Deciding what labels to use for your connections can be tiresome. Some labels seem sort of right, others seem completely wrong, maybe there are one or two you identify strongly with. Perhaps none are quite right. Some people choose to completely eliminate labels, others feel they need to have a word to describe their connections, their feelings, or the type of relationship they’re involved in. No matter which category you fit into, there comes a time when labels start to fail you and you need to find a new way of looking at things. If you want to toss labels out completely – go for it! In some ways it is a lot more genuine when you don’t see someone in the context of a certain label. In other ways it can feel like you’re just not sure what to call things, or you’re not 100% positive where you stand with people. Either option is fine. It’s up to you if you want to keep labels around or not. For those who decide they do want labels (at least to use when explaining to others or even just for when thinking to themselves), there are two ways you can go about changing the labels you are currently stuck on. You can decide to choose new labels all together, or you can decide to redefine the old labels you already have.
Choosing New Labels
Now, choosing new labels tends to be easier for society to understand. They have preconceived notions about what it means when you use certain labels, so if your main goal is to change the way society views you, you might as well go ahead and change the label which you currently have so that people won’t be confused by what your relationship dynamic looks like. However, this can be extremely internally upsetting as it often does not reflect what you truly feel defines you.
Redefining Old Labels
On the other hand you can choose to completely redefine the old labels you already have by just changing or recreating the definition of what the label means to you (allowing it to include or exclude any new relationship dynamic, format, etc. while keeping it all under the same title), but this can be quite confusing for society to understand. Of course, is that really your problem? It really depends on what you want to focus on – how you see yourself, or how others see you.
Times You May Have To Make The Decision
There are many places where this decision of whether to choose new labels or redefine the old labels come into play. Often times people only think about romantic relationships as they grow or change and the ‘what are we now?’ talk. But labels span over a multitude of areas, covering all relationship and connection types. At what point does an acquaintance become a friend? At what point does a friend become an acquaintance? Do your children call your good friends by name, or do they call them aunt or uncle? Is a step-parent labeled mom/dad or are they simply known by name? How do people see you? How do you see yourself? How do you see your connections? Which labels make the most sense to you? Which labels are important to you? Are close friends considered family? Are family you’re not close to considered acquaintances? Does there need to be a legally binding ceremony for your girlfriend to become your wife? Can you call a mentor your dad/mom? What about friends who are more like siblings, or siblings who you also consider your friends? What labels do you decide to use, and when do you decide to use them?
Unique Family Structures
I want to first take a look at a situation where society may have a very differing point of view. This particular situation is one where a man has given sperm to a friend in order to help her conceive a child. They have an agreement that the man has no legal rights to the child and no financial obligations, however, he is still a good friend of the woman and intends to be around as a good role model for the child. What do you call this man when referring to him while in conversation with the child? He has taken a secondary position in the child’s life. Perhaps you could choose a new label, relabeling him something such as uncle, since the relationship dynamic may look that way to society. Maybe you don’t want to confuse the child or have their idea of father clash with the way society views that label. Or, you could simply call him dad/father and allow for the possibility that fathers can take all sorts of roles in a child’s life. It doesn’t mean he cares more or less. Everyone’s family looks different. Society may see the position he has taken as a father as some sort of lacking or avoiding responsibility. Society may not understand. But there is no problem with the child still viewing this man as father, as long as that is what the parents want for the child. It is up to them to decide what label works best.
Friendship or Romantic Relationship
Another example is a friendship. What defines a friendship? What makes it different than a romantic relationship? Take the idea of a friendship that has the added component of a sexual relationship. It can still be labeled as just being friends. It can also be labeled as ‘friends with benefits.’ Society may see two people who have an intimate sexual relationship and label them bf/gf, but you need only take on those labels if you so choose to. There is also the case of romantic relationships that do not have a sexual component. Now some of these are asexual relationships that are 100% gf/bf relationships, just without sex. Others are gf/bf relationships that have since lost the sexual component. In which case the people involved can decide to change their label to friendship, or they may decide to continue the gf/bf label as they still feel it fits their situation and the way they feel. Then, of course, there relationships with ONLY a sexual component and nothing else – do you label those people as your partners, or a booty call, or what? Well…that depends on you.
