New article on valuing different kinds of relationships equally

I recently did an interview for a great piece that appeared on The Establishment over the weekend about Relationship Anarchy. Relationship Anarchy is one of the terms that’s emerged in recent years for a relationship style that involves things like:

  • Valuing different kinds of relationships at a similar level (whether they are romantic, collegiate, platonic, family, sexual, etc.)
  • Negotiated mutually agreed-upon ways of doing things rather than conforming to a strict set of relationship rules.
  • Prioritising the freedom and independence of individuals and relationships rather than a sense of people belonging to each other, or relationships being constrained or limited due to their label or cultural assumptions (e.g. about what a friendship or romantic relationship should be like).

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If you want to think more about your own relationship styles you might want to check out this relationship user guide zine that Justin Hancock and I recently put together. Justin and I are also currently working on a joint website about sex and relationship advice: coming soon!

Here’s the start of the RA article with a link to where you can read the rest if you’re enjoying it…

Relationship Anarchy Takes The Judgment Out Of Love

by Clare Wiley

Mel Mariposa Cassidy has lots of partners in her life. There’s the boyfriend who lives nearby in her East Vancouver neighborhood, and the partner who’s a few hours away on Vancouver Island. Then there’s the man who lives in the U.S.—they don’t see each other very often, but he’s the one who feels most like a soulmate. And that’s not to mention Mel’s closest friend—a woman she describes as her “platonic-ish life partner.” Meanwhile, she lives with her best friend, an ex-lover who’s listed as her emergency contact.

But Mel isn’t polyamorous. She’s a relationship anarchist—meaning she doesn’t distinguish between the romantic, sexual, and platonic relationships in her life. Members of the community she belongs to have decided that traditional monogamy, and often polyamory, aren’t working for them. They want less structure, fewer hierarchies. And so they’ve committed to a model that’s at once simple and radical: They give all their relationships equal footing.

Mel has an ongoing conversation with each of her partners to continuously discuss and examine the partnership, establishing what everyone wants to get out of it. She also makes sure that everyone’s clear that no one person is privileged above any other.

“It allows me to be very true to where I’m at in any given moment,” Mel says. “So if I’m not feeling like I want to have a date with someone, then I can just say ‘hey you know what, I want to have more time alone right now.’ It’s about finding that common ground from moment to moment. There’s a lot less complacency in relationship anarchy.”

The term “relationship anarchy” was coined by the Swedish activist and creative Andie Nordgren. In 2012, she wrote the Relationship Anarchy manifesto, laying out guidelines for a radically different approach to relationships. These include “Love and respect instead of entitlement” and “Heterosexism is rampant out there, but don’t let fear lead you.” Other guidelines declare “Trust is better” and “Build for the lovely unexpected,” which encourages followers to be spontaneous.

“In RA, the idea is that all kinds of relationships are important,” says Dr. Meg-John Barker, a relationship anarchist as well as a senior psychology lecturer and sex and gender therapist. “You don’t privilege romantic or sexual relationships over other kinds, such as platonic relationships. RA also tends to strongly emphasize the freedom of those involved, and ongoing negotiation of the relationship, whereas some versions of polyamory are more rules or contract based.” Read more…

 

 

 

New zine – queer relationships

I just spent the whole weekend and two excellent events on relationships: Queer polyday in Leicester, and the Polyamory, Consensual Non-Monogamy and Relationship Anarchy day in Manchester.

For my bits of the days I put together a zine bringing together some of my thoughts on relationships from the last decade or so, and asking what I hope are a useful set of questions about our relationships – whether or not we see ourselves, or our relationships, as queer.

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The zine takes as a starting point the word queer, and the different possible meanings of that term. Then it applies these different meanings to relationships to ask the question ‘what does a queer relationship look like?’ Particular it explores the cultural acceptability of different kinds of relationships, different relationship labels, the idea of relationships being on multiple dimensions, and what it’s like to shift from the question of what relationships we have, to how we do them.

You can download the zine here. It prints out best in booklet form, but fine to read it as a pdf on an e-reader or computer also.

