What Is Romance? What Makes Hooking Up and Hanging Out Different Than a Relationship?

a silver label maker
Image by Jamie / CC BY

If Labels Are for Organization, Then I Guess I’m a Bit of a Mess

“So what are you looking for? Something casual? Dating? A relationship? Something romantic?” she asks me.

And it takes me a long time to formulate an answer to the question. Not because I’m not interested. And not because I don’t care about her. I do. I just figure I’ll know which scenario will fit us best when we get there.

Finally, I say, “I’m open to lots of things. I could do something casual. I could do something serious. I just follow the energy.”

And I can tell it’s not the answer she’d really want from me. But I don’t know what else I could say that would still also be honest.

I’m really bad about caring about labels. I get that they’re really important to other people.

The truth is that if we hook up some of the time that I hang out with you, that’s basically a relationship to me. Whether the other person agrees with me. Or whether I can tell anyone else.

I did have a person I saw in the past who wanted to make sure I knew “we’re NOT dating, this is friends with benefits.” I didn’t really mind, but I was confused as to why that distinction had to be made. The label didn’t really change what we did. We still went to dinner together. Had sex and good conversation.

Apparently Labels Help Establish Future Expectations

I ask Gull, a wise monogamous friend of mine, about the difference between romance, hooking up, hanging out versus having a relationship. I tell her about my former friend with benefits situation. “As far as I’m concerned, that’s basically a relationship, too,” Gull says.

“I’ve always been sketchy about it,” I say. “I have my private conception of what is going on. Even if it doesn’t mesh with what they think. Friends with benefits. Dating. Romance. What is any of it, really?”

“Well, I do get some delineation,” she says. “I think it’s the future expectations that come with that label. Because if you’re friends with benefits, you don’t really have a claim to the future, whereas if you’re dating, you’re usually dating towards a future. Like the relationship is the same, but the future expectations are different.”

“Huh,” I say.

“But you’ve always seemed more of a roll with the punches sort of girl, so I can see why you would be like ‘I’m not worried about the future expectations. I’m just handling the now expectations.'”

“That’s funny,” I say. “Maybe I’m negative. I always assume people can break up, whether or not there’s a ‘relationship’ in place.  Including marriage. For example, I don’t wanna divorce, but it could happen. Morbid, I know. Unlikely. But not impossible.”

“I get that. But in a relationship, you’re at least planning to try,” Gull says. “So a breakup can happen but with friends with benefits, you’re planning to end it probably.  At some point. I mean, I guess it could go on indefinitely, but you’re never planning to make it something more. With a relationship, you’re trying to make it something.”

In Which Gull Says I’m Riding Dolphins

“This is seriously fascinating to me. Justin says I’m really weird about relationships, so sometimes things hit me as funny that are obvious or standard to others,” I say.

“I think it has to do with the relationship escalator,” she says. “And you’re not really on the escalator. You’re off in a pool riding dolphins.”

“That’s a hell of an image.”

“It’s how I see you,” Gull says. “Toxic monogamy is like a closed off stairwell. Two by two, rigid. More aware monogamy is like an escalator at the mall. Still two by two, but you can move around a little and get a view of things around you. Honor student polyamory is like a lazy river. No defined end, but lots of etiquette and rules. More variation in how you can travel though. And you’re off in the ocean riding dolphins and avoiding sharks.”


Note: I later went on to write a followup post after this one came out. You can read it here.


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1 Comment

  1. I’d really like to hear more on this topic. From the time I read the article, I keep thinking about it and wonder: Why do labels matter to me, and sometimes, why don’t they?

    On one hand, are labels a shortcut way of communicating wants and desires? Or could it be a poor substitute for proper communication? I believe when talking about the person to outsiders, a label is useful though incomplete.

    Are those labels part of a determination of what kind of effort and emotion should go into the relationship?

    Do we wind up creating labels because it becomes a chore to explain when someone asks?

    I blame my desire for labels on lack of communication more than how to describe it to others. A year and a half ago I had a short term sexual relationship with a coworker who said she wanted me as a partner and a Dominant. It didn’t last long and I was hurt more than she, and for a while I was asking “what were we, and what kind of friends are we now” Still no definition, or any definition of what she wants or needs from me as a friend now. And yet, the kink group that I introduced her to, where she plays and has sex (turns out without her nesting partner’s knowledge), she doesn’t consider them friends. A bit beside the point, but a definition of some sort would have been helpful then. Was I a friend with benefits, was I a potential partner. How much emotion did I want to invest in the relationship, how much emotion was wanted from me?

    We talk about the ideal of communication, especially in the poly community and frequently in your blog posts. Are labels perhaps a start?

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