If it looks like a relationship and it feels like a relationship, Sarah Millett has learned, that does not necessarily mean it’s a relationship.
Millett, 26, feels battle-scarred from the ambiguous romances that have dominated her dating life, when months of regular sleepovers and daily text chats do not a boyfriend make.
“There are a lot of mixed signals,” said Millett, of Denver, who says she has begun protecting against potential heartache by being noncommittal herself.
Relationships have always been a reliable source of angst and anguish. But dating today has strayed so far from the structured progression most couples followed in decades past that one relationship researcher believes we have entered an “age of ambiguity.”
“Ambiguity is now the norm as opposed to clarity,” said Scott Stanley, co-director of the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver and a research professor in psychology.
Ambiguity can run the gamut from friends with benefits to long-term relationships fraught with indecision about committing to a more permanent future. The long period of relationship exploration that accompanies the rising age of marriage and the growing percentage of babies born outside marriage suggest commitments are fuzzier than they used to be, said Galena Rhoades, an associate research professor in psychology at the University of Denver.
Many couples claim exclusivity but won’t call it a “relationship,” which they fear will spoil the fun with expectations, said Jessica Massa, who interviewed hundreds of singles and couples for her book, The Gaggle: How to Find Love in the Post-Dating World (Simon & Schuster). Others feel the term “dating” produces too much pressure and prefer to call it “hanging out.”
A “perfect storm” of variables have conspired to create generation ambiguity, Stanley said.
One is cultural, he said, as the first generation of children to grow up witnessing mass divorce (now in their 20s and 30s) worry that relationships are so risky that they constantly hedge their bets. ( Of course, plenty of kids of divorced parents don’t have attachment problems and plenty of people from intact households do, as disappointments from people’s own friendships and romances can leave baggage.)
Massa believes discomfort with rejection among the everyone-gets-a-trophy generation is behind some of the vague intentions.
The ease of shopping online for new partners, the social acceptance of diverse romantic arrangements and the disappearance of labels like “going steady” and other public markers of relationship progression add to the dating confusion.
Ambiguity isn’t bad in the early stages of relationships, when people are figuring out what they want, but it becomes tricky as the relationship wears on.
One risk of cloudy intentions is that a couple will slowly slide into living together, or having kids, or mingling finances, without explicitly choosing to do so, and then suddenly they’re in a situation they can’t easily escape, Stanley said.
“When you’re making a commitment, you’re making a choice to give up other choices,” Stanley said. “When you slide, you’re limiting your options, but you didn’t really choose to give them up.”
For Millett, the 26-year-old from Denver, an accumulation of disappointments has driven serious romance low on her agenda. She is enjoying traveling and being single, scared of getting involved with someone who might hold her back.
“I don’t know how people do it, how people stay married for 30 years,” she said. “I think I should just marry my gay best friend and then if we want we can have kids and lovers on the side.”