Our generation relishes in our lack of relationship labels. We exist in a social sphere with much more romantic and sexual freedom than ever before. We can attribute at least some of that freedom to the fact that we can commit to having sex or any kind of physical intimacy without having to commit to a label, and thus a relationship. I argue, though, that this makes our romantic and sex lives more about the experiences than the people.
After all, if I never call someone my ‘significant other,’ it cannot be very significant to choose to stop seeing them, which therefore absolves me of any significant reflection about how I end things with them. I find this ironic because measured in time spent with each other and the physical intimacy achieved, this person would definitely be considered significant, but the lack of a label allows me to keep them at a distance. Most importantly, the lack of a label devalues any reaction I might have to someone ending a consistent hookup with me, and vice versa. It feels wrong, at least to me, to get mopey about a sneaky link cutting me off despite the fact that in doing so, I definitely lost a person with whom I have built a great amount of (at least) physical intimacy and pleasure.
Over the summer I called into question this nonchalance toward cutting off all romantic partners that never earned the title of “MY partner” when it came time to actually tell them that I would not be seeing them any longer. Even though we had spent loads of time together out getting drinks, going for walks or in bed, I was incredibly tempted to dismiss it all and just use my lablelessness as a fog cover to fade away into obscurity.
Honestly, the main thing holding me back from doing so was the fact that some of my sneaky links still had my belongings that I foolishly left behind and needed returned, which necessitated an in person meeting. These meetings were incredibly awkward because at this point in my mind I was already done with the romantic and sexual part of our relationship even though they had not yet come to the same conclusion.
It often came down to a cost-benefit analysis of weighing the discomfort of directing my body language away from them compared to how much I did not feel like kissing them. At one point this manifested a twenty minute walk spent with arms folded and in pockets, sweating profusely as I kept my distance from the man I was determined to see for the last time. At another time, this meant sharing a kiss on a street corner the morning after I had realized I no longer wanted to be romantically entangled with her.
And, when I did opt for a virtual let-down — which met with sadness, paranoia and anger — I hesitate to admit that one of my reactions was to dismiss the relationship as a whole. When he expressed how upset he was, I just pointed out that we never had labeled anything and therefore I did not owe him anything by way of explanation. Upon reflection, this makes no sense. Sure, calling someone your boyfriend or girlfriend or Partner is a way of cementing their value in your life, but consistently choosing to spend your time with someone is another way to do that. Choosing to share your body with someone, to pleasure them and let them pleasure you in return, is still another way. So now I face the truth that while I never made the decision to crown my relationships with labels, I did regularly decide that I would give my time to these people and thus let them influence my life just as I certainly influenced theirs.
To be clear, I love the absence of any pressure to label a relationship — I have gained so many new experiences from the flexibility of modern romantic culture. But I do recognize the reductive and harmful nature of associating that very lack of a label with a lack of culpability for one’s behavior toward romantic partners.
I certainly do not have any easy solutions because nearly every time I have told a consistent hook-up off, it has become rather awkward for both of us. However, maybe this is the problem with the entirety of our modern casual culture. If we were to break up with someone surely we would devote thought and time into how we would do so, and then also expect them to want to talk about it and be sad. Maybe it is time to humanize the people that make all of these new experiences so exciting and give them the attention in phasing them out of our lives just like the attention we gave when inviting them into our lives.
Mike Litoris is a student at Cornell University. Comments can be sent to [email protected]. Meditations of a Masterbater runs during alternate Sex on Thursdays this semester.