Polyamory book reviews: Useful ideas for all relationships

(Also published over on Polyamory in the News)

I was excited to be asked by the excellent people at Thorntree Press to review two new books about polyamory: Franklin Veaux’s memoir – The Game Changer – and Elisabeth Sheff’s edited collection of poly lives – Stories from the Polycule. These books are particularly interesting given that the authors – Franklin and Elisabeth – have previously been responsible for two of the most important books on polyamory in recent years: One is probably the best self-help style book on polyamory currently available, and the other is the most in-depth academic study of polyamorous families to date. The former is More Than Two by Franklin Veaux and Eve Rickert – the same title as Franklin’s successful blog. The latter is The Polyamorist Next Door by Elisabeth Sheff who writes the Psychology Today column of the same name.

So I was thrilled to have the opportunity to read the latest outputs by these two authors. On reading them I found that they were just as interesting as the books that preceded them. To summarise briefly, The Game Changer is an in-depth exploration of one person’s experience of shifting from a fairly hierarchical to a more egalitarian version of polyamory. Stories from the Polycule is an accessible collection of all kinds of experiences of open non-monogamy.

Together these books provide both a rich description of one person’s lived experience of polyamory, as well as a sense of the diversity of experiences that are possible within open non-monogamy. This is important because many popular accounts of polyamory tend to focus on rather similar narratives. As with many marginalised groups, poly people generally tell a public story which challenges common prejudices against them. So, for example, we often hear poly stories that contradict the stereotypes that polyamory is all about sex (by focusing on love), that it’s doomed to failure (by focusing on long term relationships), and that it’s weird (by focusing on the kinds of poly that are closest to monogamy).

This is very understandable in a world where poly people are still stigmatised and afforded few legal rights. However it means that the accounts we hear can be rather shallow, sterile, and samey. It was very refreshing – therefore – to read Franklin’s story of both the pains and pleasures of polyamory and alternatives to more conventional forms of poly; and to read about the ups and downs of poly, the sexual side of relationships, and the multiplicity of possible constellations, in Elisabeth’s collection.

These books offer exciting alternatives to the ‘one true way’ versions of polyamory that can be found in some poly communities, and the search for a universal explanation for why people are poly that are often found in academic work on the subject.

I’ll now go on to say a bit more about each book in turn, with a particular focus on why I think they offer something to our understanding of all relationships, not just polyamorous ones.

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Monogamy

Since Rewriting the Rules was published I sometimes get asked to do email interviews with journalists on various topics. Some of these get published in an edited form and some never see the light of day, so I thought I’d post some of the original interviews here.

Here’s one I did on monogamy:

Are we hardwired to be monogamous or is it a social construct that is arguably unnatural?

Like most aspects of human experience our relationships styles are biopsychosocial. It’s not a matter of nature or nurture, hardwiring or social construct. Rather the way we form relationships is influenced by a complex web of biological, psychological and social aspects which would be impossible to disentangle.

Certainly the diversity of relationship styles across humans and other animals suggests that it is very unlikely that any one kind of style (monogamous or non-monogamous) is ‘hard-wired’ from the start. However, the processes of our bodies and brains certainly operate together with the experiences we have through life and the messages we receive from the culture around us to shape the ways in which we experience love, desire, and so on.

How hard or misleading do you think it is to live with the view that boy meets girl, they fall in love, get married, remain faithful and live happily ever after?

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Jealousy

A couple of months back somebody was running a workshop on jealousy and was collecting together ideas from a few different people who’d written on the topic. Here’s what I wrote for them.

What is jealousy?

Actually jealousy means different things for different people. When I asked openly non-monogamous people what jealousy meant for them as part of a research project, people came up with the following answers:

comparing oneself unfavourably against others, longing for a certain kind of look from a partner, an internal confusion – feeling knotted up and tangled, an outward spikeyness and defensiveness, insecurity and vulnerabilty, terror of the loss of partner like falling into an abyss, a melodramatic sense of ‘oh no’ at the thought of being out of a partner’s mind , a feeling of left-outness and exclusion linked to feeling unattractive and ugly, feeling very small as if one might disappear, feeling uncomfortable in your skin, the hunger of seeing a banquet and being unable to get to it, feeling stretched and having to cram everything in in order to maintain relationships, feeling fearful that you will gradually be pushed out, painfully aware of your flaws, feeling shaky and nervous, bereft, murderous, or full of self-righteous rage.

