What Do You Call Each Other?

“Boyfriend.” “Girlfriend.” “Partner.” Any title comes with inferred meanings, so take your time when it comes to finding one you’re comfortable with as you progress into genuine couplehood.

By Sara Hodon

or most singles, the first few weeks of a new relationship are the most exciting. You’re both getting to know each other in all kinds of ways, you can’t get enough quality time together and best of all, you’re getting into that comfortable groove of being a couple.

There’s just one small glitch: You’re not quite sure if you’re a couple yet, but you wouldn’t say you’re “casually” dating this guy or girl, either.
But in some ways, those words just don’t seem to fit.
It’s more like you’re in that murky I’m-not-sure-what-to-call-you stage, and it’s starting to become a bit of an issue. Introductions are a challenge, but you’re finding ways around this. Maybe, for now, you’re simply sticking with using your sweetie’s name (“Mom, Dad, this is Brian”) and letting the person you’re speaking with figure out your status. Or maybe you’re going with the neutral “This is the guy/girl I’m seeing” tactic. Or maybe you’re the type who needs to know a definite status, and you need to know it now.

Figuring it out together
The direction of your relationship — and whether you even want to apply actual titles to each other — must be a mutual decision. Melissa B., a 23-year-old freelance writer and editor from New York City, said that when she and her guy of six years first got together, they called each other “boyfriend” and “girlfriend.” The couple ditched those labels after breaking up, then getting back together, and hasn’t used them since. “We’ve talked about it. But in some ways, those words just don’t seem to fit. After six years of dating, ‘boyfriend’ seems insignificant. It doesn’t truly capture the range of our relationship to each other. When discussing it between ourselves, we just refer to each other as our best friend, a title that each of us values a lot more highly than ‘boyfriend’ or ‘girlfriend,’” Melissa says.

Although you know the exact nature of your bond and, like Melissa, may decide that your relationship goes much deeper than a simple “boyfriend/girlfriend” status, don’t be surprised if the rest of the world doesn’t quite catch on that easily. No matter what you may call each other, your family and friends will use “boyfriend” or “girlfriend” without a second thought simply because it’s easier. But admit it — there is a certain level of comfort in knowing that you can call your guy or girl your “boyfriend” or “girlfriend” and not freak anyone out. “I’m currently dating a great guy I’ve been seeing for almost 10 months, and we still refer to each other as “friend” — which is not exactly my choice!” says Lori F., a 33-year-old illustrator and designer from San Francisco. “Dating Dave has made me realize how much I covet the title of ‘girlfriend’ for no particular reason other than the sense of security it can bring.”

It’s for this same sense reassurance — emotional and psychological — that many folks
The timeline for this discussion is different for everyone.
initiate the “Where is this going?” discussion very early on; for some, it might happen only a few weeks into a new relationship. This was the case for Cheryl A., 31, a marketing director from Pennsauken, NJ. She had been seeing her now-husband for only two weeks when she casually brought up the idea of being exclusive. “His response was that he did indeed think of me as his girlfriend, wasn’t seeing anyone else and didn’t want to see anyone else. I don’t think I stopped smiling for about three days, and I was able to talk about ‘my boyfriend’ that weekend instead of ‘the guy I’m seeing’,” Cheryl says. “I think instances like that are key; when it’s right — for the most part — you don’t need to play games or skirt around issues like what your titles should be.”

When to have the “title talk”
The timeline for this discussion is different for everyone, which is why it can be such a delicate (and yes, nerve-wracking) subject to bring up. You may be completely head over heels for someone, but that person may be a little harder to read, and you’re worried that maybe the feeling isn’t mutual. You might want to give it some more thought before initiating the serious, “What should I call you?” talk. Are you really into your date? Are you absolutely sure you’re ready to make the conscious decision to be exclusive, or do you think you can wait to see how things progress organically? Irina Firstein, LCSW, a therapist and relationship expert based in New York City, advises focusing less on the long-term possibilities and more on enjoying each other’s company in those first few weeks. “Anxiety and constant re-evaluation of where the relationship is or is not going can actually be damaging; it’s not sexy,” Firstein says. “Forget the title; look at what’s going on, how the other person treats you, whether you’re growing closer or further apart. Look at your date’s actions. Remember, women like using words, but for men, it’s a person’s actions that speak the loudest.”

But don’t let outside influences pressure you into defining your relationship, either. If you’re both fine with keeping things casual, you don’t have to defend your status to anyone. In the meantime, give yourself permission to stop worrying and loosen up a little, and then see what happens. Stacy Kaiser, author of How to Be a Grown Up, suggests giving your relationship as much time as necessary for it to blossom into something special. “Titles should never be based on timelines, age, or past relationships. They should be based on mutual comfort between two individuals. When you are both in agreement about the label — whether it’s one day in or five years in — that’s when that label should be put on your relationship.”

Sara Hodon is a freelance writer based in Northeast Pennsylvania. She is a former columnist for Online Dating Magazine and has not written a book about her experiences in the online dating world (but easily could).
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