Reframing Relationships: Alternatives (That Aren’t All Polyamory!)
The times they are a-changin'…so why aren’t relationship models?
Usually, when I hear someone talk about ‘alternatives’ to traditional relationships, I roll my eyes and groan. Secretly. While I feign interest. Not another millennial obsessed with polyamory, I think.
It’s not that I have anything wrong, exactly, with polyamory; it’s great that it works for some people…But it’s just that it isn’t for me. And every time some guy with abs like Jesus (of course he had a six-pack, right?) mentions polyamory, that means he’s effectively kicked off my dating bingo card, as far as I’m concerned.
One such cutie sent me the most fascinating youtube video recently, though. I was sure it was about polyamory, but I watched it anyway, to humor him. (He was really cute.) To my surprise, although it mentioned some polyamorous models, it also extrapolated on a few alternative relationship styles that have nothing to do with being polyamorous, and they got me thinking.
The 4 Most Fascinating Alternative Relationship Models
Serial monogamy means going from one monogamous relationship to the next as you see fit. This one is my favorite because it’s what I naturally do, but until recently I always thought it had to be done with an end goal in mind: Getting married or at least making a lifelong commitment. I thought that every relationship I entered into had to be with the main intention of checking it out to see if it could be the relationship.
However, it turns out we are beings with free will, and we don’t have to go in that direction if we don’t feel like it. It’s actually possible to enter into a monogamous relationship with the knowledge that life is long and dynamic, and that a relationship with the same individual might not be suitable for your whole entire life, and that that’s ok.
Consider that for most of human history, people…
-Haven’t lived that long
-Haven’t had that many opportunities in life, to do stuff like travel, or live outside of their village or expand their social connections beyond their small local circle
-Have had a much narrower range of experiences available to them than we have today
-Haven’t had the flexibility to change careers and direction multiple times throughout life
For most of human history, maybe staying in the same relationship for the whole of one’s life made sense — both socially and economically. However, life isn’t the same anymore. We have the ability to get a job in another city or country, to meet strangers halfway across the world on the internet, and to live significantly longer. Our reality is changing fast; why would we assume that the same relationship model would still work as well for everyone in a world not even recognizable to our ancestors?
We usually operate under the notion that the end of a relationship spells failure. But why does it have to be a failure? I learned so much from all of my exes; I’m so glad to have been with all of them, and I’m equally glad that we could recognize when it was time to move on. What if we celebrated breakups as transformations, rather than condemning them as failures? If we assume that probably a new relationship won’t last our whole lives, then it’s much easier to let go gracefully when the time comes.
The Yearly Re-Evaluation
Fairly similar to serial monogamy, in the yearly re-evaluation model, couples annually evaluate whether they’d like to commit for another year, as well as bring up anything they’d like to adjust in order to stay happily in the relationship. If one party decides it’s time to move on, both parties let go without hard feelings (in theory).
The yearly re-evaluation carves out a formal space for difficult discussions about important topics that may get swept under the rug otherwise and can help couples from sinking into the complacency and decreased effort that often comes from being sure your partner is in it for the long haul.
Of course, this doesn’t mean you can’t talk about relationship issues during the year. It just means that there comes a pre-scheduled date on which it’s time to make a conscious decision. And if both people do want to continue, they are making a deliberate choice to do so rather than simply continuing on in the relationship by default. This can actually serve the purpose of re-energizing their commitment, year after year.
Monogamous partners who are married or otherwise committed to one another don’t necessarily have to sleep in the same bed all the time. How is it that we expect partners to be one another’s best friend, soulmate, confidante, hiking partner, Netflix buddy, co-parent, housemate, AND sleep side by side, every night, for most of one’s life? And yet we wonder why these relationships fail to live long and prosper?
We are conditioned to believe that a relationship should follow a particular sort of progression: If it’s becoming more serious, if the connection is truly growing, then you should start sleeping in the same bed and occupying the same space more and more frequently until you live together, and eventually get married and buy a house together, right? So if your partner doesn’t want to share ALL OF THE SPACE that must mean something is wrong, right?
Well, maybe. In some cases, it could mean you have an avoidant partner. But perhaps sometimes it just means that they recognize that sharing space so frequently can lead to relationship burnout and decreased attraction. So, please allow me to dust off a little bit of those hundreds of years of conditioning with these words. Imagine that I am gently shaking your shoulders while saying them, to really drive home the point.
It’s ok to sleep in separate beds. It’s ok to sleep in separate bedrooms. It’s ok to sleep in separate houses! It’s ok to share whatever amount of time and space works for you, as a couple. It doesn’t mean your relationship is dying or moving backward. It might even mean that you’re keeping it fresh and exciting more effectively than your friends who sleep together every night.
In a co-parenting relationship, the connection between parties is primarily about parenting. Perhaps they are or were romantically involved with one another; perhaps not. Perhaps they simply both want to raise children and agree, more or less, on how such a task is best undertaken.
Once the wellbeing of children has been taken care of, these partners are permitted to seek other romantic relationships. Perhaps one parent spends a night with their lover, while the other stays home with the kids and vice versa.
-This is a very new model, and we don’t know yet if children might be better off with parents who are indeed romantically involved and/or committed to one another.
-Co-parents may have a difficult time grappling with a stigma against such a model, and similarly, with explaining their dynamic to their children.
-Having children frequently leads to a whole host of marital issues, often ending in divorce. If the co-parents are either not romantically involved, or also get some degree of romantic fulfillment outside their relationship, they may not face such issues.
-In a relationship that is primarily focused on parenting as its main aim, parties are more likely to agree on core parenting issues and values than those in a relationship primarily focused on romantic love, of which children are a byproduct.
Are Traditional Relationships Bad, or Destined to Fail?
Absolutely not. The traditional model may work very well for some people. Happy couples who have been together for 60+ years do exist, and the enduring connection they have built is admirable.
However, we would do well to recognize that that doesn’t work for some people. We are the iGeneration; more than anyone before in human history, we have the ability to choose our own adventures. First, we could curate our very own music playlists, picking and choosing from different artists and albums at will. Now we can do the same thing with nearly every aspect of our lifestyles, including relationships.
We get to make our own rules in accordance with our own dispositions and values. We would be remiss to trudge on in a societally-mandated model that isn’t making us happy when we have such a precious opportunity.