Learning a New Language to Talk About Relationships
January 2, 2019 10:31 AM   Subscribe

How would striking the words "friend", "boyfriend" and "girlfriend" from your vocabulary and using the word "relationship" instead change how you relate to people? Try conceiving of your relationships in terms of Time, Touch and Talk. Putting this into practice by talking to people you care about opens new possibilities for commitment outside the binary of romantic and sexual relationships. The Big Picture - community, trust and primary relationships. This four part series appears on Love from the Asexual Underground.
posted by stoneweaver (37 comments total) 49 users marked this as a favorite


 
I mostly already do that; I'm much more likely to say "partner" or "spouse" than one of the gendered equivalents. I would never refer to my hypothetical partner as "my relationship" though, the relationship is a different thing.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 10:39 AM on January 2 [8 favorites]


Although I guess I glossed over much of the point of this exercise. I still think referring to people as "relationships" is a poor fit though; the relationship is the thing in between me and the other person, not the other person themselves. Conflating the two seems like it carries a pretty big cost.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 10:52 AM on January 2 [31 favorites]


In my circles almost everyone uses non-gendered terms if they use any rigid terms at all and it is pretty great and inclusive. I also now almost always default to neutral pronouns until self defined, and it also makes things easier and more inclusive once you get around the initial awkwardness of retraining your vocabulary.

Granted I live with a bunch of queerdo forest punks and hippies and stuff, and there's a ton of non-binary folks around.

One of the relationship issues I've been personally grappling with is my possessiveness, jealousy and neediness and weird crap like that. Which aren't attractive traits considering the kinds of generally pan/poly folks I am most attracted to.

This is educational and helpful. Thanks.
posted by loquacious at 10:55 AM on January 2 [10 favorites]


Try reading the third link for more ways of talking about relationships beyond those terms. He's definitely considered and explored how this works in everyday conversation.
posted by stoneweaver at 11:00 AM on January 2


Certainly this phrasing isn’t completely new. LTR (long term relationship) and LDR (long distance relationship) are ways I’ve seen it used to describe people.

I do have a friend who already employs this, sort of. When I mentioned I wasn’t interested in relationships currently, he automatically said “well, you called me to have lunch, so clearly you want to have some relationships.” And I realized that I should be more specific about that, and started saying, from then on, that I wasn’t interested in sexual or romantic relationships.

There’s something unsettling to the whole ownership aspect of the “people” words, too. My friend. My girlfriend. They are not really my anything. They are people with whom I have relationships, and I can get behind this language change, if only for removing the feeling of ownership over people that the language currently implies. Shitty jealous people thinking they own people and getting violent about it don’t need language reaffirming their shitty jealous feelings.
posted by greermahoney at 11:03 AM on January 2 [9 favorites]


I think something I got out of these articles, that I probably should have highlighted more in the post, is thinking about how to have intimacy of all kinds. How to build it and maintain it in contexts that aren't the hetero norm.
posted by stoneweaver at 11:05 AM on January 2 [12 favorites]


Bookmarking for when I'm in a better place for this.

I really wish I had more people around me who valued nonsexual/nonromantic relationships (the culturally typical "friendship"). That has not been my experience, and I'm not in a great place to read about this acetopia where you matter as a person even if you aren't sexually available.

Later, then. Thank you for posting this.
posted by cage and aquarium at 11:10 AM on January 2 [12 favorites]


I love the framework provided in these pieces.

Often the importance of my relationships that aren't sexual in nature is easily downplayed in casual conversation. For instance the level most important relationship in my life is with a person who I will never be romantic with, yet we are committed to each other fully, we love to travel together, we speak in a short hand that nobody else will likely understand, and we snuggle. I am far more committed this relationship than my spousal relationship, same for them, and our spouses know this is part of the deal.

Calling this person my best friend gets at none of this in casual conversation. Instead I can say:
"S and I have been together since we were 14. Despite physical distance we remain close and committed. When we are together we are inseparable."

