"So, is he your boyfriend?" my friend asked, turning her head to the side and leaning in. I'd just recounted a lovely, snow-filled weekend I'd spent upstate with a man I'd been hanging out with for three months.
I felt unprepared. I quickly conducted an invisible assessment of the relationship in my head. Deep conversations: yes, and often. Exciting outings: yup, from hiking to art shows. Texting frequency: once a week. Post-coital cuddling: always. A "defining the relationship" conversation: nope. A desire for a "defining the relationship" conversation: absolutely not.
"He's, well," I searched for a word that didn't seem to exist, "he's my dating partner."
Relationship definitions are an important thing for most people. They give us predetermined contexts in which to interact with the people around us. We like the neat boxes the history of romance has provided: date, fuck buddy, friend with benefits, one-night stand, boyfriend, girlfriend, husband, wife, life partner.
But the person I was seeing didn't fit in any one of those boxes. Like so many other 20-somethings, I was in a series of noncommittal, nonexclusive casual romantic relationships with people I was both sexually and deeply emotionally intimate with, not to mention going out on dates with. They went on for weeks, months, even years at a time. They weren't hookups or boyfriends. They were dating partners.
And a dating partner was exactly the kind of relationship so many 20-somethings, including me, want.
All of the good, none of the stressful: This type of "dating partner" relationship is far from a personal invention; in the last two years, so-called dating partners have slowly infiltrated into pop culture. Consider Lincoln, Ilana's romantic interest on Broad City.
Ilana describes their relationship as "purely physical," and "a fuck buddy situation" at different times throughout the series, but in fact Lincoln offers Ilana something a little deeper and more nuanced than that. He is loyal to Ilana's friends, answers late-night panicked calls and even provides her with free dental work. They genuinely care about one another, and the relationship continues consistently for months, all while Ilana still sees other people. In reality, Lincoln is Ilana's dating partner.
We've also seen dating partners sussed out on Girls, in the form of Adam circa Season 1. Hannah is clearly dismayed by precariousness of her hypersexual yet emotionally involved connection with Adam; but when she describes what she wants, it's not exactly a traditional boyfriend-girlfriend relationship:
"I respect your right to see, and to do whoever you want, and I don't even want a boyfriend, so I just want someone who wants to hang out all the time, and I really don't want to go to brunch. And I don't want you to sit on the couch while I shop, or like even meet my friends. I don't even want that."
Hannah captures the appealingly selective nature of dating partners. If monogamous relationships are cemented with mutual desires — home ownership, diamond rings, interminable futures — then dating partners are expressed more by the "I don't even want that"s, selecting all the good stuff (fun dates, great sex, emotional support) without the limiting framework of formal relationships.
Eliza*, 26, first met her dating partner at the office, where they shared a workspace. From a span of August through January, they hung out about once a week — going on dates, hooking up, even celebrating each other's birthdays. What they didn't do: meet each other's families, go to work events as a couple or hang with each other's friends.
Eliza tells Mic they only broached the topic of exclusivity after two months and even then, "It wasn't a conversation I definitely assumed we'd have." The talk, when it happened, simply established that they wouldn't hook up with other people: "That conversation never turned into boyfriend or girlfriend titles or implied anything more formal than what we were doing."
After five months of casual exclusive dating, Eliza decided it had run its course. "I came to a point where I realized I wasn't ever going to like him more than I did, at that elusive 'boyfriend' level, and that it didn't make sense to be exclusive and committed to someone I only kind of liked romantically. Although I valued him dearly as a friend." So they parted ways — no drama, no strife.
"I learned that I have more various levels of emotional connection I'm capable of, that it's not a black-or-white situation," Eliza says, looking back. She's had at least one other dating partner since.
The signature relationship status of a generation: The rise of relationships that fall somewhere between the poles of "let's just have sex" and "this is my boyfriend" makes perfect sense in the context of national trends. The median age of first marriage is climbing — 27 for women, 29 for men — as many young people are embracing the professional, educational and personal development single life can offer (and resisting the divorce rates they're all too familiar with).
Meanwhile, fast-paced lives ruled by smartphones and social media leave us more unencumbered than ever, with more opportunities to connect with a variety of people. "I think this noncommittal dating is a natural, almost inevitable, product of our fast-paced, technology-enmeshed, highly geographically mobile lives," Zhana Vrangalova, a sex researcher and adjunct professor in New York University's psychology department, told Mic.
