“My friends would definitively tell you he is my boyfriend, but I have a tendency to say we are in a monogamous relationship and leave it at that. Instead, I refer to him as the man I see,” Kate*, a 20-something in D.C., who has been dating her former boss on and off for four years, told the Observer. “It took me ages to ask, ‘Are we in a monogamous relationship?’ ” Kate explained, only posing the controversial question two years in. “I think you need to have a conversation with the other person before you start dropping the boyfriend label, and it’s kind of a weird talk to have when you’re not 16.” More people than ever are avoiding the Facebook official, parent-approved label, instead choosing the purposefully evasive “person I’m seeing,” or the Carrie Bradshaw-approved “man friend.”
Introducing the “time bomb”: a relationship both parties know won’t last but drags on for months, maybe even years. Sometimes it’s to avoid actively app dating, or it’s a quest for easy companionship in major cities. For others, it occurs after a particularly messy break-up. Time bombs lack the so-called normal milestones of a regular relationship, from DTR (defining the relationship), to meeting friends and family, to posting about love incessantly on social media. There was benching and then ghosting—but they’re all just labels created by millennials who are petrified about caring too much. Some 20-something women are on Pinterest contemplating marriage; but for many ladies in the New York and D.C. metropolitan areas, entering informal, undefined partnerships is an easy way to avoid commitment while focusing on their own busy lives.
“At the beginning, I definitely envisioned the relationship would end, and that made me not want to label it. If you don’t have a boyfriend, you won’t have an ex-boyfriend. It almost gives you some relationship fluidity. You may separate for a bit but come back together, where ‘ex’ feels final,” Kate said about her choice to not label her relationship. Another reason to stay in a vague partnership is to avoid the perils and financial burden of dating. “I only get excited about people I know well, so the thought of dating a stranger is repellent,” Kate proclaimed, echoing the views of single women everywhere.
“The in-between stage is rare.”
The Texan thinks it’s easier to be in an undefined relationship in a major city. “Your friends, acquaintances and colleagues have less interest in seeing you paired off. Or maybe just less inclination to ask, ‘So, who are you dating?’ There is validity to the notion that in these regions people are more focused on nonromantic pursuits, often to the detriment of romantic ones. I don’t know if this is true of other parts of the country, but here it is a major case of either being married or single. The in-between stage is rare,” Kate said. Others echoed her beliefs—after growing up enmeshed in a world of casual hookups, few 20- and 30-somethings know how to date in a real way that’s somewhere between a late night “u up?” text and a Facebook engagement announcement.
Chloe, a 27-year-old writer in Crown Heights, has been sort of seeing someone since January. They spend one night a week together, but she sees the relationship dissolving in the future, “so it seems kind of pointless to define it,” especially since she doesn’t want to deflect questions about marriage from family members in her Virginia hometown. The duo met on a dating app, although she was seeing someone else at the time in what she called a “casual, nondefined kind of way.” When people ask, she describes him as “this guy I’m seeing,” which is the title he’s been given for the last eight months. She still uses dating apps, but seeing someone has made her stop wasting time analyzing bad dates. “I’m less likely to mentally categorize someone as a ‘maybe’ who should be a ‘no,’ because I have something like a safety net,” she explained. After coming out of a serious, years-long relationship, she wanted a break from commitment.
“Out of my five closest girlfriends who don’t live in the city, all but one is married. Out of the 10 women in my New York group texts, who are between 25 and 32 years old, two live with their boyfriend. The rest are single. I feel like I’m in good company in the city. I don’t need to lock anything down,” Chloe said. “It does feel easy to be in an undefined relationship, especially in New York. For every friend I have in a serious relationship, I have two who are single and desperately want to be in a relationship, and then two who are just dating casually like me. It’s not a peer-pressure situation where everyone is doing one thing and I feel left out. I’m 27 though. Maybe this will change in the next few years.”
Mary’s a 30-year-old mom who works in D.C. She dated a co-worker for just under a year while going through a messy divorce. “While I wasn’t seeking marriage, I was seeking a relationship where if he got hit by a bus I could show up to the funeral and people would know who I was.” She met his friends because he lived with multiple roommates but was never introduced as his girlfriend. Because of religious differences (he was from a conservative community in Northern Virginia), he felt uncomfortable introducing someone with a young child as his significant other.
“While we both agreed we weren’t looking for marriage, it turned out that meant different things to us both. To him, the culture he was raised in indicated that the only way a relationship was supposed to be a long-term or serious commitment was marriage. To me, that wasn’t the case,” Mary said. Despite the ephemeral nature of their relationship, it didn’t end in disaster. “I think the fact we were both aware of the time bomb the entire time helped make it the most amicable breakup I’ve ever experienced.”
