What are We?–The Semantics of Relationships


We’re just talking. She’s a friend of mine. He’s not my boyfriend, but we are exclusive. What do you mean?

These responses and closely related others answer the haunting annoying easily manipulated relationship question, “What are we?” If you have dated in the late 90s and beyond, you have undoubtedly had this conversation with someone that you were “seeing.” Introducing, semantics, the study of meaning; specifically the relation between words and what they come to signify and mean.

Growing up, I was a huge “Saved by the Bell” fan, and was wildly disappointed with my high school experience because of it. While that’s fodder for another post, I never recall Zach talking to Kelly. Slater and Jessie weren’t seeing each other. Nope. If either one of the guys wanted to go on a date, they had to ask the ladies to be boyfriend and girlfriend first. This idea now seems foreign. In part because boyfriend and girlfriend are such pressurized, whether real or imagined, terms.

As a wise 18 year old freshman, when I first started to date my soon to be girlfriend, I wisely claimed that I did not want the title. Where did this idea come from, I have no clue. Well that’s not entirely true. In my middle school, the students were not allowed to date because they was a sense of ownership associated with the terms boyfriend and girlfriend that the administration tried to prevent. Thus, I learned and connoted a negative understanding of those terms around the time when dating was a question on my prepubescent mind. So instead, I kid you not, we called each other, partly in jest, “ultimate companions.” Take a second and laugh. Yep, she was my UC.

I remember vividly in high school, around tenth grade, when one of my male friends was describing a party that he recently attended. He told me he hooked up with a girl. Embarrassed to ask what the term meant, I deciphered from context clues that he meant that he kissed and made out with her. Later in my high school career, that term transformed and meant there was some kind of sexual interaction between the two participants, but they were not in a relationship; they were simply hooking up. By that time, boyfriends and girlfriends seemingly became obsolete. In college, the boyfriends and girlfriends were people who “were known” to constantly hook up and maybe went on a few dates. And then there were myriads of people stuck in the limbo of relationship semantics, having and/or avoiding the question, “What are we?” The semantics of dating changed and allowed for many to retain their friends with benefits status, yet, at the same time, remain single.

Once a woman, I dated (not boyfriend and girlfriend, we went out on a couple dates) wanted to be “exclusive” with me. I told her that I wanted to remain single. She resigned. Conversation dodged. We dated a few more times. The second time she brought up the “What are we?” talk, I asked what she meant; like boyfriend and girlfriend? No, she quickly responded, just exclusive.

Wait, what?

Confused, I asked her what the difference was and she could not tell me. Ahhh semantics, you win again. I responded that I did not want to be exclusive, though she was the only one I was dating. Once again, she resigned her push for “exclusivity.” A few days later, I “left” her (sidenote: can I say that I dumped her; we weren’t dating or boyfriend and girlfriend…another point for semantics…) because I told her that I could not give her what she wanted, even though she was willing to stay in our “relationship.” Similarly, I know countless women and men who continue to swaddle and squirm in this uncomfortable, undefined, yet overly populated pool of semantics.

Sadly, it seems that the simple “Save By the Bell” days are gone, and the confusion of semantics are here to stay. Yet, I firmly believe that if you are not happy in your “relationship” or whatever word you use to describe to no one (since very few people actually talk openly about who they dating…as if everyone is a celebrity and who they messing with needs to remain a mystery until they secure the highest paying paparazzi for the exclusive story…whatever) then, as always, you have a choice; stay or leave.

If the ultimate goal, for some, is husband or wife, should we not have the language that precedes that step.

Do you agree? Have you been lost in the confusing pool of confusion semantics? Did you get out or stay? Why?


4 thoughts on “What are We?–The Semantics of Relationships

  1. Great blog! I believe most people don’t commit to title of girlfriend/boyfriend b/c they don’t want the responsibilities that come along with the title. It’s easier not define a relationship it allows person the freedom to do as they wish w/o having to answer to anybody. Women & men should stop accepting “friends with benefit” role or the “UC” lol role & set standards & boundaries..

    • what are the responsibilities of girlfriend/boyfriend? does responsibility mean monogamy? not sure…

      I agree with you that folk need to set standards and boundaries, but that requires open communication, which many relationships lack. It also requires people holding those boundaries. For example, if you say that you don’t sleep with people until you are in a committed relationship, then you cannot sleep with me until we are in a committed relationship. if you do, your boundaries are broken and meaningless

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