I’m seeing a new relationship trend emerging among my clients. And, frankly, it’s not a good one. What’s a trend in psychotherapy? Well, it’s when you start hearing very similar stories from several clients — enough times that it makes you go hmm. Lately, for example, I’ve seen a spike in generalized anxiety which many trace to the uncertainty they feel about the political future of our country. But I practice in Massachusetts, so there’s that.
The unfortunate trend that’s surfaced over the past year or so is one I call the Non-Relationship Relationship. I’m primarily hearing about it from women in their twenties and thirties who date men, but I’m betting it also applies to dating across the lifespan and to same-sex couples.
Here’s how the Non-Relationship Relationship (NRR) works: You’re in a relationship with a man. You see him several times a week. Maybe you’ve even met his parents. The sex is good. He texts you every day. He introduces you to all his friends. He takes you to his office Christmas party. You’re planning a vacation together.
All good, right? Except for one thing: He refuses to call your relationship a relationship. And, perhaps more importantly, he won’t agree to exclusivity. In other words, he won’t commit to being faithful.
But you spend so much time together, you’re not really worried about him being with someone else, right? I mean, where would he even find the time?
But then he goes to a bachelor party in Vegas or flies off to a company meeting and now his reluctance to call your relationship a relationship starts to take on meaning. And the hard truth of the NRR is he can do whatever his little heart (or whatever) desires when he’s away from you. Guilt-free.
Now, the twist to the NRR is he’s been honest with you from the get-go. So, when he comes home and admits he hooked up with an ex-girlfriend at his class reunion, what’re you going to say?
Of course, you’re angry and hurt. And you tell him. But it gets you nowhere because he’s got the NRR rulebook as his fallback. He was just doing what he already told you he might do. In his mind, he’s congratulating himself on being Mr. Open Book.
Gaslighting is a popular component of the NRR. Being gaslighted in a relationship means your partner tries to convince you that something you know to be true is a figment of your imagination. And, done right, it makes you start to feel a tad crazy.
In the NRR, what you know to be true is that you really are in a relationship with this guy. But because he doesn’t want to name it as a relationship, because he wants to leave the door open a crack, because he thinks he’s being truthful, you start to question your truth. You think, Maybe he’s right. But isn’t this a relationship? Maybe it’s not. What defines a relationship exactly?
In addition to feeling confused, you pile on worry and jealousy. Because, without a real commitment, you can never establish trust. And, without trust, you’re a chaotic mess every time he goes out with his friends or has dinner with a female coworker. Because, why shouldn’t you be? You’re in a relationship with a guy who claims you’re not.
Why are so many guys adopting the NRR? Simple answer: sex. Remember, my sample is mostly from younger women dating their male cohorts. And these guys in their twenties and thirties don’t want to close off the possibility of hooking up with other women. They’re happy with the NRR because they get to have all the benefits of a relationship with you (companionship, friendship, intimacy) without having to walk away from the opportunity of sex with someone else.
If you’re in a NRR, do you see he’s having his cake and eating it, too? That he’s taking all of the good from you but exploiting it by infusing your day-to-day with insecurity and self-loathing?
The self-loathing piece comes from knowing you’re not doing right by yourself. You’re not saying, “Look, I’m worth more than your two-bit honesty schtick. Commit to me or there’s the door.” No, instead you’re holding out for him to change his mind, to pledge his devotion and fidelity so you can get on with it. Hear me here: This is not going to happen.
If you’re in a Non-Relationship Relationship, know that you’re choosing it. No one is forcing you to tolerate this painful mind game. Why be with someone who is pretty much telling you you’re not enough for him? Because — if you don’t already know — you are enough. You’re more than enough. And the guy who deserves you will know that.
Act like a goddess and be treated like one. Act like a punching bag and brace yourself for the blows. If you want to find out what you really mean to him, put an end to the NRR. If he doesn’t value your relationship (as you already suspect), you may be saying a permanent, healthy goodbye. If he’s willing to abandon his NRR policies to hold on to what you have, he may be a keeper. In both scenarios, you end up with something invaluable — your dignity and self-respect.