An illustration showing a pair of scissors removing a 'monogamy' label from a heartBBC Three

No label dating: can you have love without commitment?

Hard-learnt rules from someone who’s tried it...

Alexandra Jones

When I was growing up, there were some truths that I considered so solid that they didn’t bear questioning: that Girl Power was the height of modern feminism. That one microwaved sausage roll was a snack, but two was a complete meal. That I would one day find a partner, we’d get married, and stay together forever.

Somewhere along the line, though, I realised that the Spice Girls were great, but not quite Simone de Beauvoir, that processed meat can give you cancer, and that a+b = marriage and kids was just one of many possible romantic equations. 

And because epiphanies don’t happen in a vacuum, I’m not the only one who’s begun to question whether "one person for life" is truly obtainable. 

Dating, and even having entire relationships, without labelling what you are to each other means that you and your paramour are both free to see, and sleep with others while still spending quality time together. And, as Dr Anna Machin, who studies love and relationships at the University of Oxford, explains, it's far from a niche pursuit.

“This generation approaches a lot of things more flexibly,” she says. “If gender and sexuality aren’t binary any more, I've found that many people are asking whether relationships should be. Is it even necessary to pick ‘single’ or ‘coupled up’?”

"No label dating" went mainstream earlier this year when Zayn Malik – of One Direction and being-really-hot fame – explained to GQ that his seemingly on-off relationship with Gigi Hadid (also of being-really-hot fame) was a "no labels" thing. "We're adults. We don't need to put a label on it, make it something for people's expectations," Zayn said.

In theory, this means that they're free to date other people, while still being "a thing"... just less of "a thing" than they were before. 

Yeah, I mean, it can all get a bit "it's complicated".

And, as someone who has spent a year in a "no labels" relationship, I can tell you – with all the best intentions – it can sometimes feel the very opposite of "adult".

Yes, it’s exciting, and liberating, and you are free to be your true self rather than trying to fit the mould of someone’s "girlfriend", but falling in love without properly committing can quickly breed jealousy and insecurity. And lead you to spend far too much time hovering on their socials, checking when they were last online.

An illustration of green-eyed envy over another relationshipBBC Three

“Millennials are a very cautious generation when it comes to love and commitment,” says Dr Helen Fisher, an anthropologist and neuroscientist who has dedicated her career to studying the impact our intimate relationships have on everything from our brains to our societies. “It used to be that an ‘official first date’ was the beginning of a relationship. Now, the first date is somewhere down the line, after a whole lot of ‘no label’ configurations.”

Realistically, at some point in your dating life you'll probably find yourself in a "no labels" situation. So in the name of 'forewarned is forearmed', here are a few scenarios to consider which draw upon my own hard-won wisdom – and some actual, professional advice from people who aren’t just, you know, making it up as they go along.

You’re still technically single, right?

The scenario: The Office Shagger has been giving you the eye and you’re tempted by a quick, hot fling. They ask you to go for a drink on Friday and you know where it’ll lead.

The dilemma: Do you quickly message your no label partner to check they’re OK with it before going for the drink? Or do you just accept that it would be hard to keep it casual with someone who sits in your direct eyeline eight hours a day, and politely decline?

The expert view: “Every relationship – no matter how easy-going – comes with rules,” says Dr Machin. “If you don’t want to put labels on it then you need to make sure you’re both on the same page about what that actually means.”

Personally, if my no label lover has a one-night stand with someone they’ll never see again, I’m OK with it. But if he messages them afterwards, that makes me somewhat nervous. It implies there is a deeper level of feeling there than a one-night porking (yes, I said porking).

Some polyamorists advise starting a shared document, which you both update with new rules as they occur to you. "Darling, just decided that anyone who works in our local supermarket is off-limits – thanks." It sounds practical but completely un-sexy. Still, each to their own.

Time to kiss and tell

The scenario: Oh god. You did it. You went for that quick drink and The Shagger turned on the charm. Now you’re slipping out of their flat at 6am, wearing the clothes you went to work in on Friday morning.

The dilemma: You turn your phone off airplane mode to order a cab and a message from No Label pops up. "Hey, where are you? Wanna hang out this weekend?" They’ll never find out about The Shagger unless you tell them, but it would be so much easier not to…

An illustration of two hearts with a fenced boundary between themBBC Three

The expert view: “To make a no labels relationship work you need to be able to trust each other completely,” says Dr Machin.

She advises honestly saying: "'I am going to be going on dates with other people. I may sleep with them. I’ll still want to see you after, but I’ll need a certain amount of space'. It can be difficult to say that to someone, but it’ll never work unless you see it through.”

