Maddy, a 24-year-old woman in New York City, defines “ex” as a past exclusive relationship.
Well, most of the time.
I spoke with Maddy after she completed a survey I created for this article all about the term “ex.” It was distributed over social media in February, and 283 people responded. During our conversation, Maddy discussed a woman she considers an ex — even though they were never exclusive.
“It does feel like she’s my ex, even though that goes against my own definition,” said Maddy, who requested to be referred by her first name for privacy reasons. “Just because of the level of closeness and the level of how much we expected from each other.”
Maddy is not alone. It’s 2020, and there are so many permutations of relationships beyond exclusive ones (not to mention those within polyamorous relationships, which I will not dive into here). We all have our own nebulous definition of “ex.”
There are so many paths a relationship can take, and there are just as many degrees of emotion we attach to them — even when they’re labeled outwardly as “casual.” When these types of entanglements end it can feel heartbreaking, as much as when you experience the end of a “real” relationship. But if those people are not exes, then what are they?
I propose we call these not-really-exes “semis.” It’s another prefix and incredibly fitting: Those people who got part of the way towards a “real” or “serious” relationship, but not quite all the way.
Here’s how it is used in a sentence: “Ugh, I got a 3AM text from my semi from last year.”
I know, I know — yet another dating buzzword to describe our current dating landscape. There are, however, several reasons why I feel a word like “semi” is incredibly necessary.
Our current state of dating
In retrospect, it does make some sense that the English language has not kept up with the various types of relationships we see ourselves in today. For a long time (and is still the case in some areas of the world), dating was something facilitated by parents, or at least one’s family. It usually culminated in marriage and the promise of children.
In the United States and many parts of the Western world, this shifted in the twentieth century in part due to social movements like the sexual revolution. Thanks to technology, however, dating in 2020 is far different from the courting of the nineteenth century and even dating in the twentieth century. It’s shifted the kinds of relationships we have with each other. And as our romantic interactions have changed, a has become have emerged.
“It does feel like she’s my ex, even though that goes against my own definition”
Dating apps are certainly part of this. With a few swipes right and messages, you can get a date seemingly in an instant — and thus begins a new, unique relationship. Whether it be a one-night stand, a short-term relationship, or a life partner, it is in fact a relationship. That is even more true for queer people: More than heterosexual couples.
But it’s not just dating apps that have contributed to an array of relationship permutations. Social media as a whole has had a hand in this. You may follow someone on Instagram that you dated years ago and haven’t spoken to since, for example. But something as ubiquitous as texting has also shifted our relationships. You can talk to someone for days on end and create a deep connection even if you barely had any face-to-face time.
For better and worse, tech has made connecting much easier, and thus made forming deep connections with our fellow man much easier. On the upside, we can make friends online and keep in touch with faraway loved ones. The downside, though, is that we have tons of different relationships with people — and we don’t always know how to categorize them.
, psychologist and author of , believes these loose definitions are generational to late millennials and Generation Z. The trend among young people is to not want to label relationships, to “see where things go.” Considering we are the first generations where apps and online dating permeated our dating experience, it makes sense.
It’s this uncertainty that led Kate Wiswell, author of , to as a descriptor for someone who was not just a friend, but not a boyfriend, either.
Even six years after writing that blog, Wiswell believes the English language lacks language nuanced enough for the plethora of relationships we have. “I still feel incredibly frustrated by the lack of ability for us to have the right words to try and describe what we’re going through,” she said in an interview with Mashable.
Millennial and Gen Z dating histories, according to Winch, are like the gig economy — patchworks of experiences. “There’s not the understanding of this linear process of you start dating someone, it intensifies in seriousness, and then either you get into a committed serious relationship or it drops off,” he said in an interview with Mashable. “That’s no longer the main model I think people are using.”
Labels do have their downsides, such as giving people false expectations or they can be seen as restrictive. But not labeling the relationship can also cause a lot of confusion. “People ‘go with the flow,'” said Winch, “but then they start to question, ‘Well, where is this flow going?'”
How people define “ex” now
Samantha Rothenberg, a comic artist who goes by on Instagram, told me that she only considers someone an “ex” if they had that conversation where they label their relationship.
“An ex must be someone who I had the relationship talk with where we firmly established that I’m his girlfriend, and he’s my boyfriend,” she said.
