What should you do when you’re stuck in relationship limbo?


Recently, I saw a question on a dating advice forum that I wanted to share and answer. It’s not an original dating dilemma, but it’s one that touches on a lot of common themes.  Two people want two different things in a relationship, but can’t seem to come to an understanding. I’ve edited the question a bit brevity’s sake. 

We’ve been exclusively dating for 2 months, but she isn’t ready for a serious relationship.

The topic of labels came up last night and she said she wasn’t ready for a serious relationship yet. She said she was dating me because if she was going be ready she could see herself being with me.
I’m alright with this, but I’m confused. To me it seemed like we were already in something serious, which at the very least isn’t casual. We’re exclusive, we have regular conversations, we hang out or go out 3-4 times a week, and we’re public about being an item. We haven’t had sex yet and there’s no physical element to consider things casual. Her friends have mentioned that she rarely enters serious or casual relationships, so I doubt she’s looking for something better. She occasionally puts photos of us on her Instagram or sends a picture of us to her mom.
I’m fine with keeping things where they’re at, but I can foresee the ambiguity becoming less tolerable to me if it continues too long. I would eventually like the security labeling relationships brings. I have no problem bringing it up later, but I’d like a better idea of the angle she’s coming from so I can be more empathetic if I must have that conversation. I feel like there’s a dimension of her perspective I’m missing, because to me we certainly aren’t casual right now so I feel very confused.

The thing I like about this question, and why I decided to use it to make a few points, are the details of the question and the context it provides. Without context, if you asked me whether you should stay with someone who doesn’t want to commit at the same level that you do, my answer would be no. If you asked if titles were important, without context, the answer would be yes. If you asked me how long you should stick around with someone who doesn’t want to use a formal title when you do, my answer would be “not very long”, if you don’t offer deeper context.

I think that when the topic of titles comes up within the first 3 months of dating, and someone tells you that they’re not ready for a serious relationship yet, a case could be made that they need a little time to figure things out. It’s okay to want to be with someone who knows whether they want a relationship prior to that point, but two months into dating someone is a reasonable amount of time to both ask for clarity around labels AND be unsure if you’re ready to commit.

Whether or not I’d agree that it’s smart to stay in a situation where you want a specific thing like a formal title and your partner won’t give it to you, without context my answer is usually no. Context matters, and in this case, it changes my answer.

Here are my answers to the topic, but in a general way:

Should you stay with someone who isn’t ready to commit to a specific title when that’s what you want?

Usually, you shouldn’t. There are some things worth compromising on when it comes to relationships, but titles aren’t one of them. It might seem silly, but there’s a certain amount of weight and context that a title imparts. If it’s important to you, it’s important, and that’s what matters.

How long should you stay with someone who isn’t ready to formally commit yet, but might be some time in the future?

How long you stay with someone who isn’t ready to commit, or ready to meet any of your romantic timeframes is to take your maximum time to meet a certain milestone, and divide by 10. If you want to be married within 5 years (60 months), then waiting 6 months at maximum for your partner to figure out if they want to commit is a good guideline. Want to be engaged within 3 years? Wait 3 months at maximum for someone to figure out if a formal title is right for them. Want kids within a 10 year time-frame, you can probably afford to wait 12 months for a partner to decide if they’d want kids in the future. 2 quick caveats: Expect the worst if you are going to wait. Don’t assume that giving someone more time means they’ll decide to go along with you. Another thing to consider is adjusting your maximum wait time if your timeframes are based on a set time, rather than a relative time. If you want kids 10 years from today (December 4th, 2017), you can afford to wait 12 months for someone to figure out if they want to commit. If you date someone for a year, and you split, and you meet someone a year later, your time-frame is now 9 years, so your max wait time should adjust to roughly 11 months or so.

With that out-of-the-way, let’s answer the specific question using the context provided:

Firstly, feel free to wait a bit longer to see if her opinion on titles changes as long as you’re willing to wait. That said, you should come up with a maximum wait time to see if her opinion will change. You can tell your partner what that time is if you want, but I wouldn’t. I don’t like influencing people’s romantic decisions, but that’s just me.

If you do finally get to the point where you can’t wait any longer for her to want to commit, even if it’s sooner than you’d originally thought you’d like to wait, bring it up then and there. My timeframes are just rough guidelines, adjust them as you like.

I understand your confusion because relationship limbo is confusing. You’re in a committed relationship in everything but name, so it’s easy to be confused about why someone would be so hung up on the title. I’m sure your partner feels the same way. If you’re getting everything you’d want in a relationship minus the title, why dwell on the title? You’re both right and you’re both wrong. Titles are only as important as the weight we put on them. At some point, you’ll both need to figure out if either of you are willing to compromise for the other. Maybe there is a compromise to be had, maybe there isn’t. What I would not suggest is arguing that “titles are meaningful/meaningless to me, so just compromise”.

One last thing. It’s all well and good to try to understand why someone chooses to places value on titles, it’s entirely possible that the reason they do so doesn’t make sense from a logical perspective. Striving for understanding and empathy are noble pursuits, but at some point you have to accept that people’s motivations don’t always make sense. Not every dating choice has to make sense to you, so don’t beat yourself up trying to understand everything. The motivations behind someone’s fears about commitment are valid for them, even if they don’t make sense to you.

Good Luck Out There.

Also published on Medium.

One Reply to “What should you do when you’re stuck in relationship limbo?”

  1. Great advice! I agree wholeheartedly especially since the person asking for help has only been in this relationship for two months. I think that’s a little soon for titles.