But that doesn't mean millennials don't want love, intimacy or the sexual gratification associated with longer-term relationships. According to the Pew Research Center, 1 in 5 adults between the ages of 25 and 34 has used an online dating site or app. Just as many 20-somethings are looking for love as ever, but online dating can be impersonal and the current "paradox of choice" in dating can leave many wanting more.
Young people's emotional needs, the same ones felt by all prior generations, might have been fulfilled in another era by early marriages. Millennials may not be ready to settle down, Vrangalova said, "[But] that doesn't mean they don't have sexual and intimate needs to fulfill in the meantime. ... Noncommittal dating answers this set of needs perfectly at a time when you are not ready to fully commit to a single person."
The ideal balance of sex and emotion: The sexual aspect is what's newly unique to dating partners. Vrangalova is quick to point out that such casual relationships aren't an entirely new concept; rather it's our willingness to explore them, and to openly add sex to the equation, that is. "In the '50s and '60s, American teens were encouraged to 'play the field' before settling into a long-term relationship," she said. "What we see today is something very similar, only with the sexual component added, given that we live in a world with much more liberal sexual values than our parents."
Casual sex has never been more common, accepted and freely enjoyed. "Nearly as many women as men (85% and 89%, respectively) report enjoying the sexual activity of their last hookup," a 2009 University of Michigan study found. Those liberalizing attitudes, especially for women, are on display with TV characters like Lincoln and Adam, mainstream media coverage of topics like casual sex, BDSM and polyamory, and growing social media chatter about sex-positivism. This changing environment is "enabling the sense of abundance of and easy access to sexual partners," Vrangalova said.
The beauty of dating partners is that they allow for sexual freedom, but without the emotional emptiness. I got together with my first dating partner after a series of horrific hookups with people I didn't know or care about. I found the transition from one-night stands to cuddling and engaging conversations without the pressure of family visits a welcome change. Having a dating partner felt happier than any defined relationship I'd had in years.
Short-term commitment, long-term rewards: The weight of commitment that looms large as a relationship progresses can be the very thing that brings it down. Dating partners, with their assumption of a short-term lifespan, avoid that pressure. "I don't think monogamy is for everyone," said Ian*, 29, who's been in a cycle of dating partners before. "I don't plan on getting married nor do I approach dating seeking out the perfect person for me to spend my 'forever' with."
The lack of future commitment also leaves healthy breathing room for growth and mistakes. "I believe it can be an excellent way to gather sexual and relationship experience, learn more about yourself and how you are in relationships," said Vrangalova. "Often, moving in and starting to plan your life together with the first person you get infatuated with is a terrible decision. ... But you're too young and inexperienced to know all that. So a few years, even a decade or two, of noncommittal dating can really give you that experience and perspective."
"I believe in always doing your best. It is important to leave the other person better than you found them; make the best of the time that you have together, however long that may be," Ian said. He explains the concept of honeymoon periods — heightened periods of excitement and lust early on — and thinks dating partners help preserve this while we explore what we like and don't like about people. "Sometimes people measure the success of the relationship on the duration of it," he said. "I disagree."
As Dan Savage put it in episode 431 of the Savage Lovecast, "A relationship doesn't have to be long-term to be healthy. It doesn't have to be everlasting to be something you can be proud of. ... People can have short-term relationships that they can look back on fondly and for which they can be congratulated."
The pure joy of connecting: When it comes down to it, the benefit of a dating partner is the joy of an enriching human connection, something that doesn't need to come in a specific package to enjoy. "If a woman is funny, practices good hygiene and listens, I'll probably be interested," said Ian. "Nothing beats a woman with a great personality."
In all my conversations about dating partners, the implicit joyfulness, satisfaction and reward of having these kinds of casual relationships was apparent in people's faces. There's something life-affirming about realizing romantic satisfaction doesn't have to be tied to the metric of "we got married" or even "we're exclusive." For a generation that puts less emphasis on monogamy or more on choice, dating partners meet a new kind of romantic need previously unavailable or undesired.
Sometimes we just need the words to describe it.
Back in the restaurant when I first thought of the term, my friend had asked, "Okay, so what even is that kind of relationship?"
"Well, it might all come down to soup," I explained. "If you have a cold, a fuck buddy isn't going to bring you soup. And a boyfriend is going to make you homemade soup. A dating partner? They're totally going to drop off a can of soup. But only if they don't already have any plans."