Two days ago, I yelled at my computer after reading a series of articles across the web. In them, the writers describe the exact relationship I currently find myself in: one in which we’ve passed the casual hook-up phase, but have put the brakes on the full-blown relationship for the time being. But instead of describing it as "the grey area between only texting after 11 p.m. and meeting his mother, but he also has contact solution at my place," the internet’s relationship-defining experts call what I have a "situationship."
I saw red — and not because I was forced to confront the in-between-ness of something I’m happily participating in. (In fact, he and I are quite content with a little breathing room to figure out if we want to pursue things more seriously, thank you very much.) It’s because, once again, the internet has given a cutesy name to a relationship behaviour people are unhappy with.
Think about it: There’s a litany of one-liners that we give certain relationship behaviours. It started with "ghosting" — when the person you’re seeing disappears out of the blue and you’re convinced they’ve died or have been rendered mute. Then there was "breadcrumbing" — when a person you want to date and/or get naked with sends out a series of non-committal text messages that slowly drive you insane. Breadcrumbing, by the way, is not to be confused with "benching" — when you keep a couple of partners you don’t really like on rotation to soften the blow if the one you really dig ditches you. Those terms gave way to "haunting" — when someone lurks around your social media accounts after the relationship has fizzled. Oh, and don’t forget "spinning" — which is exactly what my damn head does when I realise we’ve successfully turned the vocabulary around dating into something out of a Dr. Seuss book. (See? I can make up names, too.)
These terms — and the behaviour they’re covering up — have had their heydey thanks to online dating. "Traditionally, you’d meet someone through friends or at work, so it was harder to just disappear," says Rachel Sussman, a relationship counsellor and expert in NYC. "Now, when you meet someone online, there’s no six degrees of separation. There’s no accountability. So you can disappear and feel confident you’re never going to run into them again in your life." Essentially, our digital lives enable us to bestow dad-joke-level names upon shit behaviour. If you can LOL or send a poop emoji for a crappy day, you can surely ghost.
And there’s a reason we give names to relationship behaviours we can’t make sense of. "When you feel bad about something, it helps to hash things out, and we tend to get a little jokey," Sussamn says. "That humour is a way to diffuse our pain and our hurt, and help us feel validated." I get that, because I do it in everyday life — and not just about relationships. I stub my toe on almost every corner I come in contact with, but I make a joke of my clumsiness every time it happens in order to diffuse the embarrassment. Laughing about being blown off by the person we split nachos with last Thursday helps us feel like we’re not the reason they didn’t call back.
We’re faux-labeling to avoid meaningful labels, and to evade the possibility of rejection that comes from scary conversations.
But let’s be real — giving cutesy names to behaviour that we don’t like doesn’t just make us feel better. It normalises the behaviour. If every time you decided to breadcrumb or ghost, you had to actually think, I’m about to completely ditch this person who has shown genuine interest in me without giving them an explanation, because I don’t want to see them anymore and I’m too lazy to consider their feelings, we’d probably be less likely to do that. But instead, we can say "I totally ghosted that person," chuckle, and move on. At the end of the day, we say we "ghost" to avoid recognising that other people have emotions, and we say we’ve been "ghosted" to mask our very real emotions after their existence has been denied.
The same basic dynamic is at play with the term "situationship." A lot of people like labels when it comes to relationships. It adds clarity and helps them communicate their feelings — and there’s nothing wrong with that. But, by giving a term to that grey area between casual sex and serious relationship, we’re only helping couples avoid the scary What are we? conversation. We’re faux-labelling to avoid meaningful labels, and to evade the possibility of rejection that comes from scary conversations.
On paper, the guy I'm dating and I are in a situationship. But since I have to have boundaries in order to exist in a relationship, we’ve hammered that shit out, and drawn our lines in the sand. It was uncomfortable and vulnerable for both of us. But by having that conversation, we’ve reached a point of agreement and coziness in that grey area, and we’re comfortable checking back in should our feelings change.
So I, for one, am doing away with the cutesy names and embracing the discomfort that comes with certain dating behaviours. Ghosting is no longer acceptable — I’ll be telling the person I’m not interested in that I’m actually not interested in them, instead of leaving them hanging. And instead of labelling the in-between bits of relationships out of fear, I’ll collect my strength and force myself to have the uncomfortable conversations with my partner about where we stand. Dating is hard, but it won’t get easier by putting a Band-Aid over bad behaviour and calling it something that trivialises the actions and feelings involved. And the more we start admitting the discomfort, the more comfortable we’ll be.