You ever been in a Relationship Limbo? Where you'd talk, go on dates, then suddenly it stops. Then suddenly starts back up again out of nowhere? Me too.
This morning, Timehop reminded me it’s been nearly five years since Seth and I were at a house party and we kissed over too many vodka & cokes. “It’s our anniversary coming up lol” I text him, laughing to myself. We’ve had four years of dinner dates, house parties and even a week away at his cabin in Italy.
Plot Twist: he’s not my boyfriend. We’re not a couple, and - I realise, staring at the unanswered message feeling less like laughing - we’ve stopped becoming a couple.
Since 2014, we’ve followed the same pattern: going to the same parties, hooking up, going out for dinners, talking nonstop - and then it’ll go quiet. A week will pass, maybe three months, but we always come back to each other. It never develops into anything more, and it never ends.
What I have with Seth is an AR: Almost Relationship. And it’s not a passing phase for the so-called ‘non-committed’ - it is the new normal. I know eight girls who are in one. According to a recent survey by Relate, a third of the UK describe themselves as ‘not in a relationship’, which I couldn’t help but wonder how many of them are also ‘umm, not exactly single either.’. Because specific relationship labels and ‘Would you be my girlfriend?’ conversations are becoming as much a thing in the past like the Spice Girls themselves. “People putting their relationship eggs in multiple baskets,” says psychologist, Sam Owen in his book, Resilient Me. “Modern dating not only teaches us that we have a ‘scroll’ of options, but everyone is disposable, too.”
Thanks to apps such as Tinder, it’s rare for someone to engage in a proper relationship from the get-go - we’re swiping over each other’s shoulders to see if there’s anyone better out there, but at the same time, no one breaks up with anyone. We’re unwilling to let this one go - you know, just in case.
It’s not surprising, really, when our attitudes towards relationships has been steadily evolving over recent years. There’s no longer a one path fits all (marriage, babies, more babies.) and having a partner no longer seems necessary or compulsory. We have choices: we can live alone or live with [family and friends, go traveling or work abroad, start a family or not start a family. And that’s going to have a ripple effect. There are fewer couples getting married each year - there were 247,372 marriages in England and Wales in 2014 which is 100,000 less than 30 years ago. Also, one in five of us has been in a ‘non-monogamous relationship’.
In many ways, this feels positive. Of course we should embrace the desire to keep out dating options open if we want to. But there’s no denying that the lack of clarity that comes with an AR leaves an emotional toll for those left in limbo: girls like my friend Daisy, 20, who met Dan 16 months ago at a university party. “We’d start this endless cycle of texting, flirting, then blanking each other. We’d meet up for a ‘date’ then it’ll fizzle out - until he’d text me again weeks later.” she says. But Daisy went along with it because she kept hoping each time he returned, he would want something more. It hasn’t. “He always had excuses for disappearing - he was ‘busy with uni’ or ‘working’.”
I ask her a difficult question: Why doesn’t she call it quits? “What we ‘have’, gives me such a confidence boost, but as my feelings towards him have grown, it made me even less inclined to end it because, honestly, I feel like this is all I’m worth at the minute. When we meet up next time, I always convince myself that this time will be when he wants to take it further.”
It sounds depressing actually, but in Daisy’s defence, we’re taught to do that. Which is half the problem according to my own relationship guru, my flatmate, Sophie. To me, she knows everything about relationships of all kind. She tells me that while things might have changed for women, we’re still internalising that message of being ‘nice’ and ‘patient’. “We’re natural people-pleasers, we’ve grown up being told to adapt.” she says. “Daisy probably knows Dan’s behaviour will continue. But it’s easier and less painful to stick with it instead of risking it all for a label.” Sophie’s words tighten the knot in my stomach. At the start, I assumed Sam and I would become something more. But we’ve found ourselves in a cycle with nothing to show for it.
But - and it’s a BIG but - what if my AR is staying how it is because I’ve seen too many serious relationships fail? I can admit that when Seth’s quiet spells hit, my confidence drops a bit, and I suspect that’s because of the worry that he could be with another girl during that time. But it also means that I could hang out with boys and not get demanding questions after it. I get the benefits of Seth’s attention - a moment of relationship I could have if I went for it - but and then without him, I have freedom of being on my own with no need to think about what he thinks.
For Liv, 22, it’s the ideal dating page she didn’t know she was looking for. “I dated Jack during my GCSEs and a year of A Levels, then I bumped into him 8 months ago. There was a spark, but our universities are at opposite sides of the country and I just got out of a relationship. We meet up whenever we can - usually once a month - and in between we text when we need an ego boost. it suits me perfectly.”
So how do we get through it? Personally, I think consciousness is key. If we’re making an informed decision from the start, and can honestly say it feels right for you, an Almost Relationship can be empowering. But from my mistakes I’ve learnt from, communication should be a priority. We have the tendency to act fine when we aren’t. And we’re increasingly laughing off the way we get treated as if it’s the norm. Dating terms like ‘ghosting’ are about downplaying what is actually happening, and that’s not okay. Getting cut off by someone you had a connection with SHOULD be painful, and yet we laugh about it and tag our friends in memes about it. We need to be more honest. Ask yourself: is it what you both want or is it one of you reeling away from feelings of abandonment? Sophie echoes this to me: “Instead of keeping your emotions in and asking if it’s you, or ‘Am I making myself happy?’ ask yourself if you’re happy without the ties of commitment.”
And the bottom line is: ARs can be the root of more confidence and freedom, only if both parties are on the same page. It’s something my best friend Katie, 19, needs to think about. When I told her I was writing this, she confessed that she’s still talking to Kaine, who she met on Twitter eight months ago. “I know I said I was done with him,” she says, “But he messaged me two weeks ago, saying we have such a laugh together and asking if I wanted to go to the cinema. And we do have fun, so I didn’t see any harm with it.” Fast forward to now and Katie and Kaine are in the same place - half in and half out - with complete radio silence. And even though she doesn’t spell it out, she wants more from it.
As I type out my reply: “Text him and ask how he feels!” I realise that I need to follow my own advice and talk to Seth. While I might be happy with how things are now, I don’t know when I’ll want more than hooking up and vodka and cokes every couple of months. It’s not about trying to drag the dating world backwards, it’s about embracing what it is now, but with more emotional honesty from date one.
Timehop might have brought this up for me, but maybe Facebook had the answer all along. Relationship Status: It’s Complicated.