Dismantling Romantic Relationship Primacy

We do a thing in the society I live in where we elevate our romantic relationships above all other connections. Sometimes that’s a good thing, for example: if your lame-ass family full of bigots sees your love connection as lesser because of some difference in race, creed, class, gender or sexual orientation. Indeed, fuck them. But more often than not, we elevate our romantic connections above all others out of a misguided sense of obligation informed by toxic aspects of monogamous culture known as amatonormativity.

Oh, we can pause here, yes . . . I can explain what I mean by that: monogamous culture is not inherently toxic, the same way masculinity is not inherently toxic, but I don’t think there’s any effective counterpoint to my assertion that aspects of these things are indeed bullshit. 

For those of us who’ve been socialized as feminine in the Western version of the gender binary, the concept of a very intertwined platonic relationship is not likely a foreign one. I have a friend that I truly consider a platonic life-partner. This is not hard for most folks who know us to understand, but it did raise some eyebrows when I would tell people how my former spouse used to willingly sleep on the couch when she’d come to visit from out of town, because he knew my relationship with her was not inherently lesser than my relationship with him. But then, this was a man who never struggled to tell other men he loved them, either. 

If you were socialized as masculine, emotionally intimate friendships may not have been as normalized for you, (in fact, they may have been outright discouraged . . .), and that’s terrible. I’ve been fortunate to have multiple close non-romantic friendships with masculine folks, but I also know that what we have is not their norm for friendships. Our society falls short here, big time. As a result of suppressed vulnerability being a hallmark of masculinity, and the human tendency to prioritize relationships in which we can be fully ourselves, the romantic relationships of masculine folks end up being elevated by default because platonic ones don’t often meet the same needs.

One of the biggest struggles I see crop up for folks in unlearning mononormativity, is the idea that one’s personal value is determined by how much your romantic partner needs you. I have absolutely struggled with this myself, even in the having of multiple partners. If they didn’t *need* me, how would I know they *loved* me? If I didn’t need them, what was the point? 

To be needed is to feel secure in the idea that your position in someone’s life is more certain, but to know that you’re wanted is, in my experience, a far more secure experience because what we desire is generally more attractive than what we require. Please let me be someone’s coveted chocolate mint ice cream over their fiber supplement!

That’s all easy to say, of course – but it’s really taken me a lot of practicing what I preach. If I go back to my first ever blog entry, Meant To Be, I very much wrote what I needed to hear. My partners are with me because they want to be. Taking that a step further, my partners are not important to me because I need them, they’re important to me for a countless variety of reasons, as are my friends and connections of varying labels.

And let’s just talk about labels – why do we need them to determine the designated level of importance of each relationship? I used to joke that the five most important people in my life were my spouse, my BFF, and my three kids – but not necessarily in that order. These days, I think of my life and connections more in terms of a radial chart than a prescriptive hierarchy of labels. I have platonic life-mates, comets, romantic life-partners, distant sexual connections, beloved friends I see every few years, family, metas, school chums, colleagues, co-leaders in community, and innumerable combinations of these descriptors. They all ebb and flow like a constellation in which some celestial bodies orbit much further away than others, while some are akin to permanent moons. I don’t prioritize time with one over another based on a checklist of roles they play in my life . . . I mean, can you imagine?

Jo gets 3pts for sex, 5pts for romance, 7pts for relationship duration for a total of 15pts, which means I prioritize them over Sam who gets 6pts for shared bank accounts, 3pts for co-parenting, and 4pts for knowing exactly how I like my coffee in the morning but only nets 13pts in the grand ranking of connections.

That’s just silly! But that’s how most of us do it.

But we don’t have to, yeah?

Look – in this relatively new world of reconfigured connections, it is perhaps the deep friendships that are coming through the most for us. Let’s take a moment (or longer) to appreciate how meaningful and impactful they actually are, and honor them in kind. Elevate the connections that feed your soul, not just the ones that would make good summer blockbusters. Make sure your priorities are hitting the high notes. Set aside romance as a metric and let your platonic heart have the microphone for a moment. Whose names get called out? What would it look like to assign those folks the same intrinsic value as your romantic connections?

And the pot of gold at the end of this particular rainbow: when you allocate the amount of emotional labor and energy to platonic connections that you do to romantic ones, you find the return on investment to be rewarding in ways you may not have imagined. 

It’s a paradigm shift for sure, but one that’s time has come. 

