How do I know if you’re my boyfriend?

Image by the awesome Stuart F Taylor

Relationships are often full of uncertainty. We meet someone we like, we fall for them, and we wonder – what exactly are they to me? Boyfriend? Girlfriend? Fuck buddy? Lover? Person-I’m-dating-temporarily? The good people – the ones who are decent and kind and open and trustworthy – will either know what you are or they’ll help you work it out. You’ll have those giggling deep conversations over a bottle of wine or a pot of coffee at 8 am, and you’ll say:

“What are we, exactly? Lovers, fuck buddies, boyfriends or…?”

There could be a pause – a smile or a glance or a wink – and then comes the answer.

It may not be a solid answer at first. It might, through nerves or uncertainty or gloriously playful teasing, take a while to hash out together.

“What do you think we are?”

“What do you want us to be?”

“Are you going to make me say it?”

It reminds me of those early days when I first started getting interested in boys. Aching to hear a guy say ‘girlfriend’ so I could revel in the delicious sound of the word tripping neatly from his mouth.

Like I say, these are the good people. They will give you an answer, even if it’s laced with uncertainty. In the early days you may both be nervous to put a label on it, in case your expectations have missed the mark. What’s more, relationships are all different, so you may have different words: boyfriend, girlfriend, lover, partner, other half, primary lover, friend. There are any number of different relationship types, but none are immune from this wondering.The period of time between that initial rush of knowing someone’s special, and the confirmation from them that – hey! They think you are too!

In a relationship that is valuable, and mutual, that moment is important. That acknowledgement.

I worry that in my past I’ve been too indecisive or ignorant to let the guys I love have their moment. I’ve worried over relationship labels, then I eventually realise two months late that I missed the chance to declare it. So I scrabble desperately to make it up to them. To make sure they know. To say ‘boyfriend’ like I really fucking mean it.

The boyfriend who wasn’t

I once loved a boy who couldn’t bring himself to give me this acknowledgement. Over and over we’d go out, and he’d introduce me as his ‘friend.’ To his mates, to his parents, to everyone who mattered: friend.

“Special friend?” Someone asked once.

“No,” he said, laughing.

“No,” I added afterwards. Quickly – too fucking quickly. Defensively, like I didn’t care.

We fucked all the time. Hot, sticky, filthy, messy fucks of exactly the kind I’d have had with a boyfriend. We’d swap notes and emails and secrets and spit, and I’d ache with longing and lust and misery. And I’d say ‘girlfriend?’ and he’d laugh. I’d hint ‘what are we?’ and he’d laugh.

And I’d still wonder – what are we?

I’d think: OK, maybe he just doesn’t like labels. Maybe he wants to be open. Maybe he hates the idea of ‘boyfriend’ and there’s no word for the casual… whatever-it-is-we-are. But if that was the case then surely he’d have explained, right?

So I was his ‘mate’ or ‘friend.’ And sometimes not even that. He’d leave me standing in doorways or shuffling awkwardly in pubs, waiting to be introduced.

I’d wonder. Cross my fingers and hope for:

“This is my girlfriend.”

Or ‘partner’ maybe. Or even just ‘friend’ but with a warm smile that said more. A hand on my shoulder or waist. Some tiny public acknowledgement that we’d be going home together. That I hadn’t just wandered in behind him or followed him there from the bus stop.

And all this is fine. All this might just be his way, or me being silly, or his nerves, or me kidding myself into thinking I deserved more.

But he made me feel mad for wondering. He’d laugh when I asked the question, or tell me I was being ridiculous.

Every time he’d introduce me as ‘mate’ or blank me in public, I’d wonder again. Was any of this real? Was any of this actually happening? Perhaps what we’d done, and what he’d said behind closed doors was simply a story I’d told myself. Perhaps I really was going mad.

“What are we?”

The answer to that question never came. It kept not coming until I forgot what I’d asked in the first place. “What are we?” had become irrelevant, because I wasn’t part of a ‘we’ any more. It was him. Only him. What he wanted, exactly how he wanted it. He didn’t want to stop fucking me, but he couldn’t bear to bring me in from the fringes. I was the limpet that clung to him as he tried, desperately, to hide me.

He should have brushed me off.

Because when I realised what was happening, I stopped asking the question: “What are we?” and started asking: “What’s he?”

The answer was not good for him.

You are not mad for wondering

There are plenty of reasons why someone might want to keep a relationship private: some are understandable. Many are not. Some may not know the answer to the question ‘what are we?’ but will happily work it out with you.

