On being not an official couple, but being sexually exclusive.

Note: I asked the girl in this story’s permission before publishing this story. 

I had dinner with a friend last night, and we talked about a guy she’s been seeing. A guy who, ‘it’s complicated with’, and they’re not ‘officially’ boyfriend and girlfriend.

The logistics of the relationship (as we discussed it last night) are this:

  • She likes him and wants to be boyfriend/girlfriend with him.
  • He is unsure about being committed into a relationship and wants more time to decide. It seems he’s afraid of getting hurt if he commits to a relationship.
  • This isn’t his fear of exclusivity. He wants both her and him to be exclusive in the meantime.
  • She is waiting for him to decide that they really are boyfriend/girlfriend.

Of course (and she and I discussed this) the idea that you can be exclusive, but also ‘not quite boyfriend and girlfriend’ is odd. What’s the difference between being sexually exclusive, and being boyfriend and girlfriend?

My opinion is that for some people being boyfriend girlfriend is a promise, and expectation of, emotional availability, and the intention to stay with the person for the foreseeable future.

Somebody who subscribes to this model of relationships, and also values sexual exclusivity will have a dating pattern like this:

Boy meets girl. They decide they are interested enough consider a formal relationship.

In order to facilitate emotional bonding, to determine whether they are compatible for a romantic relationship, both boy and girl agree to be sexually exclusive. The sexual exclusivity is essential because interactions with other people are otherwise going to complicate things emotionally – and it’s to build an initial trust period.

Once both parties are satisfied that:

  • The other person is trustworthy.
  • The other person sufficiently fulfills whatever emotional and other relationship needs they have.

The relationship can then move into the ‘formal relationship’ territory. The difference now is that the each party is expected to emotionally available for the the other person. That is, in entering the the formal relationship, each person has made a promise to the other for their future behavior. 

Presumably, in the period before the formal relationship, one can break it off , realistically not without hard feelings, but without having broken any promise because they were never ‘official’.

The break-up clause for the formal relationship is unknown.

Let’s take a step forward for a moment, and discuss marriage. For many people – marriage is an intention to stay together for life. People are probably realistic in understanding that there might be some deal breakers in the future, if one of the partners cheats, or developers a drug habit they might be resigned to quitting the marriage. But typically the intention is work as team, to avoid that situation.

Marriage then – is a promise of intention to stay together for life, and to actively work at that relationship to avoid any of the dealbreakers.

Back to this formal relationship – if we agree that there is a promise of emotional availability – what is the difference between a formal relationship and a marriage? A marriage of course has an element of the public declaration as well as the expensive party that goes with it. (An alternative modern interpretation is that a marriage is about having kids and buying a house together. A kid of course being a for life commitment that can’t be undone.)

But in terms of the promise of emotional availability, how does this model of a formal relationship allow for exiting the relationship, without ‘breaking the contract’?

I don’t think there is way.

I think either, you enter in the relationship with the expectation that they’ll alwasy be emotionally available and risking that you’re going to have your heartbroken sometime down the road. (Or perhaps your feelings for each other with dissolve naturally with no hurt feelings).

Or you accept going in to the relationship that the other person can’t promise to always be emotionally available, and accept that as possibility Maybe you’ll decide to get married one day, but also maybe it just might not work out, and you agree to go your separate ways.

Personally I would subscribe to the second approach. I’ll go into a relationship knowing that it might not last, but be happy to have it now and have the experience which you’ll always remember.

I think a lot of us would probably argue that this model of relationships is simply untenable or unreasonable to suggest, and that many people simply wouldn’t agree to this kind of relationship. We’re either sexually exclusive and we call each other boyfriend and girlfriend, or we’re free to pursue romance and dates with other people.

More cynically, we might label this relationship ‘Stringing them along’ – that is holding up the carrot of a relationship in order to entice the partner into staying available, while you personally evaluate your options and decide how you want to proceed, whether with this relationship, or with someone else/no-one else.

This isn’t to disparage the person that’s proposed the relationship model. The model is reflective of a real person’s emotional state and set of romantic experiences and their corresponding constructed response to it.

Constructing models and thinking in this manner helps us analyse everyday relationships, and thinking about what the explicit and implicit expectations of parties in the relationship are. I think as non-traditional relationships (eg friends with benefits, open relationships, swingers/wife swapping etc)  become more popular, it will become more necessary to be explicit about what the relationship expectations are.

In fact, existing relationship advice already suggests communication, communication, communication, so having upfront conversations about what your expectations are a good idea, even without the increasing popularity of non-traditional relationships necessitating it.

2 thoughts on “On being not an official couple, but being sexually exclusive.

  1. Being emotionally involved should come much before being sexually available. Once you open that door sexually, you become vulnerable and prone to becoming hurt; especially with someone you wish to one day be in a relationship with. Don’t give him/her that power accidentally!


    1. I totally disagree with this – this buys into the cultural restriction that has warped sexual activity into being a form of currency – “I offer you sex in order to receive love/emotional availability in return”. It’s ultimately dishonest…


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