the lexicon of modern love

Must We Call It a ‘Serious’ Relationship?

Photo: Knight and lady, 15th century, Ferrara School. Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images

Each week on It’s Complicated, we’ll be helping ourselves improve our couplings by looking into the linguistics of romance.

I can’t even count how many times it’s happened in a lifetime of dating. I’ll be catching up with friends over drinks, or maybe home for the holidays, seated around a dinner table, and someone will ask, “So, what’s happening with your love life?” Maybe I’ll grimace and stab the turkey or maybe I’ll smile and say, “Actually, I’ve met someone really great.” Nine times out of ten, the response will be something along the lines of: “Oh, is it serious?”

No one wants to be diagnosed with a serious condition or find themselves up against a serious problem, yet serious is what so often comes out of our lips in an aspirational manner when we talk about relationships: “Is it serious?” (Not: “Are you having a good time? What’s he or she like? How’s the sex? What do you two do together?”). A quick google ‘round the internet retrieves more than a million items — compare that to 41 million for “hot dog” and half a million for “bad boyfriend” — pairing the words serious and relationship, frequently attached to articles targeted to women that provide handy tips for gauging seriousness levels. (Do you let them know your pin number? If so, not only is it serious, but you may find yourself with a serious problem.)

As a phrase, serious relationship is solidly in our romantic parlance, meaning something specific and understood to all parties involved. As a 24-year-old woman told me, “My friends who I think of as being in ‘serious relationships’ have been together upwards of a year or two and show no signs of breaking up. People that are basically engaged even if they aren’t actually.” It’s a defining-the-relationship term, another way of saying, if you’re on the outside, “Should I invest in this? Is it for real? Do you get an invite as a couple to my wedding?” To a potential partner, it means “Are we dating other people? Or are you investing in me?”

But well before relationships got serious, the word was hanging around with a stern look on its face. Merriam-Webster lexicographer Kory Stamper explains, “It’s a relatively old word: much older than people think. And while I don’t think it always has that ‘not so great’ connotation in use, the earlier senses of serious (used in things like serious injury or a serious disposition) certainly don’t help matters much.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, those grave and severe meanings were the earliest usages, beginning in the 1400s and continuing to the current day, expanding to apply to a range of situations. Serious can mean a solemn person, an action performed with “careful consideration or application,” pious, reliable, something “of great consequence,” and something “threatening or dangerous.” In the 1500s serious was also being used to mean dedicated, as in a commitment to a cause.

Until the 1800s, though, serious was not applied to matters of the heart. In 1841, The Little Wife; and the Baronet’s Daughters by romance novelist Elizabeth Caroline Grey included the line “I used to think the flirtation only a recreation; but I see now it is getting serious, for she grows a perfect icicle when he approaches, which is one of the six certain signs! — don’t you know them?” Similar usages followed. In 1867, S.L. Blanchard wrote, “As soon as things began to get serious with a man, she cut him.” In 1895, an article in Harper’s included the sentences “She had a way of saying, ‘Certainly, when we’re married’, a dozen times an evening. Her words seemed to suggest that she was trying to trap him into a serious relationship.” In 1961, J.E. Mayer wrote in Jewish-Gentile Courtships, “The two went out several times. It became clear to Mary that he was really serious about her.” And the 1996 movie Jerry Maguire gave us the line “I’ve always hit a wall at 18 months. Every serious girlfriend lasts 18 months.” (Not so serious, Jer!)

From the weighty beginnings of serious comes its still-beating heart: The goal of a relationship, serious implies, is commitment — not fun, not happiness, not getting taken to a lot of fancy restaurants, though surely those things can happen in a relationship labeled with the s-word. The point is, you’re not just “messing around.” A 32-year-old single man explained, “I think it’s an important distinction. Dating is too broad, and also makes it seem casual. And casual sounds like just fucking. ‘We’re doing well’ means I like her and I may soon call her my girlfriend. ‘She’s my girlfriend’ means serious.”

Commitment is admirable, but you’d think we could come up with a word for relationships that’s a little more, well, enjoyable. “Serious should be incongruous with a good relationship,” another male friend told me recently. “Very serious. Very stern. Because if you’re in what is defined as a serious relationship, it’s fun and nice.” 

“You’re right!” I declared. I’m not against serious relationships, I’ve realized. I’m just against calling them serious.

Must We Call It a ‘Serious’ Relationship?