In my survey, 73.4 percent of the 283 respondents agreed with Rothenberg and said they use “ex” only to mean a past exclusive, monogamous relationship.
But that is not the whole story. While many felt the same way, others have a looser definition of the term. Over 37 percent said they refer to someone they’ve dated in the past for a certain amount of time as an ex, and 20 percent said an ex is someone they’ve dated for any amount of time.
Since we live in a time of friends-with-benefits and fuck buddies, I also asked about sexual relationships. Around 19 percent of respondents say they consider an “ex” a past, non-exclusive sexual relationship for a certain amount of time, while 6 percent consider an “ex” a past, non-exclusive relationship for any amount of time.
Additionally, Rothenberg polled her some 200,000 followers about the subject. The majority of the 4402 respondents, 54 percent, said they use “ex” more loosely than just past “serious” relationships.
Not only is our definition of “ex” all over the place, but so is the amount of time we feel necessary to deem someone an ex. When asked about how much time is “a certain amount of time,” respondents answered anywhere from a month to six months to years.
While Rothenberg has a tight personal definition, she said that it makes defining past relationships that did not have “the talk” harder to talk about. “It does kind of leave this weird gray area when I’m referring to one of those relationships,” she said, “I’m never sure what the correct term to use is.”
The “ex” conversation becomes even more layered once you consider queer relationships, which can take varying degrees of platonic and romance at any given time. This is something heterosexual people cannot seem to wrap their heads around even decades after When Harry Met Sally.
Maddy said she does not know how to define the word when it comes to other queer people. “If ex is based on relationships,” Maddy said, “the only real model for relationships that we’ve had for hundreds and hundreds of years is straight relationships.”
Why “semis” deserve to be named
There is an argument that we don’t need to name these relationships, that they are unnamed for a reason: They are not significant enough to have their own names. If you were not in an “actual” relationship, why legitimize them with language?
It’s because these relationships, even undefined, are significant. We invested enough time and attention to have genuine feelings for this person — why else would we be talking about them? If they were insignificant, this gap in language would not exist because we would simply forget about them, they would not come up in conversation, we would have no need to truncate “that Tinder guy I hooked up with for six months but then it got weird…” or what have you.
If it takes a paragraph to explain someone’s role in you life, it’s a lot easier to just create a word for them rather than will those feelings and memories away.
“Even if someone is not officially your boyfriend or girlfriend, it can still hurt so much when it ends”
“Even if someone is not officially your boyfriend or girlfriend, it can still hurt so much when it ends,” said Rothenberg. She described how the emotional pain of a ending could be brought on because you’re left with the fantasy of what could have been — rather than the reality of how a relationship could have played out where you see that you were not a compatible couple.
Furthermore, your brain cannot tell the difference between those “not really” relationships and “real” ones. Breaking off a friends-with-benefits arrangement or with someone you dated but never — it’s painful. “Those relationships hurt because the fact that they’re nebulous doesn’t mean that our mind doesn’t fill in the blanks at some level,” said Winch, “With all kinds of hopes and expectations and anticipations.”
Even if we do not know the future or the other person’s intentions, our mind fills that void. Winch commented, “Psychology hates a void. Something’s going to go in there, even if you’re not fully articulating it.” That’s what makes our hearts break over semis: it’s not about what actually happened. It’s about what we thought would happen, or what we thought about what was happening. If you pour your hopes and dreams into a friend with benefits you believe will for sure want to marry you, and then they don’t, of course it’s going to hurt.
That is why we should not brush these semis aside, and why we should label them.
“We need to find a way to embrace the uniqueness of various relationships,” said Wiswell. “There aren’t just a few little buckets that we can put everything into.”
Where do we go from here?
It’s difficult to say whether this relationship trend will continue. Wench believes trends to be a generational pendulum — perhaps those who come next will balk at the way millennials and Generation Z labeled or did not label their varying relationships, and the tides will shift.
Furthermore, we don’t know the technological developments that will change dating. The landscape got a , and it may, and probably will, happen again.
Our language should change with the times. I want my and others’ feelings validated by the words we use; I want there to be words to use, period. I do not want to have to rattle off a paragraph to describe someone who meant a lot to me — so instead, they’ll be my semi.