define your relationship. Because, honestly, you have a relationship; it’s just a question of what kind and what you expect from one another. And right now, you don’t know what that is. I mean, you say it yourself: “I don’t think either of us are ready to be in a serious relationship”. Ok… but have you actually asked A this? Or are you assuming this because A just broke up with someone? If you haven’t actually discussed this with him, then you’re running the risk that your assumptions aren’t lining up with his expectations.
But then again… they might be! But if you haven’t talked things through with him, then you have no way of knowing if that’s the case. So, rather than hope that by not labeling it, things will work out, it’s better to take the time to talk to A about your relationship and what you both want, need and and don’t want from this. Having this sort of DTR talk doesn’t mean you’re agreeing to commitment that you don’t want, it just clarifies what you two have and expect from one another.
For example: it sounds like you don’t want an expectation of monogamy; you want to explore your bisexuality and that may mean dating other people besides A. That’s all well and good… so don’t tell me this, tell A. He’s the one who needs to know this. Similarly, you say that you don’t think you are ready for a “serious” relationship. Again: that’s legit. But what, exactly, does “serious” mean to you? Do you know for certain that A feels the same way and that A has the same definition of “serious” that you do? A may be on the same page about wanting something a little less committed… or he may have a different idea of what a “serious” relationship would entail. Serious to you might mean “on the path to living together and/or marriage” while to A, it may mean “introducing you to his family” or “telling people that he’s your boyfriend”.
What things are off the table for you? Yes, you want to explore, but does that mean you may be more open to “seriously” dating someone else besides A? In addition to A? Are you categorically opposed to the possibility of moving in together, even if that were months or years down the line? What about traveling together or going on vacations and or weekend getaways? Is that on the “no” list as well? You’re not going to introduce yourselves as “partners” or what-have-you, but are you openly seeing each other or do you expect to keep the details of this relationship on a need-to-know basis?
Another thing you should talk about: what do you expect from one another, even in this theoretically “undefined” relationship? Are you hoping to see each other once a week? Every couple of weeks? Are you both looking for companionship and sex, or are you open to the possibility of feelings growing between you? Are you open to the potential of this becoming serious, or is that entirely off the table for an undefined amount of time?
Does this mean that you’re putting some kind of label on this? Yeah, it does, even if it’s just “friends with benefits” or “casual”. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, or that it goes against what you want. If anything, hashing things out now makes it much easier to avoid unnecessary pain down the line when the “undefined” part of your relationship comes around to bite you or A on the ass.
And that will almost definitely happen if you’re hoping that keeping things “undefined” means that you think you won’t have to talk about these issues with A.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, firstname.lastname@example.org