It is longer than the short hand single word summations, but the important people in my life are going to get more than a few of my words to describe them no matter what.
posted by hannahphi at 11:30 AM on January 2 [9 favorites]


But then how could partnered folk wield partner privilege? [head explodes]

I look forward to reading the series, which I'm sure has some thought-provoking ideas. But from some of the comments above, I see I'm not alone in doubting how many folks would think they are good enough ideas to put into practice. Most folks unthinkingly center sexual/romantic love waayyyy too much in Western culture, way beyond its actual benefits to people.
posted by Sheydem-tants at 11:48 AM on January 2 [2 favorites]


*rapid blinking* Well, this is a blast from the past. David Jay is one of the big people who influenced who I am and how I think about intimacy and attachment--both directly and indirectly, as the AVEN I came up knowing and interacting with was the one that had been directly shaped by him as an online community organizer. (It's changed since, of course, and had changed to the point that I'd walked away from it forever by 2013; still, I had always remembered and loved the aspects shaped particularly by David Jay and Sandra "Ivy" Decker.)

I would agree: Jay is no stranger to living and practicing these ideas in his every day life; when he wrote this, he'd been doing activism and education work for the better part of a decade. As far as I recall from indirect gossip from friends in SF, he's been settled comfortably into an arrangement that works well for him and actually recently became a parent.

I have a hard time saying more sensible things because this was a metaconversation I would have been in the middle of at the time, in between periods of burnout, and it's a community really, really near and dear to my heart. I'll be listening and thinking.
posted by sciatrix at 11:56 AM on January 2 [7 favorites]


There’s something unsettling to the whole ownership aspect of the “people” words, too. My friend. My girlfriend. They are not really my anything.

As much as I like removing possessiveness and jealousy from relationships, I've always thought this line of thought was bean-plating.

We use "my" for all sorts of relationships, including ones where we're subordinate. My boss, my coach, my teacher, my team, my city, my family. Yes, it's grammatically called the "possessive," but it's simply indicative that it relates to "me," not that there's an inherent ownership aspect.
posted by explosion at 12:04 PM on January 2 [82 favorites]


I'm trying to figure out what you call the relationship that isn't romantic or sexual, at least not currently, but you happily and comfortably share just about everything else important, the home, the sewing machine, the Christmas tree, the cats, the responsibility for helping their dad change his diaper....
posted by GenderNullPointerException at 12:11 PM on January 2


Thanks, explosion, for addressing that comment with a ton more grace than I would've been capable of on this particular day.
posted by DrAstroZoom at 12:26 PM on January 2 [2 favorites]


I need more people using non-gendered pronouns in my life as I only have one, who I don’t see very often, so I never get enough practice to use them fluidly. It’s stupid for gender to become A Thing in a conversation just because I can’t structure sentences.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 12:32 PM on January 2 [2 favorites]


Does anybody look at their mother and say 'this is not my mother?' Or at any other member of their family and say 'this is is not my father or sister or brother?'

Removing possessiveness from romances and friendships automatically makes them secondary and second rate compared to family, and at the level of the larger society, makes it almost impossible for romances and friendships to transcend racial and ethnic differences, because such relationships then lose the capacity to expand the families of the people who have them -- unless there are children, and all too often not even then.
posted by jamjam at 1:09 PM on January 2 [2 favorites]


On closer read, there's so much stuff in there about a friend/romance binary that I find baffling as a nearly 50 queer old who has hooked up with friends, not hooked up with friends, broken up with friends, had my heart broken by friends, is having a mild emotional crush on a friend, and who thinks that such exclusivity is likely a big indicator of emotional abuse. One thing I've figured out is that while some people have relationship coloring books, no two people seem to have coloring books by the same publisher.
posted by GenderNullPointerException at 1:30 PM on January 2 [5 favorites]


Does anybody look at their mother and say 'this is not my mother?' Or at any other member of their family and say 'this is is not my father or sister or brother?'

I take your point, but now this is stuck in my head and I have to share that, The Ring style, or it will never leave.
posted by cage and aquarium at 1:46 PM on January 2 [3 favorites]


I think it's interesting how in the last link they start business school.

One interesting tension, at least to me, is how important relationships and community is in the business world. In these organizations, trust, commitment, and true empathy (or the manipulation thereof) can be pretty important for just getting things done.

