Stop Pretending There’s Only One ‘Real’ Relationship Type

There are so many more relationships than just those of two people who share romantic and sexual feelings for one another


The fifties are often referred to as embodying (modern) sexual repression and celebrating conservative approaches to relationships. This is in part as it was followed by the rise of the hippy, and the sexual revolution of the sixties. The ‘nuclear family’ also became a more known and conscious idea throughout the family, an idea that prized white allocishet men marrying white allocishet women and having a couple of kids. The fifties are talked about with a sense of wonder or horror, depending upon how socially conservative the person is, but on closer inspection things still haven’t changed that much.

Same-sex marriage was only legalised just over three years ago, and the fight that the Church of England put up to (falsely) try to protect the sanctity of marriage shows that while our ideas of who should be able to marry may have changed, our fundamental ideas around the make-up of relationships has not. One lobby group, comprised of bishops and MPs, said that allowing same-sex marriage would lead the way to legalising polygamy. This was dismissed by progressives, but why should recognising polyamory legally be an issue? Why should there be rules around the number of people in a relationship?

Relationships – even same gender relationships – are often thought of as romantic, sexual and only ever between two people. Perhaps for a truly progressive society we need to accept more than just switching up the genders that can make up a relationship. There are many different ways to have relationships. Not all are sexual, and not all are romantic. There is a growing understanding that relationships can have infinitely diverse and complex dynamics to them. For example, there are alterous relationships which are neither (strictly) platonic or romantic relationships. In our binary view of love or friends, then how will these relationships ever get recognised?

There are also queerplatonic relationships, which may involve living together and raising a family but it doesn’t fit the partnership idea of a relationship. S.E Smith helped coin the term ‘queerplatonic’ and explained why it was important to have reflective language.

“In a nutshell, we wanted a way to talk about intense, non-romantic, non-sexual relationships with people that might lead to activities like commingling finances, living together in a non-roommate setting, involving each other in major life decisions, raising children together, acting with power of attorney, etc.,” Smith said. “The queerplatonic relationship is not a friendship, but it’s not a partnership in the normative relationship sense — it is, as the term reflects, a queering of the platonic relationship model. One may have one or more concurrent queerplatonic relationships, and your own sexual orientation, gender, or lack thereof is irrelevant to use of the term.

“I know others have expanded upon it considerably (and others have articulated critiques, particularly with respect to asking how it differs from an intense friendship). It’s a model for thinking about human relationships that resonates with some people and doesn’t with others, or sparks offshoots of the original concept, rather than being a static, immovable term.

“These kinds of relationships aren’t well represented in society and pop culture — one reason we wanted to coin a term, so we could have a common language for exploring them — and they’re very poorly understood. The emerging generation of youth seems to have a much more capable handle on exploring different models of friendships and relationships, which definitely gives me hope for the future!”

“The emerging generation of youth seems to have a much more capable handle on exploring different models of friendships and relationships, which definitely gives me hope for the future!”

The intense focus of only romantic relationships being able to provide families is particularly jarring when roughly 42% of marriages end in divorce. Queerplatonic relationships (and alterous relationships) could provide a more solid foundation for starting a family. Ultimately, it is not about an ideological competition, but about the right for all consensual relationship types to be respected. As visibility grows, those in queerplatonic relationships may find themselves facing invasive questions about their lives but what is needed is respect and understanding.

“I’m in a queerplatonic relationship with somebody at the moment, and I have been for over a year now,” Molly Gerlach-Arthurs said. “We’re moving in together next year.”

“There is a distinction between being best friends with someone and a queerplatonic relationship. I have a best friend who I have been friends with since birth, who knows anything and everything about me, and I wouldn’t describe it as queerplatonic. Lots of people think this would just result in friendship, but if they examine their relationships they can see that even without all of the traditional ways of expressing a romantic relationship, there are other components to their relationships that distinguish them from friendships. For example, I would consider my partner to be my significant other in the same way a husband or other spouse would be. I would expect him to be treated in the same way as a husband would in the event of an accident – he is the first contact and the authority on any decisions to do with my welfare, something a friend wouldn’t be allowed to do.”

“I would consider my partner to be my significant other in the same way a husband or other spouse would be”

Gerlach-Arthurs doesn’t believe that being in a queerplatonic relationship is anyone’s business – but that revealing would also risk inviting unwanted comments about the relationship.

