This story is over 5 years old.


Three Terrifying Words: What to Say When Your Partner Asks 'What Are We?'

Dating's tough. Labels are tougher. So here's a scientific breakdown of every stage of your relationship.
Illustration by Stephanie Santillan

"I'm going to block you now." Those are the last words I heard from a person I was… seeing? Hanging out with? Dating? I don't even know. When we were together, we felt like a couple, complete with home-cooked meals, reality TV cuddling, and sometimes even sex. But our relationship operated in a strange, sub-"couple" space; we didn't go out together or meet each other's friends. We just enjoyed our time together every now and again, and that was that.


I wasn't ready to call him my boyfriend, but I knew what we were doing couldn't last forever. We'd either have to move forward in some way or end it. But when I asked him those three important words—"what are we?"—he ghosted me. For two months.

He's not the first person I've built a real bond with who's hesitated to call us anything more than "friends," and I'm sick of it. Too many people today still view their interpersonal sexual relationships as one of two things: "in a relationship" or "not in a relationship." They refuse to leave room for anything in-between—ways to categorize those relationships that are decidedly more than just "friends" but way less than full-blown dating.

It's time to tame the Wild West of Fucking. How do we do that? With a definitive, bulletproof list, of course. Below, you'll find a scientific breakdown of the lifecycle of a modern relationship, in an effort to help all daters get on the same page.

Just talking: You've matched on Tinder, or maybe you just met at a bar and exchanged numbers. Either way, you're in the pre-dating stage. You're feeling each other out with chit chat, engaging in the necessary pre-date small talk. You're both pretending that you haven't found each other's Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram profiles and are subtly asking questions about what you found. The "just talking" stage lasts for as little as a few hours to several weeks.


Friends: You went on a date or two, but both agree that the sexual chemistry is just not there. You're platonic as fuck, but that's alright! You're both OK with it, and everything is fine.

Just friends: One thing led to another, as it often does. You hooked up. If neither of you ghosted, it's safe to assume you've had the awkward but necessary talk that follows. And in this stage, you agree that it was a one-time thing. You are going to stay friends. Just friends. Until the fall of man, you are never allowed to get drunk at a party with this person ever again.

Friends with benefits: Sometimes, what you thought was a one time mistake just keeps happening. Maybe the sex was surprisingly good, and your last date talked a little too much about "false flags" on 9/11. You're going to keep boning, but that's all. These situations either end cleanly—usually when one of you finds someone else—or in tortured emotional turmoil, as one of the two develops deep, unrequited romantic feelings that ultimately destroy what was a simple and enjoyable situation for everyone. And if we're being real, that's almost always what happens. If you can really, truly go back to being "just friends" after passing that point, I encourage you to find a competent agent and sell the TV rights to your story ASAP.

Hooking up: Distinct from "friends with benefits," "hooking up" is often little more than sex without any meaningful friendship or bond to back it up. And, hell, you don't even need to know each other's last names. Also known as "fuck buddies," or, if you're still living in the '90s, a "booty call".


Hanging Out: You're hooking up, but beginning to form a bond that feels like it has potential beyond sex and half-watched episodes of the X-Files. You might start doing things together while sober, or even during daylight, if you can imagine. Hanging out can develop into something more, but you both need to be at a place in your lives where you're open to that. Talk about it. Seriously. Just have a conversation. It's OK. You can probably still have sex afterward.

Dating: You're together in some way, but still getting to know one another better. You're staying over at each other's places more frequently, holding hands in public after getting ice cream in the middle of the night, slowly starting to meet one another's friends. Welcome to relationship purgatory. If all goes smoothly, you might eventually transition to the next step.

In an open relationship: You want to be each other's main squeeze but also want to have a side piece here and there without destroying the relationship. Note: Cheating repeatedly is not being in an open relationship. Both parties should be aware of the extra-curricular activity happening in order for this to be a legitimate open relationship, as should the people you're sleeping with.

In a relationship: The best thing about reaching this stage is that you can finally start posting pictures of each other on Instagram with captions like "bae" and "wifey" for all your bitter, single friends to feign enthusiasm about.

It's complicated: One of you wants out, or wants to change the structure of the relationship, but that desire is met with resistance from the other side. Instead of breaking up, you're willing to admit that things are complicated between the two of you. Maybe you'll even change your status on Facebook to "It's Complicated," something I don't think has ever been done in the history of time unironically, but I could be wrong. Either way, things just got rocky.

Broken Up: It's over. For whatever reason (and there are so, so many of them), your relationship just didn't work out. Time to admit defeat and start over. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200. Do pick up the box of your belongings waiting for you at their doorstep.

So, there it is. You might be one of the many emotionally unavailable young adults in this world who still finds many of these labels terrifying, and that's fine. Take your time; do what you need to do. Work through your issues. At the same time, you should do your romantic partner(s) a favor by giving them some sort of answer instead of cutting them off, or trivializing the bond you two had. It's time to own up to the bullshit, and referring to this guide will help. It'll make us all happier in the long run, I promise. (I hope.)

Follow Alison Stevenson on Twitter.