It just made me think more about the tension between the hard transactional reality of modern corporations and the real human-ness of the constituents that act on their behalf. Good post.
posted by The Ted at 1:48 PM on January 2 [1 favorite]


I like "partner" because it's vague. Are we lawyers? Do we have a business? Do we solve crimes? Do we kiss? Is it all of the above? Nobody can tell, and that's how I like it.
posted by blnkfrnk at 2:12 PM on January 2 [36 favorites]


On closer read, there's so much stuff in there about a friend/romance binary that I find baffling as a nearly 50 queer old who has hooked up with friends, not hooked up with friends, broken up with friends, had my heart broken by friends, is having a mild emotional crush on a friend, and who thinks that such exclusivity is likely a big indicator of emotional abuse.

I suspect DJ would agree with you on that!

For me personally, I remember being fifteen or sixteen, not getting crushes or anything I could recognize as romantic feelings for anyone, being aware that might not happen for me and feeling lost and completely terrified about what my future would look like or how I might access, well, chosen family. My parents do not have friends that visit and are a part of everyday life, and my family of origin is always going to be painful, and even as a teenager I knew that would be true.

But we have so many cultural narratives of everything in life boiling down to the love and affection of a romantic partner. Maybe family of origin (or people who married into that), I suppose, but barring that... Not much. I vividly remember reading the TV Trope page for Nakama ten years ago, the band of close friends you'll see in media that I wanted very badly, and seeing that someone had edited it to the effect of "these aren't realistic, but people who are lonely like these tropes and also they're convenient for shows with limited casts," and thinking "but I don't fall in love in any way that seems distinct from friendship, so what is there for me?"

I remember being sixteen and thinking that, well, eventually everyone around me would pair off, and maybe eventually I could get a dog. I couldn't see another way to acquiring a chosen family, a real one, that didn't involve a central romantic relationship. It was terrifying and lonely.

I still don't see any distinction between friendship and partnership except explicit commitment. My partner is cheerfully comfortable saying our relationship is romantic, but I never did figure out the difference: attachment is attachment is attachment, as far as I'm concerned. I've chilled out enough to move through life letting people read me and my relationships in whatever way they feel comfortable--life is too damn short to pause and go over this as often as I would need to, and it's more convenient to slip under radar much of the time--but when I first got married the weight of other people's expectations about how my partner and I ought to relate to one another hung around my neck like a yoke.

I have found that I am not alone in my insecurities, particularly among women looking for family that doesn't take more than it gives. I think that chosen family is a concept that would benefit more people than the queer folks who forged it out of necessity, and I see this kind of discussion as being a way to explain the value of those concepts more broadly.

Or, you know, we could focus on word choice: always a hazard in this kind of conversation and one that has been driving me nuts for a decade.
posted by sciatrix at 3:28 PM on January 2 [13 favorites]


I admit that I'm more than usually grouchy today having seen my sexuality reduced to a function involving genitals somewhere else.

But it's not the word choice, it's the expressed theory about other people's relationships as dichotomous that rubs me the wrong way. Although I admit to being hypersensitive to this kind of construction given how the myth of bi hypersexuality ended up used against me in abusive ways.
posted by GenderNullPointerException at 4:36 PM on January 2 [4 favorites]


Yeah, it wasn't so much you I was being crabby about there as the general half of the discussion being focused on the possessive pronouns thing. Oof, though, the thing you describe does sound obnoxious. I'd be annoyed, too.

*thoughtful* In some ways, I think I'm also going... I have the context to know DJ and what he's stood for within my communities and what he's reacting to, which is not "how queer people do sexuality and intimacy" but "how mainstream straight culture creates these harmful ideas about romance/relationships that puts all this pressure on people." Like, I have the context of knowing the kinds of things he's done and promoted for the last twenty years, which obv not everyone does have.

It might be helpful to know that he's pretty heavily and obviously influenced by queer culture theorizing--in particular there are old deep ties between bi and ace communities that sometimes get forgotten, but DJ would have been one of the main drivers deliberately shaping ace communities with those theories in mind. In particular, the concept of "affectional" or "romantic" orientation would have been an early borrow from bi theory--it's often associated with asexual communities among younger people today, but "affectional orientation" was a term primarily used in bi spaces first, and I have distinct memories of seeing it used more commonly alongside "romantic orientation" untile "romantic orientation" slowly achieved common use.

