"I can't date another married woman*. I just can't," he said to me when we'd been, well, dating for a few weeks**.
This wasn't him breaking it off. He just didn't want to be my "boyfriend", he told me and I understood.
I really didn't mind. I was enjoying our whateveritwas, and had no complaints about the actual relationship, so to quibble over the terms he used to describe it, or to demand a greater demonstration of our relationship's significance through vocabulary, seemed pointless. We carried on "not dating", and I carried on being happy.
A month, or maybe two, later, he broke a brief moment of silence in the car. "Are you my girlfriend?" he asked me, with a smile that could almost have been shy. "Yes," I told him, but really, I meant "duh!" And that was the end of that.
I'm pretty sure that had I not been happy, and had our time together been less than wonderful, that lack of declared significance would have gnawed at me. Had he not been doing everything I wanted from a boyfriend, I expect I would have been stung by not not feeling able to use the word.
So I think there is a distinction between how we mark our relationships' significance and how significant they actually are, and I know which one is more important to my happiness. I won't deny that I get real pleasure from acknowledging the significance of my two relationships. I remember the first time I said "my husband" after the wedding, and realised that with that one word, people I didn't know would automatically consider him my family, my next of kin and my partner for life. It's a powerful shorthand. Similarly, when I say "my boyfriend" people know that I'm not just a married woman with a disposable bit on the side; he's valued and significant to me.
But if the words don't get used, those things are still true. It's a bit like saying "I love you" - I like to tell them, but I don't only love them when I'm saying it. My boyfriend and I recently celebrated four years of loving each other, and my husband and I will soon celebrate ten, but it isn't the celebrations that give these relationships their significance to me. It's just a delightful bonus.
In fact, a relationship that is marked with more significance than it deserves can be profoundly unsettling. Someone telling you that they love you, but not demonstrating it. Someone calling you their partner to other people, but not returning your calls. Someone who declares a level of commitment that they just aren't upholding.
Actions speak loader than words, but the right words are still sweet.
*He got over it.
**Whether we knew it or not.