Marriage (or Something Like It)
There is also the example of a married couple (or throuple, etc.) where the people involved do not live together. Some people in society feel it isn’t really marriage if you aren’t living together (just as they think it isn’t a serious relationship if you aren’t riding the relationship escalator together). There are then the topics of whether or not you co-parent, or co-mingle finances, etc. If you don’t have the typical image that people think of when they think of what ‘marriage’ means, does that mean you drop the label all together? Or do you simply redefine it to mean whatever it is you’re currently doing?
This brings us to my next example – relationship anarchy. Relationship anarchy is a way of forming relationships based off of what everyone involved needs and wants, not just what is ‘expected’. In this type of relationship forming you cannot add things into a relationship unless BOTH people want it. It isn’t the “Fine I guess I’ll do This for you because you’re doing That for me.” Nothing is added unless it is consensually agreed upon. No assumptions about the relationship, only what you have discussed and decided. In that way you can form relationships that have what you really want and need without having to deal with the stuff you really don’t. You can combine any type of relationship aspects, from domestic items (such as cohabitation) to legal/creative/business partners, deciding how often you’d like to communicate and what types of physical contact is okay (if any). Everything is talked about before hand, and readjusted as need be. So, how do you label these unique relationships? You label them however you want to.
If you’re working with someone on a business but you also decide to add sex into the equation you can just say you’re having sex with your business partner, or you can say they’re your lover or your partner or your gf/bf, etc. As long as both people agree to the label, it really doesn’t matter what you decide to call it. If you cohabitate and but don’t share finances but raise a child together but don’t have any sexual component but go on romantic dates and cuddle but don’t attend any family events together…what do you call that? Anything you want to. Even if you’re just in a typical societally normal romantic relationship you can still choose which labels you use – partner, gf/bf, wife/husband, dom/sub, master/slave, daddy/mommy, etc. Some are more appropriate than others in certain circumstances, and my personal favorite is partner because I feel it is all inclusive and naturally can translate into meaning anything you want it to, but it’s completely up to you and your partners’ preference on how you label your relationship(s).
Using Society’s Label Preferences
This brings us to the topic of when using society’s label preferences makes sense, instead of redefining terms (or even picking new but confusing or inappropriate terms). For instance, if you and your partner refer to each other in the terms of kink, this is probably not an acceptable way to refer to each other during work or around family (maybe it is, I don’t know your family or where you work…but it’s something to think about). Another obvious one is when you’re in government buildings or dealing with any legal paperwork. While filing taxes or going through court it is probably best to just refer to your spouse as such, or to state you’re single if you aren’t legally married, etc. Not everyone needs to be involved in, or know all the details of, your love life. Same goes for conversations where there is no place for learning and it will only cause problems, such as conversations with priests or other religious figures. Sometimes it isn’t worth it to be seen for who you truly are. But even if you can’t be out and proud at every jury duty you attend or DMV trip you make, don’t be sad, there is plenty of time out around people who actually give a shit to let your freak flag fly.
Polyamory IS A Redefinition
OKAY, I want to discuss the obvious one here. Polyamorists have a knack, from the get-go, of redefining labels (as do other members of the LGBTQIA+ community). It’s the essence of polyamory to redefine the main label that is at the base of what it means to be polyamorous. And that label is – love. We have chosen to change this label from the typical idea society has about it, transforming it from meaning a relationship between only two people into meaning the feeling you can have for many in many relationships. Polyamory is all about redefining labels to better suit your reality. Labels are there for you to help you define yourself. When a label no longer fits you, you can either throw it out or decide to see it in a new light. The choice is up to you.
The Choice Is Yours – To Redefine or Not To Redefine
Yes, you can put any label you want on things (or have no label at all). Whether society understands or not, it’s about what you have between the two (or more) of you that matters and what YOU want to call it. Labels are only meaningful when you choose to have them take on meaning. Otherwise they’re just a form of judging or comparing for society’s sake. In the end, it doesn’t matter if you call your dad your uncle, your brother your acquaintance, your wife your gf, or your orthodontist your lover as long as you do what is best for you and the others involved. There is always a time for finding new labels, whether for society’s comfort or your own, but learning to redefine terms is a very powerful skill. It can even help you form more full and beneficial relationships that can stand the test of time, change, and transition, because the focus is no longer on how society sees you, but how you see yourself.