(There are also particular ties with folks who were active in early nonbinary community--those associations are a little clearer and better-remembered because ace and nonbinary communities often have a lot of overlap, but there's an oral history here from the person who penned AVEN's original definition with more detail about that original context c. 2002ish you might find interesting. Or not, idek.)
posted by sciatrix at 5:00 PM on January 2 [1 favorite]


I like "partner" because it's vague. Are we lawyers? Do we have a business? Do we solve crimes? Do we kiss? Is it all of the above? Nobody can tell, and that's how I like it.

All of that is exactly why I hate "partner." Think of the awkwardness if you mistake "business partner" for "sex partner," for example. I am in favor of "significant other" (which is vague but at least indicates a certain emotional component), but sadly that has never caught on outside of text.
posted by jenfullmoon at 5:44 PM on January 2 [3 favorites]


I am in favor of "significant other" (which is vague but at least indicates a certain emotional component), but sadly that has never caught on outside of text.

"S.O." flowered for a bit but seems to have faded.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 5:49 PM on January 2 [1 favorite]


We've been using "partner" for a few years now, and I think there's only been a handful of cases where people were confused. In half of those cases, I suspect it wasn't confusion at all, but someone trying to bait for a definitive "husband/wife."
posted by GenderNullPointerException at 6:08 PM on January 2


Are we lawyers? Do we have a business? Do we solve crimes? Do we kiss? Is it all of the above? Nobody can tell, and that's how I like it.

You are Remington Steele, and I claim my five pounds.
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 6:19 PM on January 2 [6 favorites]


I admit I don't like the terms "boyfriend"and "girlfriend" when the people involved are over the age of 21, and reducing gendered terms when it makes sense is a good thing, but a person is not a "relationship." We need to come up with better terms.
posted by lhauser at 6:58 PM on January 2 [1 favorite]


I'm trying to figure out what you call the relationship that isn't romantic or sexual, at least not currently, but you happily and comfortably share just about everything else important, the home, the sewing machine, the Christmas tree, the cats, the responsibility for helping their dad change his diaper....

Isn't that what platonic means? That's how we always used it.
posted by bongo_x at 7:26 PM on January 2


I don't know. "Platonic" covers a lot of territory, including my relationship with the spousal unit, my relationship with my Goddess, my relationship with my co-workers, and my relationship with prime numbers.

I'm kidding about the Goddess, my relationship with the Platonic theology popular among some Polytheists is "agree to disagree."
posted by GenderNullPointerException at 8:38 PM on January 2


This thread is awesome and I want more exploration in these tangents. I know some of you are butting heads but this feels like a functional evolution to me.

Yeah, the possessive language beanplating might be just beanplating to most relationships, whether romantic or platonic, but the possessive language matters for a lot of people, whether they are or are not polyamorous or otherwise non-traditional or what have you.

Possessiveness is a problem for many people.

Sometimes it matters simply because of personal nuances of a relationship. There's someone in my life I'm terrifyingly fond of and I could no more assume to posses them as "mine" then I could the wind or the sea. It's so impossible that it's a complete non-starter communication and language-wise. I could no more define our relationship beyond "we've been on adventures" or "we've walked paths together".

The only language I have is "we are friends" but it is a lot more than that. Family isn't too much, either, but isn't accurate nor does it map to my feelings or the connection.

I have never been more terrified of defining a single thing about our relationship in my fool life. It's very likely we will never be sexually intimate or romantic partners.

Yet the telepathy and empathy and history we share exceeds that. And what are we? If you know the answer, maybe don't tell me. Maybe I just need a different box of words.

We sometimes walk the same path. I wouldn't dare to even begin to define this relationship more than that because it might shatter it.

And language matters. It's often the root of both intent and magic.
posted by loquacious at 8:55 PM on January 2 [7 favorites]


You are Remington Steele, and I claim my five pounds.

Goddamit! Can't I think of one joke before someone cuts in line. I hate this site.

Using partner deliberately instead of bf/gf is a solid liberal class signifier. I wonder if okcupid stats back this up.
posted by tirutiru at 11:11 PM on January 2 [1 favorite]


I feel like "my partner" and "my city" and "my manager" imply possession/belonging, and that doesn't seem like a problem. Being committed to something, calling it yours, openly declaring your affiliation with it - this can be amazing or terrible, depending.

tbh I think of wedding bands as vanilla collars so like. I'm v ok with owning and being owned, done thoughtfully and consensually. not all intimate connections have those vibes - but pretending power differentials don't exist seems to be a shitty strategy.

