Register Monday | December 5 | 2022

He’s Not My “Boyfriend”

The Many Faces of Dating

The lexicon of dating is a complicated affair. There are subtle differences and nuances—and no one has it straight. You might be “going out” with someone and never really go anywhere besides the video store. You might be “seeing someone” you rarely see. When dating, we are loath to label things too early so we use these vague metaphors to skirt around the issue. Nevertheless, there comes a time in every romantic relationship when you have to define things, when you must awkwardly match words to the murky negotiations of two people who like to go out for drinks together and kiss. This is not only about pointing out the elephant in the bedroom—acknowledging that you are in fact “more than friends”—but it is also a practical necessity. What do you call this new person in your life? “Where’s your boyfriend tonight?” friends ask. “He’s not my boyfriend,” you have to protest. “We are just seeing each other.”



I have a friend who believes resolutely in making blatant references to new romances. She likes to go out for breakfast with last night’s lover, just to make sure neither of them is pretending that it didn’t happen. She gets it out on the table without reserve. But she is a rarity; most people I know, myself included, make the fewest possible references to budding romances. When things are very new, I am never entirely sure what’s going on. I don’t want to be presumptuous or overzealous, but I do want some idea of where I stand. My natural reaction is to not articulate anything—but I’ve learned that by not communicating, I can get in trouble. An example of this: I was seeing a guy who was in a band. We were “seeing each other casually,” to be specific. I took this to mean we were not going to jump into anything, that we were going to see where things would go. I took this to mean that I wasn’t going to expect him to call more than once a week. It should have been simple. But it wasn’t. It was complicated by the fact that he invited me out with his friends and held my hand in public—he acted too much like a boyfriend when he was around (which wasn’t often). When he invited me to his concert, I didn’t presume that I was watching my boyfriend’s band, but I did think I was going to be the special girl he had invited to his show. Unfortunately, there was more than one of us. Afterwards, when the whole group went out for drinks, I was sitting next to a pretty girl with curly hair. I asked her how she knew the guitarist and she replied, “Oh, we’re kind of seeing each other.” Casually.

As it turns out, I’m not the kind of girl who can do the casual thing. I gave it a good go, but if “casual” means waiting around for phone calls and having a relationship with zero potential and humiliating run-ins, I’m afraid I have to pass. So I know I don’t want to be in a casual relationship—but I definitely want to be casual at the beginning. I don’t want to define things at an early stage, and generally believe things need time to be what they will be.

I’ve always found “boyfriend” to be a little patronizing. It says too little and too much at the same time.

My European friends tell me that Canadians are neurotic about dating. A Norwegian beauty I know can’t understand the North American male. “A guy will ask me out,” she says, “but it seems he just wants to know if we will sleep together. Tonight or in three dates’ time.” He wants to know right off the bat if things will work out. If not, he probably won’t call again and the relationship won’t be pursued. This is strange to her. She is going out with the guy to get to know him, to see if they like each other. She is not thinking, “Is this guy going to be my boyfriend?” And it’s not just the Norwegians. Another friend of mine was telling me that they don’t even have the word “boyfriend” in her native Germany. I asked her what she’d call the guy that she is seeing, exclusively and often. He’d be a freund (or freundin if it’s a girl). “What does it mean?” I asked. It means "friend."

What in “friend” implies that you like to get naked together with this person? It turns out that, in German, you use the same word for your non-sexual friends as you do for your make-out partner. There isn’t a distinction. The next jump in the classification is your verlobter (fiancé)—which makes things official. There is a German word for a person who is purely a lover (geliebter), but this applies to negotiations of physical pleasure, not the emotional relationship implied by “boyfriend.”

I like this German way of naming things. A “friend” is about right (with perks). A friend is someone you like to have around, whom you respect and trust. I’ve always found “boyfriend” to be a little patronizing. It says too little and too much at the same time. Boyfriends are the guys you go out with in high school and watch skateboarding videos with—but a boyfriend is also the six-year partner of a thirty-three-year-old woman who doesn’t believe in marriage. What are the other options? Describing someone, as I just did, as your “partner” is gender neutral, but somehow seen as a bit geeky. People assume you are referring to a lover of the same sex, when, in fact, it’s a nice descriptor for the person you like to share with—gay or straight. Unfortunately, the term has been hijacked by the politically correct. Once in a while it is fun to refer to someone as your lover, but more as a joke or to shock someone you don’t really like. “Oh, him?” you say flippantly, “He’s my lover.” It would be very bawdy of you, but “lover” implies a sex-based relationship and not much else.

And so we come back to “boyfriend”—a weak substitute to describe either the light of your life or the guy you go to the Paramount with on Friday nights. I did hear a nice term the other day. A French friend of mine was talking about finding an homme d’hiver, a man to bunk down with in the winter, someone to get cozy with when it’s cold. Who wouldn’t like one of those? Someone to go out with—or for that matter, stay in.

Emma Appleby is a fabulous force on the Montreal scene. Read more recent columns by Emma Appleby.