Some common themes here are insecurity and fear about the potential loss of something important – usually a romantic relationship (although people said they felt it about other relationships too), and wanting to grab hold of it and protect it to avoid losing it, often by denying the person other relationships which are perceived as a potential threat, perhaps because you compare yourself unfavourably against the other people concerned.

What are some tips for managing it?

The painful paradox of jealousy is that the way we habitually respond to the feeling often contributes to the very loss that we fear will happen. If we respond to the tough angry, helpless, insecure emotions that we feel by grasping onto our partner (or other person) and trying to restrict their freedom then we are likely to lose them: either because they end up resenting us for this and leave, or because the person we keep hold of in this way is not the free person who we loved in the first place.

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Love myths

Since Rewriting the Rules was published I sometimes get asked to do email interviews with journalists on various topics. Some of these get published in an edited form and some never see the light of day, so I thought I’d post some of the original interviews here.

Here’s one on love myths.

How do we, in general, conceive relationships today? How strong are the ‘love myths’?

Love myths do still seem to be strong. A range of relationship styles are practised across the world (many cultures being polygamous or having relationships based on things other than romantic love). Despite this, the western ideal tends to be finding ‘The One’ perfect partner and remaining with them for life with the expectation that the relationship will generally provide happiness and fulfill all of each persons’ needs. We know that this model is common because very few other models are ever considered in mainstream media (magazines, movies, TV programmes, etc.) and psychologists like Bjarne M. Holmes have found that many people to follow those love myths. Interestingly he has also found that believing strongly in such myths often means people having worse, rather than better, relationships.

Psychologist Terri Conley and her colleagues have found that people generally think that a life-long monogamous relationships is beneficial for a couple’s sex life, happiness and well-being, and for any children they have. However, there is evidence which challenges all of these beliefs and suggests that forms of consensual non-monogamy (such as polyamory and open relationships) can be just as beneficial. It seems from such research that around 4-5% of people in the US engage in some form of consensual non-monogamy.

What do we actually know about the reality of relationships today?

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Non-monogamous relationships

Since Rewriting the Rules was published I sometimes get asked to do email interviews with journalists on various topics. Some of these get published in an edited form and some never see the light of day, so I thought I’d post some of the original interviews here.

Here’s one on non-monogamous relationships.

I understand that there has been a couple of recent books ( yours and Catherine Hakim´s ) discussing the attitudes about infidelity  in the UK? Do you think that is just a coincidence or is it a sign of the times?

It definitely feels like a current topic with many books and movies raising questions about the challenges of being in long term relationships and about how we deal with infidelity when it occurs.

Catherine Hakim’s book looks at the recent trend of dating websites for people who are looking for lovers outside their marriage. My book explores all of the many ways in which people at the moment are rewriting the rules of their relationships.

I think that the ‘rules’ about infidelity are being questioned right now for a combination of reasons. First, as people live longer what is meant by a ‘long term’ relationship becomes potentially much longer than it was in previously. Secondly, people are now looking for a lot more from a partner or spouse than they might have done in the past. It is common for people to expect such relationships to remain romantic and sexual throughout as well as providing a close friendship, a sense of belonging and security, and personal validation. This can be a great deal of pressure to put on one person, and that is a big part of the reason why people often end up looking elsewhere and having infidelities.

Read more of this post

Infidelity

Since Rewriting the Rules was published I sometimes get asked to do email interviews with journalists on various topics. Some of these get published in an edited form and some never see the light of day, so I thought I’d post some of the original interviews here.

Here’s one I did on infidelity.

Do you think there has been a rise in infidelity culture? 

It is very difficult to know exactly how much infidelity there is because, of course, people tend to keep it secret and may not even admit it on an anonymous survey. Evidence from research studies go from around 10% of married people having affairs at some point up to as many as 50-60%. Certainly quite a few research studies are reporting an increase (there’s a summary of some recent articles here ). Also there is now a market for dating sites specifically for people who are already married or in a monogamous relationship.

Why do you think it’s so easy/tempting/likely for people in relationships to seek excitement elsewhere?