Someone told me yesterday that I should write more advice. I don’t want to, because I’m not qualified, and I’m sure even in this there’ll be edge cases I haven’t considered, or people who feel like I’m overstepping the mark. But if I were to give one piece of relationship advice, it’s this: don’t go for the person who’s coolest or hottest or who has the best lines – pick someone who knows you’re amazing.

The people who make you feel small or shameful… the ones who’ll refuse to answer that question, or laugh at you for asking it… the ones who’ll love you in private then spurn you in public… who treat you like a secret they would rather not have to keep… those people are not worth your time.

Instead choose someone who’ll answer ‘what are we?’ with excitement and pleasure – boyfriend, girlfriend, other half, friend, lover, whatever. Who will grin with pride when they introduce you to their friends, their colleagues and their Mum.

You don’t necessarily need them to answer the question straight away. You might not need them to answer it at all. But the best ones will never make you feel like you’re mad for even wondering.

14 Comments

  • Spot on. The label doesn’t matter but being proud to acknowledge and introduce you does.

  • Ivy says:

    Picking someone who knows you’re amazing sounds pretty much like perfect advice to me.

  • oodles says:

    Oh god it’s like you’re reading my mind at the moment! This is exactly what I’ve been anxious about today. I want to ask him but at the same time I’m too scared to. But it’s good to know I’m not mad, at least, and that it’s perfectly OK to want to have a more solid label on things. If I even do want that.

    • Girl on the net says:

      I’m so sorry you’re in that position, and if it’s not too forward of me (of course I don’t know your exact situation etc) I just want to say that you are absolutely not in any way mad for wondering, or for wanting to have that conversation. It is perfectly OK to have that conversation, and I hope that you get to have it soon x

      • oodles says:

        Thanks :) Not forward at all and nice to have reassurance. We had a bit of an argument last night that stemmed, in a way, from this. Still not 100% sure what’s going on. Half of me feels not ready to commit (and I fancy someone else too) but the other half really wants to stop faffing about and give myself some security. Bleh.

  • Em says:

    me and my boyfriend were a “thing that’s not a thing” for a while. everyone knew we were sleeping together, everyone knew that on the way to the pub we’d hold hands and then let go as we walked in the door. but we were both too scared of hurting the other to acknowledge that we were already committed by being a “thing that’s not a thing”. A year and a little bit later, everyone knows we’re sleeping together, and we hold hands at the pub. An open and honest conversation (and a few pints) and we knew where we stood. God bless thatchers.

    • Girl on the net says:

      Oh this made me so happy, and I promise not *just* because I am also a fan of thatchers =) I’m glad you’ve had that conversation x

  • The One says:

    This gave me a lump in my throat a bit.

  • Morgan says:

    I’m kind of on the other side of this at the moment, struggling to put a label on things with my ‘not-quite-a-boyfriend’ and ‘not-quite-a-girlfriend’. They were a committed couple before I came anywhere near the scene, but more recently we had a very similar discussion to this, with me the bad guy in this scenario. Partly because I struggle with commitment at the best of times (though have worked very hard to overcome the reasons for this) but also because beyond using ‘the words’ to each other, and with a very few select friends, I will always be a secret, albeit one I think they would rather share. And because of kids, families, vanilla life in general, I can never be acknowledged in the way you mention, or properly acknowledge them. So they seem to think I am amazing, I think they are both amazing and I love them to pieces, but I’ve sort of just left it hanging, and I feel like a complete arse.

  • Bee says:

    I know this one well. I’ve been with him 7 years, living together for 2 of them and I still have no idea what I am!

  • Jo says:

    Thank you for writing this. I tell this to friends all the time, but (like most people) never take my own advice. I have been putting off writing a post on a guy I used to (?) because despite the fact that this (whatever-the-fuck-it-was) ended a couple of years ago, it *still* feels gutting to think about a man who told me that he loved me but introduced me as his friend. Who when I asked if I could say that we were dating replied, “I don’t know.” Just… devastating. I did feel absolutely nutters; I thought something was wrong with me. It caused so much anxiety and so many sleepless nights that I felt physically ill. Never again! It definitely gave me clarity about what I want and how to communicate that.

    • Girl on the net says:

      I’m so sorry Jo. I think clarity about what you want is simultaneously vital and *really bloody hard* to get. I still struggle with it when it comes to negotiating bits of my relationship – financial independence, sexual openness and a whole bunch of other stuff. Situations like this make it so much harder to work out what you want, because where the other person refuses to acknowledge you feel a lot like there’s nothing to build a foundation on. I’m sorry you went through that, and glad it’s over x

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