Earlier last year, Zayn Malik of One Direction made waves when he explained to GQ that his on-again, off-again relationship with model Gigi Hadid was a “no labels” thing.
“We’re adults,” he said. “We don’t need to put a label on it, make it something for people’s expectations.”
In other words, they’re a “thing,” but they’re not together in an “official” way we’re used to seeing couples adopt when they give their relationship a name.
While we’d (almost) never advocate for taking relationship advice from One Direction, Malik’s “no-labels” love affair with Hadid does bring up some common questions most of have had to face when our relationships start to broach “more than friends” territory. Should we label our relationships, and if so, when? Zooming out a bit, are labels like “girlfriend/boyfriend,” “partner,” “friends with benefits,” and “occasional-passionate-makeout-partner” even necessary?
According to holistic women’s wellness coach and intimacy expert Isabella Frappier, official titles like these are really only required if everyone in the relationship thinks they are, which is another way of saying, “If it works for your specific situation, go for it.” If it doesn’t, that’s fine too. There’s no one answer that conveys whether labeling is a good or bad idea—it’s all about discovering what works for you.
A good way to find this out is to ask both yourself and your partner a simple question: “Do you like to label relationships or leave them undefined, and why?
This question avoids applying a label where one may not be wanted or needed, but also gives you some insight about how the person you’re seeing operates. This can be useful information to have in your back pocket if and when your relationship feels like it’s transitioning to a different level—if you know how each of you feel about labeling, you might find it easier to have the infamous “what are we?” talk when the time comes.
At the same time, Frappier isn’t convinced that labels are the all-important symbols of relationship seriousness, commitment, or depth of feelings our culture makes them out to be. Though they can impart a helpful sense of clarity and official-ness, it’s really not the label itself that matters—it’s the conversations to be had around it.
“Labels themselves aren’t inherently helpful,” she says. “They’re really just words. What is helpful are discussions about feelings and expectations. Do you want to be monogamous or ethically non-monogamous? Do you expect to spend a certain amount of time each week with a partner? Would you like it to be a long-term commitment or see how things progress each day? What does cheating mean to you?”
Asking each other how you can protect each other’s sexual health is also a good conversation to have. What sorts of expectations about condoms, birth control, or STI risk reduction do each (or all) of you have?
Regardless of what you call (or don’t call) your partner(s) and your relationship, these questions and the conversations that follow them can be had with or without adding labels. Whether your relationship is a polyamorous triad, a monogamous duo, or something in between, they’re a necessary and important step when it comes to defining boundaries and expectations.
“If you just chose a label for a relationship but don’t ask these types of questions and define what terms like ‘cheating’ or ‘protection’ mean to you, you still might not have the clarity you’re looking for,” Frappier says.
Timing-wise, these conversations should be have whenever you feel like you need clarity, definition, or boundaries. This can be any time, regardless of how long you’ve been seeing each other or the way you’ve been spending your time together. Your needs are as valid and pressing as anyone else’s, so you shouldn’t have for a certain amount of time to pass, or for your partner to bring it up, to get the conversation started. Move at your own pace, and if you need to talk about something, set up a time to talk in a space where you can have an uninterrupted discussion about what you’re both looking for.
If it turns out you feel differently about which labels you want to adopt—if any—that’s okay. Discrepancies like these can be painful, but they can also help us weed out people whose needs and desires don’t align with our own.
Labels aren’t inherently good or bad, but they are inherently personal, so make sure you spend some time figuring out what you want out of your relationship—no matter what kind it is—so everyone can get their needs met.