The term, at first glance, is innocuous, official, some would even say diplomatic. It connotes images of men in bespoke suits shaking hands, making deals and reaching agreements in steady and respectful tones.
In the Philippines, however, “mutual understanding” takes on a much more complicated— and much more rosy—meaning: young couples strolling along beachfronts or malls or school corridors, laughing and having the time of their life, but are not boyfriend and girlfriend: “MU lang.”
The definition of mutual understanding depends on whom you ask, when you ask it and how you interpret the answer you get. MU, I think, is just as much what it isnʼt as what it is. Youʼre not a couple, you are an item. Youʼre not committed, but you are infatuated.
It is, in other words, a mess.
The first months of an MU relationship are rife with ups and downs. First will come the teasing from friends, deftly dismissed by the couple with a giggle or a roll of the eyes. We will often find our MU couple sitting in a corner, an invisible force field of happiness separating them from the universe, wearing wide smiles, laughing—even if a thunderstorm were threatening havoc outside, one can imagine—in the fashion of “friends” who, undeniably, are more than that. The couple will float on the glee of that special feeling: this is amazing, she is beside me and I am beside her and nothing else matters! Sparkly eyes, tomato-red cheeks!
But after that phase—which is to MU relationships what a honeymoon period is to a presidency—reality sinks in. Questions fester around the couple, threatening to penetrate the happiness force field: what are we, really? Will we ever become more than this? What happens now? The force field transforms from one of happiness to one of seriousness: voices become hushed, conversations heavier, as the couple seriously reconsiders the state of this, whatever this is—and weighs their options. Friends observe with distress from afar: what is happening, why are the fireworks dying, why is the rain of fragrant flowers slowing to a drizzle, then to nothing at all, leaving the ground wet, sticky and dangerous to tread?
But most MU relationships donʼt end in bloodshed. Couples are usually able to cope with the situation. Some decide that the current situation is perfectly fine and that nothing really needs to be done about it and carries on. For others, courtship and a deeper relationship follows.
And still some return to the basic premise of the MU—not an entirely sad ending (at least no one loses any limbs):
“Weʼre just friends.”