Three Little Words: I Love you, But… What Are We?

Noemi J. Mullins

“I love you” is a classic way to show your seriousness and affection at the beginning of a relationship. However, the rise of the “situationship” has extended the dating phase and added a new set of “three small words” to the repertoire of meaningful relational dialogue. “What are you?” is more than a way to get committed. This is a complex question that has multiple motivations and results. Many people prefer not to answer it and instead choose the freedom and autonomy of non-definition. These three words can bring out our impatience for those who want titles and terms. It makes our experiences less enjoyable. Positive anticipation can become negative anticipation. It’s that feeling of waiting for another shoe to drop and for everything to end before it starts.

Relationships can be difficult to understand and even more difficult to grieve. Asking “what are you?” too soon could zap the joyous, playful nature of budding romance, causing it to spiral into a tight end. It doesn’t have that way. We can discuss “what is we” and create a shared reality with healthy boundaries.

Why is asking “What are we” so difficult?

It is real. It is deep. We both may want the same thing. Why is it so difficult to start a conversation? It’s because, in the early stages, the not-knowing may carry its magic. All options are available when there is no clear commitment, such as casual versus serious decisions. Every moment spent together is an option, not an obligation. It can be edifying to feel overwhelmed by the ambiguity, making us feel excited and awed by its novelty and surprise. However, freedom can also bring with it uncertainty and insecurity. Some people like this; others don’t.

It is easy to slip into “sexy uncertainty” and lose your sense of self-worth. For those who want to be in a traditional relationship with clear commitments and milestones (e.g., getting married, having kids, buying a home, etc.), this holding pattern can feel like a trap. These are normal desires. However, this is not what everyone wants.

People are getting married ten years earlier than they did in the past. Many of us are married well into middle age, post-divorce and as widows or widowers. Our individual lives are more integrated into our relationships, and fully merging our lives is no longer a natural rite of passage. It is possible to love someone and not want them to share our lives. It’s possible to love someone but want to keep it casual. If we are all on the same page, we can love and have relationships with multiple people simultaneously. It’s important to listen to each person and respect their needs. This takes some discussion.

Modern love can take many forms. There can be misunderstandings and hurt if we don’t discuss which form of love we desire. It’s not just about asking “what are you?” but also discussing the relationship, including polyamory and family structures, life-merging, children, career ambitions, timelines, and monogamy. That’s a lot of pressure to place on a relationship that early. The magic of those early days lies in being able to pretend that nothing is happening, living fully in the moment. Sometimes that’s all we have to do to feel that freedom. It’s hard to imagine anyone wanting to give up this freedom.

Love stories are not the same as life stories

When the answer to the question “what are you?” is not what we expected, it can cause a loss of self-esteem and change our perception of how we can make a living. Love stories and life stories have different ingredients. They are different. It is possible to have a beautiful, long-lasting relationship completely disconnected from our reality. It has nothing to do with the intricate scaffolding which supports a life together.

We’ll be grateful we started the conversation if the answer to “what is we?” is mutually satisfying. If we are in this for the long-term, “what is our relationship” can be a useful exercise to revisit as a way to review our expectations, goals, dreams, and commitments. A little conversational infrastructure can help everyone improve and change their relationships.

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