What Are the Different Types of Relationships?

Gone are the days where you could describe your relationship status simply as single, married, or divorced. These days you could find yourself anywhere from talking and hanging out, to being partners or maybe just friends with benefits.

“Relationship titles run the gamut,” says James Wadley, PhD, professor and chair of counseling at Lincoln University in Philadelphia. “I see married couples who call their partner their best friends and all other kinds of terms of endearment. There’s dating, hooking up and all kinds of ‘it’s complicated.’”

So why have titles in the first place?

It’s a way to make things clear. “I see people looking for those definitions to determine their own rules and their partner’s rules for how they should function in their relationship,” Wadley says. “There should be an understanding about quality time, living together, and even things about when the other person is expected to come home at the end of the night. Often couples don’t come up with an agreement about what they’re doing and it causes conflict.”

While Wadley points out that, these days, the two (or more) people in the relationship are creating their own titles, he does point to seven common types of romantic relationships you’re likely to encounter:

Talking/Hanging Out/Kicking It

This stage may start with a crush — those ooey-gooey feelings that cause you to want to spend more time with one person than others. It’s often casual and brief. Or it might last for months while both parties “figure things out.” Just hanging out doesn’t assume the relationship is serious, but it does mean you enjoy each other’s company.

Dating

Like other types of relationships, dating has changed over time. Your grandparents or great grands may have called it courting. Back in their day, it may have involved adult supervision. Now dating often relies on technology and the parents normally stay home. While the word itself does mean going on dates, people see that as meaning very different things. It’s important to communicate what you expect, Wadley says. For some dating is casual — just a small step up from talking — and you can date more than one person. For others, it’s the first stage of a serious relationship.

Boyfriend/Girlfriend/Significant Other

Are you seeing other people? If the answer is no, a couple could decide they’re officially in a relationship. Having a significant other may provide a sense of stability. Many couples with this title share an emotional and sexual bond only with one another. The stakes are higher, but some would say the rewards are, too. Couples who are just seeing each other may be more focused on working things out when disagreements pop up.

Partners/Domestic Partners

Formerly a term for same-sex couples, the term now applies to couples in general. Partner moves away from heteronormative language that assumes everyone is interested in the opposite gender, Wadley says. A domestic partnership normally describes a couple living in an intimate relationship without a formal marriage commitment. Before same-sex marriage became the law of the land in 2015, many same-sex couples lived in domestic partnerships and had some of the benefits of marriage.

Casual Relationship/Friends With Benefits

A couple in an open relationship has a level of commitment to each other. But they also agree it’s OK for either one of them to date or have sex with other people. The key word here is agree. This isn’t cheating. The term open means just that — each person is honest about the fact that they’re spending time with someone else. Studies suggest there may be more of an interest in open relationships than there are people talking about it or agreeing to it, though. Nearly 5% of the population admits to being in an open relationship compared with 20% of men and 15% of women who admit to cheating on their significant other.

Open Relationship

A couple in an open relationship has a level of commitment to each other. But they also agree it’s OK for either one of them to date or have sex with other people. The key word here is agree. This isn’t cheating. The term open means just that — each person is honest about the fact that they’re spending time with someone else. Studies suggest there may be more of an interest in open relationships than there are people talking about it or agreeing to it, though. Nearly 5% of the population admits to being in an open relationship compared with 20% of men and 15% of women who admit to cheating on their significant other.

Polyamory

From ancient stories to modern reality TV, polyamory has a long history. This type of relationship involves romantic love with more than one person. Unlike an open relationship where one member of a couple can have a relationship with someone else, polyamory includes an arrangement where three or more people are in a relationship together or with other people.

Whether you’re in one, none, or a combination of these types of unions, having a healthy relationship is still important. A therapist can offer conflict resolution and other tools to keep you aligned. “I think relationships benefit from check-ins with a professional,” Wadley says. “You do safety checks on your car. I recommend the same for healthy relationships.”


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