(also in re: deciding someone is no longer one's mother, that sometimes sounds like "you can't fire me, I quit," at least, it did for me.)
posted by bagel at 12:35 AM on January 3 [2 favorites]


It's so hokey, but one of my favorites is the notion of being "in community with."

I have a long-distance romantic and sexual partner, and she's one of the most important relationships I have. But we're always going to be long distance and we like it that way. My relationship to my community of friends and chosen family is every bit as important, only surpassed by my relationship with my son. The overlap in the kinds of care I offer to -- and receive from -- these different people is so important to me.

I love the thought of the relationship itself being an organism that requires regular care and feeding, and the support of other complementary relationships. Thanks for this.
posted by libraritarian at 11:19 AM on January 3 [3 favorites]


I have a friend like loquacious describes above --
someone in my life I'm terrifyingly fond of and I could no more assume to posses them as "mine" then I could the wind or the sea.
Most of all because I love her so much that the very idea of it is unthinkable. She's not mine in any fashion whatsoever! It's a delight and a privilege that she's been part of my life for the last decade and hopefully for decades more to come. "Best friend" kind of covers it, but she's not "my" anything -- she isn't mine, and I am not hers, but we are together. But not romantically or sexually. It's something else, bigger, different.

I love her fundamentally in myself. It's not even something I can define as having edges or limits -- I just love her entirely, and the knowledge of loving her makes me smile. I'm sure of loving her the way I'm sure of very few things in life. The world could end and buildings could fall down and everything could turn to gold or shit and I would love her, constant and continuous. (Note that this is independent of her fucking up or pissing me off -- good lord almighty has she ever sometimes, but it's a layer over the bedrock of how much I love and respect her, and doesn't affect it at all.) 'Terrifyingly fond' is pretty much accurate -- it's so wholehearted that sometimes I'm like, surely I should put an artificial limit on this? Surely? But there's nowhere to to do that. I just love her. Calling her "mine" feels like a diminutive. Why would she be mine? That's just disrespectful!

We aren't part of each other and we aren't together in the way 'together' is usually defined, and we aren't melded in any legal or financial sense. But we share with each other, we have connections, we have years of trust and love between us. If there's a universe next door, let's go, hers is the hand in mine. "Soulmate" is more or less what we've decided on -- not 'my soulmate', but just, soulmate. She's a soulmate.
posted by E. Whitehall at 5:16 PM on January 3 [2 favorites]


I'm one of the people this applies to most and I'm just... tired, I guess. My partner is nonbinary, I'm asexual, and our relationship is minimally romantic, but we are lifelong committed. You would think I'd be super invested in finding new ways to talk about this but honestly, I'm just at the point of being like, "Fuck it, it is what it is, and no one will ever understand it fully and that's fine. I'm going to call them my partner and everyone else can think what they want."

I'm glad other people have this language that works for them and is more accurate to their experiences. But I gave up trying to accurately explain my experiences or identity a while ago (and I definitely used to be a person who identified as asexual bigreyromantic, so). I just stick with "queer" and "partner" and the fact that those aren't super well defined means people have to ask me for specifics if they want any certainty about what it means, and that's fine by me.
posted by brook horse at 6:01 PM on January 3 [5 favorites]


I like “partner,” but my spouse doesn’t really care for it. So, since I’ve started transitioning, she’s taken to introducing me as “…and this is Stef, my human.” It’s not how I would think to phrase it, but it’s adorable anyway.
posted by nicepersonality at 10:41 AM on January 4 [3 favorites]


So, the meme "if men and women can't be friends, bi people can't be friends with anyone" seems to be circulating around. I'm one of those people who can find some level of attractiveness in just about anyone, but there's no point in entertaining it beyond "they look nice today" because attractiveness isn't a relationship or an existential crisis to be resolved. Attraction isn't something that magically obliviates the little boundaries, rituals, and structures that make up friendships. I may have a mild crush on E., and want the best for him, but I understand that "best for him" involves maintaining the structure in which we know each other, not open professions of love out of some 80s romcom and a radical change that would disrupt both our lives.
posted by GenderNullPointerException at 10:42 AM on January 6


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