What word can I use for a relationship that is committed and loving, but not sexual-romantic?

My primary partner and I broke up, but very much still love each other and are going to continue being in each other's lives. We're struggling what finding terminology to tell people who we are to each other. "Ex" is technically right but honestly wrong, "best friend" is true but not strong enough. I'm just in need of more relationship-describing words so I can get people to understand two people who love each other deeply, feel like family, are sharing a life, but aren't partners.

First off, huge kudos to you two for having the emotional intelligence and maturity to recognize that relationships grow and change and don’t always conform to existing, prescribed structures. Intellectual, emotional, domestic, sexual, creative, romantic, and other types of connections are up to us to define and one doesn’t need to include or proscribe another. I recommend checking out resources around Relationship Anarchy, which does a good job of giving words and structure to ideas and feelings like this.

Ultimately, the big issue here is whether it’s more important that you A.) Find a term that you feel captures the emotional and relational reality of your relationship, or B.) Find a term that you can use externally to refer to this person. It’s sort of one or the other, unfortunately; any term that carries enough meaning to feel right to you will very likely require a lot of explanation and definition. Any term that is conversationally simple is not going to feel complete to you. It is totally okay, when talking to your great-aunt or your coworkers, to use a simplified term just for the sake of not having to derail the conversation to explain the specifics of who this person is to you. It does not diminish your relationship, it’s fine.

As for specific words:

  • You can use “partner” or “life partner” - those words don’t belong to people who have a romantic/sexual connection (they have long been used to describe artistic collaborators, business partners, etc.) and you are free to re/define them.

  • You can combine existing words for terms like “Family Partner” or “Life Friend.”

  • You can just use each other’s names. I had one partner who ‘didn’t do labels’ so I just referred to him as “my Diogenes” and he referred to me as “my Zinnia.”

  • You can make up your own term by borrowing, adjusting, or combining existing roots. Lots of people have tried to tease out ‘different types of love,’ so that might be a good place to start. Check out this theory and set of terms. I knew some folks who just used the prefix “Co” to describe how they related to each other; it was meant to encompass words like collaborator, compassion, connect, etc.

My partner doesn't want to use the word "boyfriend" - what's the deal?

How important are labels in a poly relationship? For example my partner and I do traditional relationship things together. But when I casually referred to him as my boyfriend he said he didn’t want any labels.

That question is impossible to answer; there’s no “Polyamory Prescriptions of Importance” that tell you how important various things are to every polyamorous person. If they’re important to the people in the relationship, then they’re important. If not, then they’re not.

You need to talk to your partner about this and figure out what he thinks “boyfriend” means vs. what you think it means. If, to you, “boyfriend” means “someone who sleeps over, texts me in the morning, and comes with me to work events,” and he does those things but won’t call himself your boyfriend, that is obviously going to feel confusing and oddly arbitrary to you. But if your partner thinks “boyfriend” means “someone who is committed to a long-term relationship and hopes to move toward higher levels of life entwinement like cohabitation,” he might be balking at that term.

Ask him: why don’t you want labels? What does “boyfriend” mean to you that “partner” doesn’t? Is it really just about the word, or is there a different concern? And think about what “boyfriend” means to you, so you can better communicate that to him. How important is it to you that your partner is willing to use that word? Why? It’s highly unlikely that this is really about what collection of syllables you two use to refer to each other - it’s what that word signifies to both of you that needs to be brought from the realm of implication and assumption into clarity and communication.

My partner and I are emotionally and sexually close with a third person - what do we call this?

So my boyfriend and I are in a very committed relationship with each other, but there's this girl were kind of in, like, an open relationship with? (We'll call her E.) My bf and I are intimate with E, but only when the three of us are together. We kiss, cuddle, etc. We all love each other A LOT, but E is free to date/be intimate with whoever she wants without us. We don't consider ourselves in a "serious relationship," but we're way more than friends. Is this polyam or just complicated?