Cecelia, who works for a nonprofit and lives in downtown Brooklyn, was seeing someone for eight months without defining it. “I tried to keep it casual, to where I wasn’t overly committed to someone that I wouldn’t see very often,” she said about her former mate, since they lived in different cities. “I wasn’t going to actively date other people but left it open that if something happened with someone else it wouldn’t be considered cheating. And he was free to do the same, but if it started to mean something with someone else, we would let each other know,” she said, describing what many would think of as an open relationship. “I’ve been in a couple undefined relationships, and there isn’t anything easy about them. I think people claim to be okay with it, but as soon as someone’s feelings get too strong, it gets confusing and painful. Although anything casual is easier these days since we aren’t all looking for marriage right away.” Many of the men she’s dated haven’t lived up to her last serious relationship, so she keeps them undefined to leave room for someone she could potentially commit to.
Diana, a publicist who lives on the Upper East Side, has been seeing someone in D.C. for a year. They met through mutual friends and reconnected again when they matched on Tinder. Due to distance, it never became more than a hookup. “It’s nice having a booty call in another state. It feels reminiscent of Ludacris’ hoes in every area code,” Diana joked. Since it is long distance, she still uses dating apps to avoid texting “D.C. boy” and seeming clingy. “The thought of being in a full-blown relationship terrifies me. Nightly sleepovers? Hanging out with their friends every week? I don’t think that would fit into my life right now. This allows me to feel like I’m working toward something, even though I know deep down it won’t really amount to anything.”
Alice, a 30-year-old who works in marketing and lives in Jersey City, was in a nonrelationship for five years with someone she describes as a friend with benefits; but unlike the Ashton Kutcher (or Justin Timberlake, pick your poison) rom-com, it didn’t end well. After meeting through mutual friends, they dated on and off. Alice called it “a relationship suspended in that pre-official phase.” She originally had hope that it would turn into something more serious. “Early on, it seemed like it could go somewhere, but then it felt like it was always going to be stalled at the starting line.”
“There’s less pressure and less of a sense of obligation, but sometimes it’s lonelier than dating ever was.”
Anna, a Brooklyn nanny in her early 20s, has been seeing someone from Tinder for six months who she refers to as her “man friend” à la Sex and the City. She believes meeting on the app helped keep it casual, since there’s no accountability. “It’s not like you’ll run into each other, unless you’re that guy who got my number on the F train who had the same commute as me,” she quipped.
Anna defines her current status as falling somewhere between a consistent hookup and a real relationship. “I generally describe it as good, consistent sex with someone I don’t hate—and occasionally we watch each other eat. Honestly, I think we are either going to stay in this weird limbo or break it off,” Anna said. “I have a good thing, I don’t really think it’s worth it to sacrifice it to try and find someone else when I’m not ready to get married any time soon.” Anna describes being in a nonrelationship as easier logistically but difficult emotionally. “There’s less pressure and less of a sense of obligation, but sometimes it’s lonelier than dating ever was.” In major cities, it’s easier than ever to be in a stalled relationship with an expiration date.
For the almost-couples who met by app, there are no mutual friends in the wings questioning how it’s progressing and whether the traditional benchmarks are being met. If distance is an issue, there are no familial expectations or calendared meet-ups. In the past, someone might relocate without thinking to join a significant other in another state. Now, women don’t want to give up their careers and lives for a relationship that might not work out. Some women choose a time bomb when they’ve been in a bad relationship and are looking to recover, while others are too focused on their careers to worry about actively dating, especially when apps are a time commitment. But for everyone, the time bomb is a way to say, “I’m seeing someone,” without questioning why they don’t want to commit, which usually involves a therapy session (or 12). Time bombs might exist when someone is paired up with the wrong person—after all, with apps it’s easier than ever to have nothing at all in common with a suitor. Or it might be because a woman is not ready for marriage and isn’t sure what the “in-between” stage looks like in a world where late-night hookups or an Instagram-worthy ring appear to be the only options.
These almost-relationships don’t necessarily have to explode when the relationship ends, especially when both parties knew it wasn’t going anywhere from the start. It can fizzle or end with a simple text message (no Post-it notes, Berger style) or even ghosting—not with a bang but a whimper. They are endlessly ticking, in an eternal countdown that begins from the moment a couple meets. A time bomb is a relationship that’s easy, enjoyable and destined for disaster. *Some names have been changed