This is a conversation you need to keep having. Personally, I think the hardest part is being honest when you’ve had a fling with the likes of Shagger. “I slept with someone after a party and I quite like them,” is a brutal sentence to utter to, or hear from, someone you care about.

But if you find yourself hiding things, half the battle is lost. “It’s hard to make someone trust you if you lie to them at the beginning,” cautions Dr Machin.

Show some R.E.S.P.E.C.T.

The scenario: You’re in a good place with No Label; you’re both loving this open vibe – so when you meet someone else in a bar, you don’t have to worry before agreeing to go back to theirs for the night.

The dilemma: You’re rolling around on their sofa – suctioned to their face like a sea snail to a wet rock. But suddenly you realise neither of you have a condom. Do you throw caution to the wind or decide to keep it PG, even though you might potentially be missing out on The World’s Greatest Shag?

The expert view: If you’ve got a regular no label lover, but also sleep with other people, then condoms are just common sense. Or so you’d think. Rates of STIs such as syphilis and gonorrhoea have increased by 20 per cent in England since 2016, with young people aged 15-24 the most affected.

“You can’t tell by looking at someone if they’re likely to have an STI, so don’t risk it,” says Dr Mark Lawton, from the British Association for Sexual Health and HIV. “If you have multiple partners keep a good supply of condoms. They’re free from most sexual health clinics. And use them. It’s the best defence against STIs.”

One of the worst conversations I’ve had with a no label partner was when they told me they’d slept with someone else without using protection. My stomach twisted in knots. Yes, an STI test is easy enough – but the emotional fallout is trickier to navigate. “Respect is something you have to show each other a lot of, if you’re going to try a more causal approach to dating,” agrees Dr Fisher.

An illustration showing a pair of scissors cutting a label off a heartBBC Three

Stay digitally unattached

The scenario: You’re casually scrolling through Insta when an image catches your eye. It’s No Label at a festival, covered in glitter and grinning. Your thumb hovers ready to dispense a double-tap. But wait one second – whose arm is that, slung over their shoulder proprietorially, tanned and toned? You know immediately it’s more than just a friend. You open their Insta story – and with some deft pausing, at just the right second, you spot an unfamiliar – tanned and toned – leg poking out from No Label’s sleeping bag.

The dilemma: Do you unfollow them immediately and pretend you never saw it? Or shoot them a pointed, "Hope you’re having fun [NO KISSES]" message?

The expert view: Social media presents a good opportunity to define your relationship boundaries. It can be tricky, but if you’re seeing this stuff on social, use it to start a dialogue about what type of online behaviour you expect.

“Social media can be a minefield for even the most committed of relationships,” says psychologist Madeleine Mason Roantree. “If people seem to be flirting with others it can cause rifts but, realistically, without having any sort of conversation about expectations, people have no right to be jealous or angry.”

She advises waiting until you see the person again – rather than firing off an angry message – and in the meantime taking a break from their social feeds.

Personally, I would go one step further and resist the urge to follow them in the first place. All it takes is one suspicious post to ruin all your label-free Zen.

Own your relationship status IRL

The scenario: Your no label lover has been invited to a wedding and they want you to be their guest. And why not? You always have fun together, and you’ve met some of their friends before. Surely this is just an excuse to get tipsy and have a good time?

The dilemma: Other people. Speaking from experience, they don’t generally respond well when you tell them you’re "not putting a label on it". Soz, Zayn. The eye-rolls from friends – who’re in a very "love is all you need" mood due to being at a wedding – are tolerable. But the bewilderment from older family members as you splutter through, "Well, you see, we’re kind of friends, but also like seeing each other, but not, like, labelling it right now…" is basically torture.

The expert view: You might think it’s not anyone’s business, but, as Dr Machin explains: “When you start seeing someone seriously, you’re not actually dating an individual, you’re plugging into their entire network. Someone’s family and friends have the power to derail most love affairs, so to make a relationship work you need these people on-side.”

Mason Roantree adds: “Discuss your boundaries beforehand – what you want to call each other – and then own your relationship status, whatever that might be. Other people, including family, will be more accepting if you seem confident and at ease with your answers.”

I managed to avoid labelling a relationship for a year. And it was fun. It certainly makes for a fizzy, exciting way to date. But it's not without its pitfalls – jealousy being just one. And, ultimately, without the safety net of labels and boundaries, falling in love with someone can start to feel a little terrifying.

Still, if it's good enough for Zayn and Gigi...

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