P.S. I apologize deeply if I misused any terms, and I did not at all mean to imply that polyam relationships are less serious than monogamous ones, I was referring to our situation individually when I said "we don't consider ourselves in a 'serious relationship.'" Sorry if that came off wrong!

There are more options in the world than “polyam” or “just complicated.” Because it doesn’t sound like your situation is “complicated” at all! It sounds like you all know what you want and how to get it, and that you’ve found a relationship arrangement that works for all parties involved. I wouldn’t call that “complicated” at all!

It’s up to you whether you want to identify your relationship as polyamorous. Here’s my FAQ page on that. If identifying as polyamorous helps you find language and resources to keep things happy and healthy, great! If it doesn’t seem relevant or necessary, great! You might also consider checking out Relationship Anarchy, which is a way of thinking about relationships that makes lots of space for different types of emotions, arrangements, etc. without trying to force them into pre-existing formats and boxes, including “polyamorous!” I’d say this is a pretty great example of RA, personally - people who know how they connect sexually and emotionally, and who don’t assume that those connections mean they have to do everything else a certain way. But I don’t decide what and who you are, you do!

I also really loved the sweet little postscript. It’s rare that I get hurt or offended by a letter-writer’s language (with some notable exceptions); I usually try to gently steer people toward a linguistic re-framing for their sake, not mine. I think it’s clear that you’ve thought intentionally and honestly about the language you use around “commitment” and “serious relationship” and how that applies to your relationship, which is probably one reason it’s working so well for you three. It’s good to recognize that your application of certain terms and ideas doesn’t generalize to other people, and to be considerate with your language. You’re good, letter-writer; keep on keeping on!

What's an alternative phrase for "don't ask, don't tell"?

I have in the past communicated to my partners that i don't navigate polyamory that is "don't ask, don't tell." it's a useful phrase that gives everyone a baseline for understanding. however i personally think it's a despicable phrase and want to stop using it. is there another succinct way to describe polyam where partners don't openly share information?

I've never heard one - DADT seems to be the primary way people describe this type of arrangement - but here are some I just made up:

Omission Without Lies (OWL) - essentially this acknowledges that it's okay, or even desired, to omit details about other relationships, and that "lies of omission" are not considered lies. But active lies are not okay. So I might say "I can't hang out Saturday, I have plans" instead of "I have a date" - but if you ask me explicitly what I'm doing on Saturday, I won't say "meeting my Nana for bridge."

Need To Know Basis (NTKB) - acknowledges that there are some things that your partners just might need to know, like that you're busy Saturday, or that you're too sore for kinky sex this weekend after a scene with someone else. But nothing is shared without a need or reason to be shared.

Firewall Polyamory - refers to a "firewall" between all your relationships, where they don't affect or influence or have anything to do with each other. 

Someone used language to describe my polyamorous relationship that I find dehumanizing

My boyfriend is new to polyamory and was explaining things to his sister and she asked if he and my girlfriend were "sharing me." That feel like really gross and dehumanizing phrasing to me; am I overreacting by being unhappy with that phrasing?

It's okay to have feelings about things; and the way other people describe you is something that most people have strong feelings about! You can be unhappy with whatever you want - the word is overreaction, not overfeeling, for a reason. It would be an overreaction if you forbade your boyfriend from ever speaking to his sister again or ordering 100 t-shirts that say NEVER USE THESE WORDS TO DESCRIBE MY RELATIONSHIP, PLEASE and only wearing those.

In this case, it's a third party to your relationship - your boyfriend's sister - who used a phrasing you find icky, in a conversation with someone else. Probably best to leave that alone for now - if someone else uses that language when asking you about your relationship, it's totally fine to say "actually, we don't like to describe it like that," and then give your explanation of what polyamory is and is not, for you.

It's totally okay to bring up with your boyfriend that you don't like language that frames you as an object or possession to be shared - not as a thing you're angry about or an issue you have with his sister, just as a heads-up that you're not comfortable with it. Just like I might say "hey, thanks for going grocery shopping, but in the future, I like creamy peanut butter, not chunky."

