It's hardly news that conventional dating norms have gone out the window and, with them, so too have traditional dating labels.
"Boyfriend" and "girlfriend" seem to share the same fate as the now arcane "going steady."
People are still dating -- sure -- but recently, would-be couples less readily refer to one another as "boyfriend" or "girlfriend," opting instead for basic exclusivity, sans label.
Of my friends who entered into relationships in the past year, every single one of them first entered a period of exclusivity before even remotely venturing into "boyfriend/girlfriend" territory. It is now expected that a couple will first hookup for a significant -- albeit unsubstantial -- period of time, only to then qualify their pseudo relationship with vague promises of monogamy.
"How is dating her exclusively any different from calling her your girlfriend?" I asked a friend who had recently broached the exclusivity threshold with his consistent hookup. "You're spending a lot of time together, going out on dates, meeting each other's friends, and not seeing anyone else. Sounds like a girlfriend to me."
"It is an unspoken understanding," he said, "In agreeing to be exclusive, we're basically saying, 'I like you and want to see if this continues to be good, so I won't do anything with anyone else that could mess this up, but officially calling you my girlfriend is a little too much at this point.'"
Ok, so... in essence, she is his girlfriend in everything but name. And that's okay because, contrary to those bemoaning the supposed death of monogamy, it's clearly not the monogamy that freaks him out, but rather, monogamy's prescribed terminology.
Indeed, labels are often black and white, imposing undesirable norms upon huge swaths of people to whom rigid conventions cannot and should not be applied. Labels do well, however, to simplify and clarify -- to provide boundaries and set expectations. Unlike the ambiguous term "hooking up," which can very well be used to reference everything from a three-second makeout session to full-blown sex, the "boyfriend/girlfriend" label universally implies exclusivity and commitment. But what about exclusivity itself? It's a little more than just hooking up, but not exactly full-blown dating. With absolutely no parameters beyond "don't hookup with anyone else," how do those in exclusive arrangements know what to expect from their... erm ... friend?
For instance, do you invite them to your holiday party? And, if so, how do you introduce them?
Hi, Boss. Meet Craig, my friend with whom I am consistently physical but don't yet call my boyfriend because I'm not 100 percent convinced he's worth my time.
Do you turn down other dating prospects? Or perhaps, keep your options open without ever letting things with someone else accelerate beyond flirtatious conversation? But then, what if they do? Does that count as cheating?
Talk about shades of gray.
I mean, honestly, why is it such a big deal to call someone your boyfriend or girlfriend? Unlike married couples -- or even cohabitating, unmarried couples -- should a boyfriend and girlfriend breakup, there are few -- if any -- financial or familial troubles to navigate. Apart from some emotional anguish, there's really not much involved in terms of post-breakup fallout.
It's funny to think that such innocent terms as "boyfriend" and "girlfriend," that floated so effortlessly around the halls of high schools, now imply some sort of deep, long-lasting, sticky commitment of the utmost seriousness. The fallout (or perhaps, benefit) from this aversion to labels remains to be seen.