The Anatomy of Relationships

16 Jan

In my last post I pointed out some of the flaws I see with the current monogamous culture, and even (to a lesser extent) with mainstream polyamory. But it’s a lot easier to tear down than to build up, and we need to have some way to talk about our relationships. In this post, I’m going to lay out how I’ve started to think about relationships, in hopes that it will help us build a vocabulary that doesn’t buy into mainstream monogamy and the relationship binary.

In my view, no two relationships are identical. It’s not ultimately helpful to talk about whether “friends” or “partners” should come first, or whatever, because both terms are under-defined. More useful, in my opinion, is to talk about the specific features of the relationship, which can differ along many axes. Sitting in bio class, I jotted down a partial list of potential factors to consider:

  • Sexuality. Is the relationship sexual or not? How “far” does it go, and how often? Are there particular sexual elements that are emphasized or de-emphasized?
  • Touch. Is touch an important part of the relationship? What forms of touch are expected/acceptable/unacceptable? What purposes do each form of touch serve?
  • Limerence. This is the “in love” feeling I was calling “romance” in this post. Does either person feel limerence toward the other? Do both? How strong is it, and how long has it lasted? If limerence is not present, was it present in the past?
  • Emotional Vulnerability. Do either or both people feel comfortable being emotionally vulnerable with the other? Do they feel comfortable crying in front of the other? Is emotional vulnerability an occasional or frequent part of the relationship?
  • Thought-Sharing. How much does each person know about the other? To what extent is it expected that new thoughts will be shared with the other person, and how does that differ based on the topic? To what extent is it acceptable to have secrets from each other, and how does that differ based on the topic?
  • Resource Sharing. Are the practical matters of life intertwined? Do they share living spaces, finances, clothing, etc? To what extent is borrowing without asking acceptable?
  • Commitment. Have promises been made about the permanence of the relationship? Can the relationship be dropped if either person becomes busy or interested in something else? What actions are required to end the relationship?
  • Prioritization. Do they have an obligation to put each other’s needs ahead of their own needs or the needs of “outside” people? How far does this obligation extend? Does it differ based on the type of need?
  • Time. How much time do the people in the relationship spend with each other? How much of that time is one-on-one, and how much of it is in groups? How much of that is “accidental” and how much does each person actively seek out time with the other?
  • Common Interests. What activities or interests do the people in the relationship have in common? How much of the relationship is based on those activities or interests? How would the relationship change if either or both people lost interest in those topics or activities?
  • Group Membership. Is there a shared social group? How much of the relationship is based on that group membership? How would the relationship change if either or both people left the group?
  • Exclusivity. Are certain activities reserved for the relationship? (This can be sex, but it needn’t be. My relationship with J was exclusive with regards to watching new episodes of Dr. Who.) Must this activity be one-on-one, or can it be done in a group setting? Are there non-exclusive activities where it’s nonetheless expected to invite the other person?
  • Negotiation. Have conversations about “the future of this relationship” happened? Are the expectations of the relationship explicit or implicit?

This is just a partial list, although I think it hits many of the crucial points. What other factors can you guys come up with?

This model has a lot of potential uses. Looking at this list, it becomes increasingly clear how many different things get lumped together by culturally enforced monogamy. A “romantic relationship” (which you’re only supposed to have one of) is supposed to have high levels of each of these factors, with the potential exception of Group Membership and (unfortunately) Negotiation. A “friendship”, especially between people of different genders, is not expected to have high levels of anything besides Common Interests and Group Membership, although Sexuality and Limerence are the ones that are most vigorously policed. (Same-gender relationships, especially between women, occasionally get designated “best friends” and have a bit more leeway with other factors.)

Modern Polyamory does much better, and there are many more acceptable combinations. However, there are still holdovers from monogamy. Many of these factors are expected to happen together. In particular, high levels of Sexuality are expected to accompany high levels of anything besides Group Membership and Common Interests. (Metamours are a weird case. There need not be high levels of Sexuality between metamours, but the relationship is defined by each having high levels of sexuality with a third person.) This is the stuff I was talking about last post, just translated into this new model.

Another use of the model is as an introspection tool. What factors do you need most in your life? Are there any two or more factors that need to be a package deal for you? Are there any factors you don’t care about?

For me, I need a ton of Emotional Vulnerability and Thought-Sharing in my life, and think almost all of my relationships are better when those are increased. I also need a lot of Sexuality, but don’t need all of my relationships to include it (so long as there is at least one person, preferably two or three people, with whom I have a high level of Sexuality). I don’t care about Limerence at all (in fact, the other person feeling it often makes me actively uncomfortable). Moderate-to-high levels of Time and Prioritization are greatly appreciated, and a good way to encourage me to invest a lot of energy into the relationship, but they’re not crucial once a relationship has been established (and very high levels make me uncomfortable).

Finally, this model offers us new possibilities for building new relationships that work for us. As long as they fulfill the needs of the people involved, any combination of these  factors is potentially valuable. Rather than sticking to the culturally accepted relationship scripts, we can find the best equilibrium for our unique relationships of all sorts.

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5 Responses to “The Anatomy of Relationships”

  1. Spencer January 17, 2011 at 12:49 am #

    I really appreciate the categories you set out here ^_^ For me especially I had never thought much of the difference between touch and sexual contact, but for me touch permeates so many more of my relationships than does sex. I’m also intrigued by limerance. I’d never really attempted to define it before. At best, to me it was considered spotaneity, or perhaps the degree to which the other person could pull me out of my established patterns of thought and emotion, making me feel (and sometimes do) things that were beyond my intention or control. As a person who only typically feels very low-level emotion, and who can sometimes despair ever pulling myself out of a rut of numbed or hollow sensation, I value this aspect perhaps more than anything else ^_^

  2. slightlymetaphysical January 18, 2011 at 4:24 am #

    I like this. I’m guessing it’s based on DJ’s groundbreaking three T’s model, but I always found them unnecessarily reductionist. When actually, what I always wanted to do was pull and pull until the whole thing unravelled and I was left with all the fragments to tinker with.

    “My relationship with J was exclusive with regards to watching new episodes of Dr. Who”

    You make me feel like such a slut. I’ll watch new Who with ANYONE.

    • semiel January 18, 2011 at 7:50 am #

      I didn’t set out to explicitly base it on the three T’s, but I’m sure they influenced my thinking. My impression of the three T’s was that it was a practical tool: “These are the things you need to increase if you want to make the relationship more meaningful/long lasting.” Mine is more of a descriptive tool, so we can have words with which to eventually have the practical conversation.

      And there’s nothing wrong with being a Dr. Who slut! Rewatching episodes was always fair game, but it was no good seeing a brand new episode before the other person. ;)

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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