If you’ve kissed someone recently, can he/she be “just a friend”? If you’ve had sex with the person?
I keep hearing young people say things like “Yeah, we hooked up a few times, but we’re just friends.” Or, “We have sex most weekends, but we’re really just friends.”
“Just friends,” to my way of thinking, means someone with whom there is no romantic or physical relationship. (Or possibly someone with whom you had a brief romantic relationship years ago and you’ve both long since moved on—but even that is more complicated for most people than a simple friendship.)
What these young people are trying to express, I think, is that they’re not “in a relationship” in an exclusive way—what in my day we would have called “going steady.” But there are a lot of possibilities between an exclusive relationship and being “just friends.”
The middle ground used to be called “dating” or “seeing each other” or “going out” (or “courting,” once upon a time). With the decline in going out on “real dates,” we seem to have lost that language, which is a shame.
The young people in these sorts of relationships seem to be struggling a bit. They don’t want to have feelings for the other person, but they often do. The other person is often a focus of emotional energy in a way that other friends aren’t. Denying these feelings just because you’re not in a committed relationship is denying a truth about yourself.
It’s OK to care about and/or be excited about someone even if you’re not in love (or aren’t yet), or even if the relationship likely won’t be long-term. And it’s OK to care about him/her in a different way than you care about your friends.
So let’s use language that reflects the truth of the experience. If “dating” seems old-fashioned, how about “someone I’m seeing” or “someone I’m hanging around with”? Or maybe a new expression? Whaddya think, 20-somethings?