In celebration of the different flavours of love
Are you single? I was asked this question recently and it really stumped me. The person asking was expecting a yes/no answer but ended up in a (rather playful) conversation about relationship orientation. As a queer person who lives towards the relationship anarchy end of the monogamy spectrum (you'll find a definition in the footnotes if you don't know what this means), my answers to such questions are rarely straightforward. And as an endlessly curious person, I can’t help but ask a whole bunch of questions in return, to try to understand what it is that someone is actually asking and why! What we arrived at in this particular scenario is that they were really asking “could you be open to exploring a new romantic and/or sexual relationship”.
Openness to new relationships is something I’ve been reflecting on a lot lately, not only in the context of my own life but when it (frequently) comes up in conversations with friends and clients across the whole spectrum of relating styles. I’m not saying that non-monogamous forms of relating are better or the right answer for everyone. Many of the valuable lessons I have learnt about relating - such as the ongoing negotiation of what a relationship is - have been whilst on my journey from monogamy towards relationship anarchy but the same concepts could apply to anyone either in or looking to enter into a relationship with another human.
One of the biggest themes I see is a tendency to default towards so-called “romantic” relationships to meet our needs, whether that’s for emotional intimacy, physical touch, or companionship. We identify something that we feel we are lacking or longing for in our life and so it gets added to the job description for our current or potential partners or lovers, who we hope will be able to tick as many of the boxes as possible. I noticed that this shows up for me at times, despite working hard to not privilege romantic relationships over platonic connections.
Platonic relationships - those that are intimate and affectionate but not sexual (and typically not romantic) - are often at best seen as a stepping stone on the way to “something more”, at worst they are associated with the dreaded disappointment of “getting friend-zoned”. They are rarely seen as equal to a relationship that is centered around sex and romance. Why is this?
I put a lot of this down to our programming to strive to reach the top of the relationship escalator. This phrase is used to describe the dominant cultural narrative that we should meet someone, start dating, become exclusive, “settle down”, and spend the rest of our lives happily ever after. I don’t see anything wrong with this in principle and it serves a lot of people very well. What I do find challenging about this though is that it assumes a “progression” (much like common narratives around sex) that is linear and one-way. It doesn’t allow for following our curiosity, letting our heart lead us down paths with an unknown destination, or making detours along the way!
It also doesn’t tell us what happens when “the one” turns out to not meet our every need, and so the tendency is to leap from the escalator, cut ties, and try again from the bottom searching for the next “one”. Alternatively, we find ourselves stood still on a stalled escalator figuring that a life of being only partly fulfilled is better than risking having nothing (or nobody).
Relationships that don’t make it to the top of the escalator are also often labelled as a failure. How many times have you heard the phrase “it didn’t work out”? This only makes sense if we have a fixed outcome in mind. What if we instead were able to celebrate what it was?
Platonic friendships are often the starting point for romantic relationships (studies show that around 60-75% of romantic relationships started out this way, with an even higher percentage for individuals in the LGBTQ+ community) but being able to transition into a platonic relationship after there has been a romantic or sexual connection is still seen as an oddity. The default instead is to cast our former love into the pantomime baddy role of “The Ex”. The person we once dreamed of a lifetime of happiness with must now be avoided at all costs. Of course, there are circumstances in which a relationship reaches a natural or necessary conclusion where it can be healthy and appropriate to disconnect completely. Again, it’s about noticing where we are defaulting to a pre-conditioned set of beliefs vs. choosing our own way.
I’m not advocating that everyone stay best friends following a breakup, but I do wonder what we are missing out on when we follow these narratives of the relationship escalator and the demonising of ex loves.
In my experience, this complete shutting out of exes happens less in poly and queer circles. Perhaps because the smaller size of these communities means that there is some inevitable overlap in friends, social spaces, and exes. The nonduality or interconnectedness of everyone can feel a lot more obvious when your ex partner’s lover is also the ex of your new lover!
In my personal experience, when I’ve been in a relationship that doesn’t feel right for some reason, in the majority of cases it has turned out that the way in which we were relating wasn’t serving us, rather than the person I was relating with being somehow wrong. And, in almost all of those scenarios, it has been because we had drifted towards a default of progression that wasn’t aligned with what we both actually wanted or needed. I can give an example of this from my life.
Our story begins in a typical London houseshare, the kind where you barely know more than the first name of the people you’re sharing a roof with. One day, I was in the shared kitchen of such a place when I noticed one of my housemates in the back garden doing something with ropes. Sticking to the unspoken housemate agreement, I nodded a brief “hello” and carried on unpacking my food shopping. But then my curiosity got the better of me (as it often does) and I found myself asking - “they’re not Shibari ropes, are they?!”. It turns out they were and BINGO - all of a sudden this anonymous human became someone with whom I shared a passion. Over the coming months, we started to chat more, and as we both moved on to new homes and in their case a new city, we kept exploring our shared interests over messages. One week, they were returning to London and offered to come and run a Shibari workshop for me and my intrigued friends. On the night though, for one reason or another, people had to drop out and so it ended up being just the two of us. We discovered that there was something there beyond our shared love of rope and we entered into a long-distance relationship of sorts. We would get together for fun-filled weekends doing the things we loved most, and would spend hours on video calls chatting about life in between. On one of these calls, they suggested, somewhat out of the blue, “why don’t we move in together?”. Their rental agreement was coming to an end and I was toying with the idea of relocating and so it all kind of made sense from a practical point of view. Plus, we’d lived together before so it wouldn’t be that much of a leap, surely?! We found an amazing place and moved in together a month or so later.
