How to Tell If You're in an Almost Relationship

It's completely different from friends with benefits.

two people walking down a street with one person reaching a hand up to the other's shoulder, from behind
Photo: Boris Jovanovic/Stocksy

Dating is hard. Actually, that might be the understatement of the year — dating can be brutal. When you finally find someone you connect with — a person who makes you laugh, respects your opinion, and is generally always there for you- it feels like such a relief. But what if that person doesn't want to label it? What if you're both doing coupley things, but never actually clear that you're a couple?

You might just be in an almost relationship.

"I often find with my clients that there are several women and men who claim to be in relationships, but they don't refer to them as such," says relationship expert Susan Winter, who coaches both couples and singles on how to create and find lasting relationships and partnerships. "It is a relationship in every way except the fact that they don't actually call it one, and don't refer to the other person as their partner. There might even be a promise of being monogamous, but for some reason, the people aren't considered boyfriends, girlfriends, or partners."

"Almost relationships are really different from friends with benefits, which is an agreement between two people to be sexual partners," explains dating coach Lisa Shield. "There's no expectation there — here, there is an expectation of being there emotionally for the other person."

After all, if you're basically in a relationship, who cares about silly titles, right? But while the concept may be fine in theory, Winter insists that with time, that kind of relationship can take its toll on the person who wants more. This is rarely a two-sided affair.

"I find a common reaction to being in something that isn't being labeled is it invalidates our participation in it," elaborates Winter. "One person always wants the label because if it's a relationship in every way except calling the person their partner, it leads to feeling 'less than and not good enough for the label." As a result, other emotions like anger, hurt, jealousy, and even depression can pop up, which can really hurt one's self-esteem.

Writer Isis Nezbeth admits that being in a labelless relationship was completely exhausting, but she went along with it anyway, in the hopes that it would satisfy her emotions. "Unfortunately, I've been involved in almost relationships more times that I'd like to admit," she tells InStyle. "Sometimes, we allow ourselves to be in almost relationships because we haven't communicated that we want to be in a committed relationship with said person. But people get away with what you let them get away with. At the time that I was involved in almost relationships, I believe I dealt with it by lying to myself. I would tell myself that there was nothing wrong with him 'not being ready for commitment right now' or the fact that I was giving so much of myself without expecting anything in return."

Though it might seem to have little appeal, according to Winter, these types of relationships are more common than ever. "The real reason I see people shying away from labels is because a label equals responsibility," she says. "There's a need for responsibility for emotional impact and the code of behavior. If there are no labels, the partner can just pick and choose whatever they feel like doing in the relationship… there are no consequences."

Shield elaborates, "I think fear of commitment is definitely on the rise." She blames the current dating culture for a lot of it because people easily find someone new with the swipe of a screen and are more into casually dating. "But perhaps the biggest reason why people are afraid to commit today is they have been betrayed by a former partner and they don't want to go through that kind of emotional pain again."

If this kind of relationship is something that both people want, couple's counselor and psychotherapist Matt Lundquist stresses that it isn't usually a long-term thing: Eventually, it'll fizzle out. "I usually find this type of relationship only works if both the people in it have specific reasons for not labeling it — like maybe the end of a long-term relationship on one end, or fear of commitment on the other end. But eventually, these are short-lived because once the issue is resolved, the label-less relationship no longer works for one or both parties," he emphasizes. If you want a real relationship and are just going along with the label-less life because you don't want to lose the person you're with, then sorry, but you're going to have to talk about it.

"I think if you're not the one looking for something casual, you need to explain that you need more right off the bat," says Winter. "Or if you're already in it, you need to elaborate that what you're in is a relationship in every way, so the label should come with it." She recommends also alleviating some of your partner's anxiety by listening to the reasons behind their lack of commitment, and then addressing each of them tactfully.

"I always see people say things like, 'Well, I don't want to end up like them'... referring to some kind of committed relationship they don't approve of. But they need to understand that their relationship is theirs, and they can make it any way they want. By explaining that, they understand the committed label won't change the relationship." But beware the person who just isn't listening: "That just means they want to use you for comfort without giving any of it back," says Winter.

Preventing an almost relationship from happening to you right at the beginning might prove to be a bit harder, but Lundquist does say that there are ways to know, provided you pay close enough attention. "Honestly, it sounds so cliché, but when people tell you who they are, listen," he says. "Don't think you'll be able to change someone." He also recommends that if you're in something that just isn't going where you want, you should bring it up a few months in, instead of assuming you know what you're getting into.

"Obviously, this isn't going to be an easy conversation — there's always the chance that the other person won't be ready in the same way, and you have to decide whether you want to stick around," he says. "There's really a sense of courage that comes from this, though, because you're not settling for something that will bring you unhappiness later down the line."

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