Emma recently posted about friends with consequences, the spanko version of “friends with benefits”, and in it she also briefly discussed labels. She says:

Well, labels can be useful, including labels that help define our type of relationship with someone. It’s useful to be able to describe someone as your girlfriend, as opposed to your coworker, or to make it clear someone is your brother and not your life partner.

Single lexical words (or short-phrase terms) can often simplify this process, so we can say “this is my girlfriend” instead of “this is a person with whom I am romantically involved” which is clunky, to say the least.

I have three partners. When I’m talking to my parents about them, I refer to them as partners (or, in the case of my long-distance partner, “long-distance partner”). They’re all technically girlfriends, but if someone were to ask me about hierarchy, I couldn’t answer. I don’t have a nesting partner (someone who lives with me). I wouldn’t say I have an anchor partner either. No one person is “higher” in the hierarchy than any other person. Sure, I see one of my partners more often than I see the others, but that doesn’t mean she’s “more important”.

How do I refer to them in conversation with people who aren’t aware of my polyamory? As partners or “my girlfriend”. The person I’m speaking to doesn’t need to know that I have more than one. Although, and this is a separate conversation, I look forward to the day when polyamory is as accepted in a work discussion the same way that having a same-sex partner is.

What about play partners? All of my romantic partners are also play partners. But all play partners aren’t romantic partners. Again, there’s no hierarchy, so there’s no specific way to refer to them except by descriptors. I have a 22-year-old play partner, I have a play partner who is a veterinarian, I have a play partner who lives in Alabama, I have a play partner who doesn’t need or want aftercare, I have a play partner who refers to me as “Uncle ___”, I have a play partner who is trans, and so on. How do I tell them apart when I’m talking to people in the know? How do I differentiate them when I’m talking to my friends? (I mean, I usually use their names, but for privacy’s sake I only share names if the person has approved of that.)

Labels are useful. They give us good shorthand for referring to people and things. But they aren’t perfect, and in a community where communication and precision is important — such as the kink or polyamory communities — sometimes we have to use clunky phrases instead of neat, simple labels.

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