Fast forward five months though and it’s not working out. I love them dearly but I am realising that this kind of partnership is not what I truly desire with them. I am pining for London, not able to settle into my new hometown, and the prospect of enduring the next seven months of our rental contract in the aftermath of a breakup is filling me with dread. It was unsurprisingly tense for a while but over time we managed to find a way to tolerate being under the same roof as each other, and eventually, elements of friendship returned. The rest of the tenancy was not all smooth sailing and there were many moments of thinking “it would be so much easier if…”. However, we found a way to co-exist and even made the decision at the end of those seven months to extend our rental agreement for another year!
I would describe the relationship above as something close to platonic nesting partners now. We support each other emotionally, share financial responsibilities, as well as affection and intimacy, and are both heavily invested in creating a beautiful and peaceful home environment for ourselves and anyone who comes to visit. Our relationship has been through many different iterations in order to become what it is now and I am grateful that we have found the “right” flavour of relationship for us, for now…
Some of my closest friends and collaborators are ex partners or lovers, so this wasn’t my first rodeo! However, the truth is that it can be incredibly difficult to navigate the ending of a relationship, no matter how much practice you’ve had at this. One or both of you realising that you don’t want the same thing can be incredibly painful. There may be fear, guilt, shame, anger, heartbreak, a sense of rejection or having been lied to, and many other feelings and emotions. You may be caught up in the practicalities of what it all means - where will I live, what about children or other dependents, how will I manage financially, etc. Often, these strong emotions lead us into the binary thinking of it is a choice between either “making do” or cutting ties.
So how can we approach this differently?
One of the things I feel very passionate about is building relationships that are future-focused from the beginning. When I say this, many people interpret it as me saying that I only advocate for long-term commitments when in many ways I am saying the opposite! The types of relationships I am aiming to have in my life are those that are based on the futures we are individually aspiring to create, with an acknowledgment that my role in the other person's life may evolve over time for many reasons and that’s OK.
I think the pain comes when we fixate on a relationship being based an ongoing delivery of a past contract. We cling tightly to what it has been rather than thinking about what it could be.
There is a major link here back to my pleasure coaching work as a lot of the work we can do to build more fulfilling relationships is to get really clear on what our desires are.
One of the practices I personally find really insightful - and often recommend to family, friends, and clients - is to use the Relational Needs Framework (above) as a prompt for self-reflection. I originally came across this through the late Sue Sutherland and The Feel Institute. The framework gives an overview of the different ways in which we can relate to others (you may think of more or call these by different names). I use it in the following ways:
First of all, take a look through each of the types of relationship mentioned, and for each one write down who in your life (if anyone) you relate with in that way. You may notice that there are some people who you relate with in multiple ways, or that there are types of relationships that are not at all relevant to your life right now.
Then take a second look through the list of ways to relate and note down which of these you want more of in your life. Are there people in your life already with whom you might wish to explore this style of relating? Or might you want to seek new connections based on this?
Notice if there are any ways of relating that you feel you would like less of or would like to invest less energy into. How might you approach addressing that?
In my own life, I use this process to get more specific about what my desires and needs are relationally and to gently challenge my own conditioning about how they might be met. For example, I might have been feeling like I want a new romantic relationship but during this reflection process, I realise that what I am actually longing for is someone who I can enjoy getting lost in nature and spending hours discussing philosophy with. That desire might be fulfilled through many different flavours of relationships.
I also find this to be a really helpful exercise to repeat periodically with lovers/partners. In this scenario, I like to still do the reflection separately and then come together with them to share how we experience our relationship - both in this moment and how we might wish for it to look in the future. It’s not about seeking a complete overlap but identifying the overlapping needs and interests that may be met in the relationship, and opening communication if there are needs that are really important to one individual that are not met within the current dynamic.
Our view of the world is shaped by the relationships we are in or have travelled through. We become who we are through the way in which we relate to others, how they see us through all of their projections and past experiences, and who they want us to be or judge us to be.
What would happen if you were to embrace love in all of its multi-directional and nuanced forms? Who would you be if you were allowing love to flow freely and fully in your life?
If you’d like to read more about different relationship orientations, I highly recommend the work of Meg-John Barker. A starting point could be: https://megjohnandjustin.com/relationships/relationship-diversity/
The term “Relationship anarchy” was coined by the Swedish activist and creative Andie Nordgren and described in their 2012 manifesto which lays out guidelines for a radically different approach to relationships.
For the research study on the friends to lovers pathway: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/19485506211026992
Image is by Jason Leung on unsplash.