What Do You Call a Boyfriend Who’s Not Really Your Boyfriend?

Nearly all my friends discouraged me from joining a dating app after my long-term relationship ended last year. I agreed. The last time I’d been single, Tinder hadn’t even launched, and terms like “gaslighting” and “fuccboi” had yet to enter my lingual purview (not that I didn’t witness them in spades).

I was open to going out and meeting people after escaping an exhausting and unhealthy relationship, but I wasn’t exactly eager to jump into dating, and I was nervous that doing so digitally might bring about potentially confusing situations. In other words, I wasn’t ready. I felt embarrassingly out of touch with the culture of dating and was too much of a wuss to make an earnest effort.

But, as some saying goes, romance happens when you’re not actively seeking it.

After two months or so of minding my own business, I bumped into a peripheral acquaintance at a Bushwick bar. When he re-introduced himself to me, I charmingly replied, “Of course I know who you are” — a partial lie, as I don’t think we’d actually exchanged names before. He was scruffily cute and had an indistinct accent that pronounced tomato as tom-ah-to.

The first time we properly kissed was on our third date, and it happened on the Wonder Wheel at Coney Island.

A few days later, I received an Instagram DM from him asking if I’d like to hang out sometime. We exchanged numbers. Our rapport was less flirtatious than it was friendly. It all seemed very light and casual — the free Costco sample of dating, if you will. I didn’t overthink it.

We hung out a handful of times soon after — a museum here, dinner and a movie there…all of it was fine. And then shit got cute fast. The first time we properly kissed was on our third date, and it happened on the Wonder Wheel at Coney Island. I may not be a formulaic dater, but I do know that as soon as things start resembling cinema, they are no longer “casual.” (And making out on a Ferris wheel, it should be said, is just as thrilling as The O.C. made it look.)

From that point on, it was the dating show: We held hands, we cooked dinner at each other’s apartment, we slept over regularly on weekends and had leisurely breakfasts the following mornings — he even kept a toothbrush at my place. At one point, a “showtime” performer on the subway presumptuously referred to me as his girlfriend and I glanced at him, mortified, only to see him gently suppressing a smile.

I kept reassuring myself that in the modern age of romance, we were just “hanging out” — it all felt very unfussy and easy. And so when he kept asking to make plans, I just kept saying sure, which is basically how we became a thing.

I liked his face, his wry sense of humor and how he was politely considerate of everyone — not just me. I was thrilled with the way he was direct and appreciative: If he wanted to see me, he’d ask, and he always made sure to let me know he had a great time. By most accounts, this was textbook courtship. But we were both keeping each other at arm’s length emotionally — at least I was, anyway. Even so, I wasn’t immune to the warming effect of intimacy. And even if I told myself I wasn’t “looking,” our lack of status eventually started to grate on me. What do I call this person who I’m very fond of, intimately involved with and happily spending most of my free time with? What were we? Even a definitive “no strings” label seemed more satisfying than none at all.

But the idea of breaching the relationship discussion made me bristle. Even though I was curious, it felt awkwardly undercooked. It felt almost unfair, too, to ask questions I didn’t have my own answers to, like whether we were headed toward a boyfriend-girlfriend type of relationship and whether both of us even wanted that. All my life, I’d dated guys who’d chosen me first, and now I found myself in an unfamiliar stalemate, painted into a dating-but-not-dating corner.

It was when a colleague off-handedly mentioned she had plans to hang out with her boyfriend-who’s-not-really-her-boyfriend that I felt simultaneously relieved I wasn’t the only one experiencing this and aghast it was a thing at all. I became further intrigued: What is this performative pseudo-relationship holding pattern? Is it the perfect embodiment of the age-old jazz question “If you have to ask, you’ll never know”?

I knew I didn’t want to label things prematurely. My worst fear was that one could essentially “play house” in a relationship even if it was devoid of love, like practicing a seance: Just because you’re going through the motions doesn’t mean it’s conjuring anything. I’m all for labels — labels and boundaries and being on the same page are a soothing balm to my antagonistic neuroses surrounding anything relationship-related. But labels do not a truth make, and even if we’d fallen into calling each other girlfriend, boyfriend, partner, significant other or whatever, there’d be no point if both of us didn’t enthusiastically mean it. After enduring a nearly five-year lesson that someone being your “boyfriend” doesn’t mean he’ll treat your feelings with care, this truth felt particularly fresh.

It was as if I’d asked him a deeply personal and embarrassing question at Thanksgiving dinner.

I felt an urgent need to know where he stood, so I broached the subject as elegantly as I could: in a loud bar, completely out of the blue and immediately following a viewing of the movie It.

“Hey, so can I get your opinion on something?”

“Sure, what is it?”

“What are your thoughts…on all this?” I asked, gesturing with my finger between him and me.

It was as if I’d asked him a deeply personal and embarrassing question at Thanksgiving dinner. There was a lot of stammering, pregnant pausing and a general lack of sense-making. I knew he was emotionally intelligent enough to recognize that I’d put myself in a vulnerable position by addressing this elephant in the room, but since I’d done it with the broadest stroke possible, the open-endedness had him quite literally speechless. And if I’m being honest, I purposefully posed the question in what I thought was the least loaded way possible (I am a Cancer; we do not show our cards).

The truth was evident before he even said it: “I hadn’t really given much thought about it, honestly.” Judging by the rattled look on his face, either that was true or I was watching him struggle through a conversation he’d been actively avoiding. Maybe I’d fooled him into thinking I didn’t care. Maybe I’d fooled myself into thinking that.

Ultimately, all I received was the insight that he thinks I’m “totally great” and a lot of feeble nonsequiturs that didn’t make much sense beyond showing me he is wholly unready for me. I was disappointed but also relieved — relieved because at least I knew what we were now, and disappointed because in learning all that, I realized I was more emotionally invested than I’d originally anticipated. At least now you know, I told myself, half-reassured, half-resigned.

I don’t begrudge him any of that at all, though I do wish I’d spoken up sooner when things started feeling more serious than casual. It’s easy to avoid those conversations when you’re having a good time with someone. Perhaps counterintuitively, none of this made me want to stop seeing him, nor him me.

Once I looked past my anxious expectation that things probably needed to be more “substantial” or different from how they actually were, I realized that actually, I was having a ton of fun. A couple of weeks after that conversation, though, he took a long leave of absence to visit family abroad and we gradually fell out of touch. A prolonged 16-hour time difference isn’t quite a Band-Aid rip, but it functioned as one all the same. The newfound solitude gave me a better perspective on everything.

Forcing romantic parameters just because “it makes sense” — given how long it’s been or some other unemotional reason — doesn’t work when both people aren’t enthusiastically choosing one another. And that’s important because I wasnt choosing him either. I still can’t quite pinpoint exactly why, but maybe it doesn’t matter.

Even if the romantic feelings between us weren’t enough to steer us toward a relationship, that doesn’t have to be the end, either. It’s possible that romance for the sake of romance — and not as a preamble to a relationship — can be really enjoyable in and of itself. It wasn’t what I expected to find upon my first dip into the dating pool, but after having much more substantial liaisons end on much worse terms, it was a nice reminder.

Sable Yong

Sable Yong

Sable is a New York City-based writer. A former beauty editor and now a freelance narcissist, you can find her work on Allure, GQ, Vogue (Teen and regular), Nylon, New York Magazine, Man Repeller (obviously), and sometimes the packaging of beauty products. Like every millennial writer who came of age in the era of analog feelings, she has a newsletter.

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