The student's love lexicon: from single to taken and everything in between
A friend of mine has been dating someone for months, but I’ve been expressly forbidden to call it a relationship. “No, it really isn’t a relationship! I’d rather call it a…”, she pauses and thinks of a new word on the spot, “a situation!” This friend and her non-boyfriend spend nearly all their time together, like one does in a serious relationship, and they are exclusive. Still, she swears the term ‘relationship’ does not apply to their, uhm, situation and therefore should not be used.
She's not the only student who handles her love life this way. Serious relationships seem to be a rare occurence when one looks at the multitude of Dutch terms used to indicate the phase two people are in. The lexicon runs from single (vrijgezel) to steady relationship (vaste relatie) and in between we can find a number of intermediary stages.
Isanne (22), a student of Cultural Anthropology & Development Sociology, has been in a committed relationship for over a year. “There is a whole list of terms making the rounds, a lot of people know them. I think it was written by a couple of giggly students one night. When I was dating my current boyfriend, my friends would often ask me, jokingly, about the stage we were in.” Fellow student Wouter (24), also in a committed relationship, confirms that the terms are often used as a joke: “It’s not like I go around introducing her to people with a straight face: ‘This is my prela’”
But aside from being funny, these words often come in handy, too. “When someone says ‘I have a prela’, I know what they mean right away,” explains Lisanne. Wouter adds: “With these words, you can make things a bit less awkward. People always ask what someone is to you. If you’ve been dating for a couple of months, at some point you have to define it somehow, but sometimes it's just too early to say ‘he’s my boyfriend’. So, for the sake of convenience, I use one of these labels.” In Wouter’s case, using the labels had nothing to do with keeping his options open. He just hadn’t sat down and talked to his ‘not-yet-boyfriend’ about it yet. Therefore, he was still in a prela (short for prerelatie, "pre-relationship").
To Esmee* and Roos*, both polyamorous and in committed relationships, the extended love lexicon comes in handy. They’ve agreed with their partners that they are free to engage in other types of relationships with other people. “In a monogamous relationship, especially in long ones, one sometimes falls in love with someone else. They can then choose to break up, or try and see whether these relationships can exist alongside each other”, Roos explains. The lexicon then helps them and their partners understand the connections they have with other people.
Esmee adds that the polyamorous people she hangs out with use the terms jokingly as well, but when push comes to shove they tend to describe their relationship stage instead of labeling it. She then tells us a fun fact: “Some polyamorous people, called relationship anarchists, have stopped differentiating between friendships and relationships at all. They don’t label their relationships platonic or romantic anymore – they’re unlabeling.”
Relationships are less fixed then they used to be and we have become more individualistic
But, going back to the love lexicon, how did it come to be? There hasn’t been any historical research into its naissance, but according to student Leah, it seems like young people are no longer interested in quickly committing themselves to someone else. “A connection that used to be called a relationship now gets defined as a ‘kwarrel’. I think we have so much freedom that we don’t want to be limited by a relationship. We’re afraid to commit to a single person, since a better one might be just around the corner.” Esmee adds: “Relationships are less fixed than they used to be, and we have become more individualistic, too. We’re looking for what we really want. Dating apps like Tinder also play a part in this. We have become more critical because we know the many options the dating world has to offer.”
Master’s student in Neuropsychology Eline (22) ponders that young people aren’t just indecisive, but also insecure about what their partners want. “I think we are all very scared to be rejected. It used to more clear that, when you met someone and you liked each other, that that person was the right one.” Eline often hears her friends say that they are unsure about whether to approach someone as they’re afraid that their advances will be unwelcome. According to her, social media sites like Instagram are to blame. “People see so many perfect couples there and think: ‘that’s what I want too’”. In her view, that makes people forget that relationships are hard work.
Students also mentioned these new relationship terms are related to taboos which have been broken. “I think we’ve become more relaxed, or at least more open about how relaxed we are”, Isanne says. “Maybe these things happened last century too, but people just didn’t know about it because students were secretive about their relationships”, Roos adds. Students' love life today may seem wild, but maybe these are just old arrangements that are only coming to the fore now. Isanne can’t imagine the students of forty years ago being all prudes or monogamous. “I don’t buy that all.”
