The Other 3 Little Words: I Love You, But—What Are We?

Esther Perel and Mary Alice Miller

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Saying “I love you” has long been the ultimate marker of seriousness in the early months of romantic relationships. In the last few decades, however, the rise of the “situationship” has elongated the dating phase, elevating a different set of “three little words” to the pantheon of important relational dialogue. “What are we?” isn’t simply a kickoff to commitment. It’s a question with complex motivations and outcomes. Many of us are happy to avoid it altogether, preferring the freedom and autonomy of non-definition. But for those of us who desire titles and terms, those three little words knock at the front door of our impatience, imbuing our encounters with an anxiety that eats away at the enjoyment. The positive anticipation that once fueled us can shift into negative anticipation—that feeling of waiting for the other shoe to drop, for it all to be over before it ever really started. 

Situationships are difficult to define and even harder to mourn. Many of us worry that asking “what are we” too soon might zap the playful, easygoing nature of nascent love, fast-tracking the arrangement to an uneasy end. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Whether we’re happy to keep the status quo (separate lives connected by mutual affection) or desire a more entwined commitment, discussing “what are we” is an important part of creating a shared reality with healthy boundaries and expectations. 

Why Does Asking “What Are We” Feel So Taboo?

The connection is real. The chemistry is deep. It’s possible that both of us want the same thing. So why does it feel so taboo to initiate the conversation? Because in that early phase, the not-knowing can carry its own magic. (There’s a reason why the literary and cinematic “will they-won’t they” plot has endured all these years.) When there’s no explicit commitment—no decision made about serious versus casual—all options are possible. Each moment spent together is a choice, not an obligation or expectation. The ambiguity can feel erotic, flooding us with its novelty and surprise. But with all that freedom comes a certain amount of insecurity and uncertainty. Some of us like that; some of us don’t. 

We all know how quickly that sexy ambiguity can become “stable ambiguity,” in which we have the comfort of consistency just enough so that we don’t feel alone, but not enough to be committed or to build intimacy. This holding pattern can feel like relationship purgatory, particularly for those of us who might want a more traditional relationship centered around clear labels, commitments, and milestones such as getting married, having children, buying a house, and so on. These are perfectly normal desires. But that’s not what everyone wants. 

These days, people are marrying—on average—ten years later than in previous generations. And many of us date well into middle-age, post-divorce, and as widows and widowers, too. We bring more of our own individual lives into our relationships and fully merging lives is not the systematic rite of passage it used to be. We can love someone and not want to combine lives. We can love someone and want to keep things casual. We can love—and have relationships with—multiple people at once if we’re all on the same page. What helps is honoring what each party needs and wants…and that takes some conversation. 

Modern love comes in many forms. And if we don’t talk about which form we want, we’re left to assume that we want the same things. Through that lens, a lot of misunderstanding and hurt can happen. Asking “what are we” isn’t just about defining the relationship; it’s also about discussing monogamy, polyamory, family structures, life-merging, kids, career ambitions, timelines, and more. That’s a lot of pressure to put on a relationship so early on. If you want to know why asking “what are we” feels so taboo, it’s because these hidden layers revolve around our needs and desires, our pasts and our futures. It’s vulnerable and raw. Part of the magic of those early days is the ability to pretend like none of that exists; to be deeply in the moment. Sometimes, that’s the only place we get to experience that kind of freedom. Who would want to give that up? 

“I’m Not Trying to Put a Label on it, But….”

We all need freedom and we all need security. Some of us need more of one than the other and we look to our relationships to get it. A person who needs more freedom may shirk labels while a person who needs more security may feel as if continuing without a label infringes on their self-esteem and self-respect. 

If it’s a label we want, there’s no need to pretend otherwise. Labels create clarity and it’s perfectly normal to want to call someone we love our partner. If we’d like to turn a situationship into a bonafide relationship—and especially if we’re interested in a long-term partnership—the question of “what are we?” is a standard starting place. The respect and communication that follows can tell us a lot about how the other person would be as a committed partner. 

Keep in mind, though, that just because we want to get serious, doesn’t mean we can’t be playful. A little teasing can be helpful here: “I think you like me. I think you want me to be your girlfriend/boyfriend/partner….” If they bristle at those words, playfulness can help here, too. “Ooh, you don’t like that word. Why’s that?” The answer may reveal a new story. Maybe they want a different arrangement. Maybe they fear commitment. We can’t let one person’s hold ups dictate our own needs. Likewise, we can’t let our desires dictate theirs. Talk it out.

Love Stories Are Not The Same as Life Stories

If the answer to “what are we” has a disappointing outcome, the hit to our ego can be as painful as losing our idea of what the relationship could be—or what we thought it already was. It’s important to remember that the people we love are not necessarily the same people with whom we can make a life. Life stories are not the same as love stories. It’s a different set of ingredients, different aspirations. We can have a wonderful short-lived dalliance, totally disconnected from our realities, and it can be a perfect, beautiful love. But it has little to do with the intricate scaffolding that supports a life together. 

If the answer to “what are we” is mutually satisfying, we’ll be glad we initiated the conversation. If we do end up in it for the long haul, asking “what are we” is a great exercise to periodically return to as a way of reviewing our commitments, expectations, visions, dreams, and boundaries. Relationships are meant to change and grow and a little conversational infrastructure benefits everyone.

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