I was that grey-Ace anon and whoops Im sorry I didn’t mean to be offensive with wording and sound so bad 😅 I just didn’t know how to word it. Thanks for your answer though!

Hey, it’s okay! 

I don’t usually post follow-ups like this, but in this case I want to point out that when I call attention to language like I did in the most recent letter, I am never trying to shame someone or say that they are being offensive or wrong. 

Instead, I believe strongly that healthy polyamory (and healthy personhood, honestly) means recognizing our unconscious assumptions. We need to identify what we believe, pull it into the light, examine it, and with intentionality decide whether we want to keep that belief or not.

A lot of times, we move through the world thinking that how we see things is just an objective observation of reality - that if we interpret something one way, that’s just how it is. Because how else are we supposed to know what the world is like if we can’t trust our senses and interpretations?

But when you sit down with yourself, your thoughts and feelings, you might find that some “facts” you take for granted; some of the structure of your worldview - it’s not that useful or true.

So when I call attention to the language in a letter, I am not trying to correct you or call you out. I am trying to say, “hey, based on your language, you might actually be framing things this way - I encourage you to recognize that that is a way of framing things rather than simply how things inherently are.”

Looking at the language we use is a great way to expose and explore the underlying assumptions we have about the world! It’s just a little “hey, did you notice…” from me, trying to be helpful, not accusatory! The words we choose for things we struggle to define can be powerful clues about how our minds are putting it all together.

Another example might be me saying “I know I shouldn’t be so angry, but I really can’t stand when my mom does XYZ.”  I’m trying to talk about the issue with my mom, but my therapist stops me and points out that I prefaced my emotions with “I shouldn’t feel this way” and encourages me to explore that sense of shame or repression around my anger. To me, it was just an innocuous conversational way of introducing a topic, but she is trained to see these patterns and help us be cognizant of them. It doesn’t mean it was a bad thing to say, just that it’s good to pay attention to the words we use, because sometimes they reveal things we haven’t consciously noticed. 

Go forth, live intentionally, date healthfully, and keep sending me letters! <3

Hello! I have a question about polyamorous terminology and was wondering if you could help me. I have recently become involved with a married couple. I think the term for what I am now is a unicorn; however, someone mentioned that because my married couple is significantly older then me (the wife by 14 years and the husband by 25) that there was another term for what I am more specific to the age gap. Do you happen to know what that is or where I could do more research to find it?

Wait, someone told you there are a word you should use, but couldn’t tell you what that word was? That person sounds like they have their own perspectives they want to impose on the world, but you don’t have to accept them. Find language that lets you identify and understand who you are and what your relationship is in a healthy, honest way. Don’t let meddling language police tell you that you need to find a new word (unless you’re misusing or misrepresenting someone else’s identity term, but that doesn’t seem to be the case here).

I, for one, have never heard of a term that means “someone dating a couple who are both older than them” - that is so specific that I don’t think there is, or needs to be, a term for that. Unless your age gap is a significant part of your relationship or somehow defines the terms of your relationship, I don’t see how it’s relevant to anything.

There are terms for relationships with big age gaps, but none of them are terms the people in the relationship are obligated to use, most of them are denigrating anyway, and none of them are specific to poly arrangements. There are terms for sexual play that involves roleplaying or exaggerating age gaps, but those generally have to do with sexual arrangements, not necessarily entire relationship styles. And any term should be freely self-adopted by the people engaging in the relationship; no one else gets to tell you “oh, you’re not allowed to use THIS word, what you’re REALLY doing is THIS OTHER TERM.”

And honestly, polyamory is so new that there are very few “real” or “established” terms, there is no Official Dictionary of Polyamory. If you find yourself in a situation that you want a term for and you can’t find one, make one up! If you find yourself in a situation that you don’t think needs its own term and you think you fit fine into an already existing category, don’t worry about it!