That sounds like a meat market to me
But what do most students actually think about the new love lexicon? Wouter summarizes other’s responses nicely: “Those labels are there to enable conversation and to make these situations more understandable, just like what happened with the LGBTQ+ spectrum. Those labels shouldn’t matter, but they make changes more comprehensible.” However, some of the students I talked to stressed that honesty and good communication are key between the two people in the ‘situation’, because the terms shouldn’t hurt anyone's feelings. Roos recaps: “Most of all, you should do what makes you comfortable, as long there's respect for the other person when you use these labels. As long as no one gets hurt and it makes people feel free, why not?”
Luuk* disagrees. “I think it's a bit juvenile. I'm not just talking about age, it's also about the way they look at love. By using these labels, they disregard that love is something that happens between people, it’s complex and you shouldn’t want to define it.” He gets antsy whenever a new word gets added to the list, as he doesn’t see that as a positive development: “Especially the word kwarrel, which means quality scharrel (free range, Ed.). That sounds like a meat market to me!”
Perhaps young people are more careful. They would like to explore whether someone is truly right for them
Relationships have not changed much in the past few decades, but there have been some developments, states Susan Branje, Professor of Development & Socialization in Adolescence at Pedagogical Sciences and part of UU’s research group Youth & Family. According to Branje, young people are dedicating more time to their studies, which prolongs a period of uncertainty about what life is going to look like after the university, so they defer transitioning into adult roles. This means adolescence, the period in which one explores relationships, lasts longer too. Students are entering the work force later compared to previous generations, which means they buy a house later, move in with their partners later and therefore start serious relationships later.
Additionally, Branje says people tend to value the quality of their relationships a lot more now. In our grandparents’ time, a marriage was a practical thing and most women were financially dependent on their partners. Now that it happens less often, the focus point of a relationship has shifted towards romantic love, making people more demanding with regards to their romantic partner. “Your partner should tick your boxes, develop with you and be there for you,” explains the professor. Last but not least, it is far easier to get divorced nowadays. Branje thinks that's a positive development, as people are no longer imprisoned in unhappy marriages, but she's also afraid it leads to unrealistic expectations: “The relationship has to constantly improve to fit one's expectations. People should understand that someone cannot always pay attention to you, and that relationships take work.”
Branje adds that young people are striving for perfection in other areas of life, too.“You can see the same at work or at the university. People used to study to find a good job and have a steady source of income. Today, they also expect their studies to reflect their passions, they expect to be fulfilled by their field of study and be offered continuous opportunities for growth. The same goes for relationships. A lot of emphasis is being put on the individual’s free choice. You're the one making the decisions, so you are the one responsible if the consequences make you unhappy. Sometimes young people really struggle with this idea.”
According to Branje, constantly looking for perfection and happiness fosters restlessness. There is a lot of pressure when trying to find the right romantic partner, and relationships have become less permanent. That's where the labels come in. “Young people are perhaps more careful and want to explore if someone is truly right for them. As long as they're not sure, they prefer to label it differently. They don’t want to get stuck with someone and use these words to indicate they are not sure.”
Dating apps and social media's influence on relationships does not have to be negative per se, states Branje. “Some people have nice interactions there. But there are also people struggling. They compare themselves to others, which can cause frustration and doubt. But that also happens offline.”
The Dutch have borrowed this expression from the English language. It means having sex with someone just once, no strings attached
When you have a fling but you don't know where it's going to go yet
When you see someone regularly, but you're not exclusive
A scharrel in times of quarantine
A quality scharrel which may become a serious relationship
Friends with benefits
When you fling looks promising and you think it may develop into a relationship
The period just before a relationship.
When you’re in a relationship and everybody knows it, but you don’t want to label it like that
The students marked with a * preferred to remain anonymous, which is why are using fake names. DUB's editors know their identities and contact details.