Photo by Edvard Alexander Rølvaag on Unsplash

Guest Blog: Chemistry vs. Compatibility

Chemistry and compatibility are tricky things in relationships. Whether you’re mono or non-mono, you’ll likely come across someone you are super compatible with, but the connection just lacks that “va-va-voom”. Or someone that gives you the most intense case of being twitterpated . . . only to find out there are some massive compatibility issues.

Imagine going on a date and ending the night feeling all of the happy good feels. The chemistry is off the charts amazing! All you can think about is them. Naturally, you continue dating them. However, over time you discover attributes that make compatibility challenging. 

I’m not talking about them being an overt racist, but things we’re told “Love can conquer”. For example, you like a 40 hour work week while they are happy working 70+ and travel a lot for it. They have children and you don’t want them. They place the toilet roll on backwards (I’m looking at you, Red). All certainly reasonable and valid, but may present future conflict. And now you’re now faced with a decision to continue on this path or not.

For many, compromise is seen as the best solution

But what if we allowed ourselves to invest in the parts of the relationship that work, enjoy them, and not partake in the parts that don’t? Some areas are easier than others. For instance, I have a partner who has children and I am child free by choice. For this reason, we had specific conversations/negotiations around my level of involvement with her children. After a few years (and they were largely grown), I became comfortable with the idea of co-parenting. We were able to carry on a heavily enmeshed relationship without having to let an incompatibility interfere too much. And in a way that doesn’t compromise things that are deeply important to us.

One of the benefits of non-monogamy is the plethora of options available to you when compatibility and chemistry don’t line up. Just because those options are available to you doesn’t mean they’re going to work, however. 

This summer I met a woman with whom I have a high level of chemistry. It didn’t take long to realize there were a number of things that made us pretty incompatible in a conventional relationship model. We have different viewpoints on work/life balance, I’m non-mono and she’s mono, we live 1500 miles apart now, etc. For these reasons and more, I don’t think we’d have been very successful in a traditional relationship. At least not without large sacrifices on behalf of one or both of us. Instead, we negotiated a relationship that works for us. It’s fluid in its form and largely boils down to this: let’s stay in touch, see each other when it makes sense, and enjoy the relationship in ways that feel natural at that time. What’s happened in the past may not work in the future and things that may have been off the table in the past may work next time we see each other. We’re both very busy and eight hours of flights is not ideal, but we stay in contact and enjoy each other’s company when we have the opportunity.

When working to find balance it’s important to have strong boundaries and a clear idea of what you want/need out of that relationship, so you can better advocate for yourself. Without that, we may agree to things we don’t want just to get a piece of the whole. Unfortunately, that becomes a breeding ground for future resentments.

So what about when there’s compatibility but no chemistry? In my experience, good compatibility sans chemistry happens in two different ways:

The first one, I simply call friendship! With so much focus on “finding the one” for many, it’s easy to lose sight of this super important relationship. I once had a date that was SO MUCH FUN. We had over five hours of great conversation, to be exact. It felt natural for us to end this experience with a kiss . . . because date, duh. But when that kiss happened? Nothing. Literally nothing. We looked at each other in a bit of disbelief because we had just spent an entire evening having a great time! ON A DATE! We were so caught up in the idea of it being a date that we lost track of the notion that maybe we just get along well. After a good laugh, we confirmed with each other there wasn’t much there and said, “how about we give friends a try?” We took that path and had a good time.

The second is in long term relationships. I know multiple people who had long term relationships end in the last few years, but they’ve made it work as close friends since then. Compatibility wasn’t an issue, but the romantic and/or sexual chemistry no longer existed in that relationship for one reason or another. Thankfully, they saw value in what worked between them. Many see this as the end of a relationship, or worse: a failure. But what if we just saw it as a transition of the relationship? From a model that no longer works to one that does.

Regardless of which situation presents itself, you have options! A narrow or even singular focus strips us of different opportunities. If you’re too focused on finding one specific plant for one specific area of your yard, you’re going to miss out on a variety of amazing flora that could enhance your landscape in other ways! So stop to smell the rose bushes, lilac trees, fruit bearing shrubs, and perhaps a venus fly-trap here and there. They’ve all got something to offer.

* * *

Since mid 2016, Adam (he/him) has been an educator and presenter in the ENM community. He realized he was poly in high school and has practiced various forms of non-monogamy ever since. With a primary goal of normalizing a variety of relationship structures, he shows up as his authentic self: an egalitarian polyamorist who practices relationship anarchy.