Classifying Relationships

In my conversations with friends, I’ve heard the same words frequently used with different definitions. In an effort to set the record straight (or at least further the conversation), I thought I might share my own and my thoughts on them. So, here goes… the different stages or strata of relationships.


The Non-Romantic Ones

Strangers

Yep, we don’t know each other. There’s not much to say here, except that this is the state that defines all others by being the absence of a relationship.

Right… so moving on…

Acquaintances

Hey, we’ve been very, very loosely related in some form of fashion. Congratulations! I always knew you could do it.

Maybe we’re both regulars at the same Starbucks, sipping our coffee, but barely registering each other and never talking. Maybe someone we both know as reference the two of us in some context, even though we have never spoken or held each other in physical presence. Maybe we’ve passed each other on the street from time to time, exchanged a smile and a pleasant hello, and moved on to our previous destination.

Regardless, it’s safe to say we know next to nothing about each other. If not for the universe’s loose reference to each other, we might as well be strangers, but hey, you have to start somewhere!

Friends

Alright, we’ve talked. There’s a lot of different striations and classifications within this group, because it is the term we use most broadly when talking about relationships. Most of them differ in the amount of information you know about each other and the things you are willing to do for each other. It encompasses everything from, “I know your name, your face, and we share friendly small talk when we see each other” to “I tell them everything, would loan them money or help them move house, and generally look to share any adventure with them”.

There’s a few sub-classifications I feel need a little extra explanation.

Friends with Benefits

I have no real experience with these types of relationships, but they are fairly common as I understand it. I gather, from what I’ve learned, that they are a friend, of my preferred sexual gender, whom I might share a mutual (although likely shallow) attraction. Although there is no real desire on either part for a romantic intention, we have decided to have sex together. Common rules and boundaries abound for this type of relationships… things like “no overnights”, “no dates”, etc.

Family

Family isn’t just the people you share blood relation to, but generally they are the first that really share this title. Family is a lot to unpack, but it is worth noting that I include them in the friendship category. I think we treat our closest friends like we our family, but different than we might share the following romantic relationship types.

Regardless of whether we’re sharing ancestry or not, people in this category share a very deep, very special bond with us. Maybe we’ve lived through a shared experience. Maybe we’re dedicated to the same guiding principals or cause. Regardless, that connection unites us, and makes us willing to do more than we’d do for our rank and file friends.


The Romantic Ones

Dating

Through some measure or another, we’re at least acquainted. Maybe we matched on a dating app. Maybe we eyed each other across the bar, you over your Saison and me over my Oatmeal stout. Maybe your friends suggested to both of you separately that you should meet up. Here you are, agreeing to share an activity and some conversation in an effort to get to know each other.

I have been told multiple times to never assume exclusivity, always ask for it if you want it; so during this stage, it is not uncommon at all for one or both parties to be dating multiple people. The main thing that separates dating from say, hanging out with a friend or acquaintance, is a little thing I like to think of as “romantic intent”. The goal of these interactions is, generally, to suss out if this person is the right person to deepen my relationship with, shift over to a friendship, or reduce back down to an acquaintance.

Dating Exclusively

I have a hard time with this and the next classification, so bear with me. Consider this all of the Dating, but with the agreement that neither of us are not dating other people, but not quite in a fully committed relationship. We probably spend a lot of time together. We don’t use boyfriend/girlfriend titles. We don’t sleep over at each other’s houses, or spend every waking moment together. We don’t make shared decisions beyond where we want to go to dinner, or when we’ll see each other again.

The main thing with both Dating types is that you are both still very independent people. The path of your life is yours, and if it diverges from the person you are dating, chances are, you will make the decision to let them diverge.

Committed Relationship (Boyfriend/Girlfriend)

Okay, this thing has legs. We both agree that there’s a deeper bond between us, and we want to continue exploring that. Not only are neither of us seeing other people, but we’re also telling our friends that we are a ‘we’. We’re not sure for how long yet, and frankly, not terribly worried about it, but for now we’re making shared decisions and beginning to consult each other on the direction of our lives.

Engaged

We’ve agreed that we’d like to make this thing permanent. One of us has proposed this, the other accepted, and we’re now in the “Option period” of our relationship, during which we can still end things without making any lifelong commitment. If we don’t already live together, we probably will very soon. We make decisions together, and plot the courses of our future so that those paths will remain as close to each other as possible.

Married

Now we’ve made a lifelong commitment to stay together as a ‘we’, preferably until one of us dies, although that’s becoming less common as the years roll by.


I think the thing that really sets each classification apart from the last is really the level of investment that you give each one. Your investment is essentially giving up something of who you are for that person or people, whether you drop that thing or impart some part of it onto the other person. The more you give, the closer you are.

Take for example the decision of spending a Friday night with a close friend having dinner at their favorite restaurant. You are giving your time, your attention, your money, wear and tear on your car, some focus, lots of listening, some opinions, and all of the other things you could have done with that time. In a small sense, you have altered the course of your future for that person. That’s a lot, and more than most people consciously think of.

We all have our expectations on what we’ll get back from these investments. If we get what we expect or more, we’re happier, and generally, we invest more. If we get less than we expect, then we’re hurt, and generally invest less.

In the example above, you may just expect to get some good food, and a small conversation. If the food is terrible and the conversation as well, I doubt you will make that same choice again as easily. If, on the other hand, the food is great, the conversation insightful, you learn a few new things about yourself and the other person, and have some unexpected unforeseen adventures; then you are far more likely to invest more into that relationship.

All of this investment is measured in orders of value down to parts of our core, and there’s tremendous risk there. Are we giving away something we can’t get back? What if we give something valuable and don’t get the return we expect? What if we get much more than we expect… what does the other person expect, and can I possibly give enough to match that?

So think about your relationships, and what you’re leaving in those places. If a relationship is important to you, invest in it! How much you invest is tricky… a balance of what you can give vs what you expect in return; but I generally prefer to err on the side of giving. If you aren’t getting what you expect out of it, maybe reevaluate it.