“I’ve never been a huge fan of informing people about relationships, just because I don’t think it concerns other people! I have, however, told a couple of queer friends about it and they mostly just think it’s cool – one of them has said that they want a queerplatonic partner too. Most people really accept the situation for what it is without knowing that it is specifically queerplatonic. I feel like telling them would be both pointless and invite a bunch of unnecessary comments about the validity of the relationship.”

“I don’t think society recognises relationships that aren’t romantic as valid. There’s an expectation around friendship that it’s not very permanent – if you want to stop being friends with someone, you simply stop spending time with them. Sometimes it even happens unintentionally. Society sees an extra level of commitment in romantic relationships, to the point where you have to in essence formally inform a person that you want to end the relationship. To some extent I think that society will always look at queerplatonic relationships as less serious than romantic ones, just because they look so similar to friendship.

“Sex and relationship education wise I actually think we should step away from teaching specific relationship types. I’m a big fan of relationship anarchy; that is, allowing relationships to develop naturally without ascribing specific expectations to them based on societal labels. I think if we stepped away from the boxes of friend or lover, queerplatonic relationships would be really common.”

One polyamorous anonymous respondent agreed that schools aren’t the best institutions to teach about specific relationship types (or whether they should at all).

“I don’t think poly should be taught at schools. It’s a complicated and unusual dynamic set up. It would need to be taught by someone who is poly. Likelihood of that in school is not high so it would risk kids getting a false impression of my lifestyle.”

“There is more stigma towards me for being poly than there is for me being bisexual or non binary,” they said. “The biphobia is tedious but doesn’t threaten me. People don’t get that I like more than one gender and that’s fine. It isn’t my job to educate people about my own sexuality. The non binary thing is harder as I present to the world as male but I’m far from it. Again I don’t threat as mostly I avoid talking about it. Poly makes me much more anxious as I want to be proud of my new boyfriend. I want those same privileges that mono folk have of putting stuff on Facebook. I’m poly and as a result I will always be viewed as cheating and predatorial.”

“There is more stigma towards me for being poly than there is for me being bisexual or non binary”

There is a stigma towards polyamory, even within the queer community. So often queerphobes will say that by allowing queer rights, it will be a gateway to allowing polygamy. It is automatic that queer people want to defend themselves, but polyamorous people often get thrown under the bus (and many queer people can also be polya).

Polyamory isn’t something to fear. For many, it is engrained in their identities.

“I entered non monogamy at 15 when I became sexually and romantically active,” they explained. “I’ve actually never been in a monogamous set up for long as I don’t find they work for me. It’s big stuff polyamory and if you don’t like the sound of it don’t get into a poly set up.

“By 22, I was wanting the freedom to pursue other partners but I needed boundaries in place so on ending one long term relationship with my then fiancee, who came out as exclusively lesbian, I realised it was time to look inwards at what I needed. A queer partner that I dated for many months introduced me to a totally new dynamic. We dated and kissed and cuddled but never had sex. That was the boundary they wanted in place whilst being in a primary with their long term boyfriend. Over time that relationship evolved and it passed as we wanted other things.

“I’ve dated a myriad of people across the gender spectrum. Mostly, I’ve gravitated towards masculine people by preference but I’ve always looked for romance rather than physical connections. The two can obviously go together but for me polyamory is about literally being able to be in love with multiple people and not pretend otherwise,” they said.

“In recent years, I’m now married and even have a young family. I’m still poly but the rule is that kids come first. If a new partner brings hassle to my own home which could affect my child or wife then that relationship has to be minimised and most likely ended. As it happens I’m now dating a bloke who I’ve loved for years but never had the courage to ask on a date. They respect my home life and understand that there are restrictions to when I’m free. Isn’t that life though? How many heterosexual monogamous couples are ships in the night. I can’t do that. Work is vital for keeping me above water financially but my relationships are so much more important.”

The sensationalism of polyamory and relationships which don’t strictly centre romance, have created a society that only tends to recognise one type of relationship, partnership and/or friendship as though they are all distinct and separate categories. Our laws themselves are peculiar; there is an onus on ‘consummating’ a marriage as well as marriage tax breaks. Whether intended or not, society is geared towards propelling people into a certain type of relationship setup but for so many, it just isn’t the right fit.

There is incredible diversity within relationships. The strict ways in which we try to define them aren’t applicable, and risk isolating huge numbers of people. That old  Cindarella ‘ideal’ is really a restrictive curse.

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