I think that there are many reasons. People are living longer which makes a life-long monogamous relationship more of a commitment. Also, as I explore in my book, people are under a lot of pressure both to find The One perfect partner, and – at the same time – to reach their own goals and dreams in life. People might be tempted to have affairs if they start to worry that their partner is not The One and that they might be missing a better relationship elsewhere. Alternatively it might be that they begin to feel they’ve given up too much of their freedom in their relationship, and infidelity is a way of finding parts of themselves that they thought they’d lost. There are many different reasons for infidelity.

Do you think old(er) models of fidelity are becoming a bit outdated?

Older models are struggling to keep up with some of the changes that we’re seeing. For example, in relationship therapy, couples are struggling with issues like whether cybersex counts as cheating, or how to remain friends with an ex with whom they have children at the same time as having a new relationship. Some younger people are engaging in hook-up culture (having several, more casual, relationships) or forming monogamish couples which are somewhat open to other relationships.

What do you think are contributing factors to people ‘cheating’? Is social media a factor?

Certainly things like social media enable us to have many more relationships in lots of different ways, and it can be hard to determine where the lines are.

Research suggests that people often tend to draw their lines around monogamy in different ways. They don’t communicate about this up front, which means that it can be painful for everyone when the lines are unwittingly crossed.

What is the main angle that you’re setting out in your book? And can you relate it to the cheating culture?

In Rewriting the Rules the idea is that relationships have changed a lot in recent years so we need to look carefully at our rules and maybe change them accordingly. For example, with cheating, I suggest that people think about where their own lines are around monogamy. Do they want just one emotionally close person in their lives or many? Do they want complete sexual monogamy, or are the open to flirting, physical contact, or even sex, with more than one person? Once they know where they are, they can communicate about this with new partners and find people who are on the same page, rather than being pushed into situations of infidelity and dishonesty and the pain and suffering that can cause.

Guardian article – Relationship FAQ

Yesterday The Guardian interviewed a bunch of sex and relationship bloggers to find out our answers to our most frequently asked questions. The article is here and you can read my answers below – hard to capture all the complexity in 130 words a piece!

Question 1: What kinds of relationship are most successful?

I write a lot about different possible ways of doing relationships: monogamous, monogamish and openly non-monogamous relationships; living apart together and long distance relationships; sexual and non-sexual relationships. Something I’m often asked is whether a certain form of relationships can be successful. My question back is always ‘what do you mean by successful?’ It generally turns out that people mean longevity. While studies have found that all these forms of relationships can last over time, I question whether that is the best measure of relationship ‘success’. Perhaps that is something else that is worth thinking about.

Question 2: Will things get easier if I change how I do relationships?

When people contemplate a different kind of relationship – such as an open relationship or polyamory – they often imagine that it will solve all of the problems they’re currently having. I’ve called this the ‘poly grail’ (although it happens with all kinds of relationships). Sadly the answer is that any different way of doing relationships has its own challenges. It’s tough to be in monogamous, it’s tough to be single, and it’s tough to be non-monogamous (whether you do that openly, or secretly in the form of affairs). It’s well worth finding a kind of relationship that works for you, but it’s far too much pressure to expect to find the ‘one true way’ of doing relationships, just as it’s too much pressure to expect to find ‘the one’ partner who’ll fulfil all your needs.

Question 3: How do I go about finding the kind of relationship that works for me?

Instead of searching for the perfect relationship, it’s helpful to figure out what’s important to us, and to communicate about that. For example, where do you stand between wanting just one very close person in your life and wanting lots of friends or partners who are equally close? What about between sexual exclusivity and having many sexual encounters (online or offline)? Is it important to have a clear agreed contract for how you do relationships or for everyone to be free to make their own decisions? Do you like to be private or are you keen to share everything with partners? Communication won’t resolve all the differences we have in relationships, but it definitely helps to be open about such things from the start and to accept that people can feel very differently about them.

 

Diverse love

This month I was asked to contribute to the series that Photoworks has been doing on Queer Representations. This is a series of commissioned texts marking LGBT History Month with explorations of the queer image in photography and culture.

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For my contribution I got together with brilliant photographer Charlotte Barnes to produce a piece about relationship diversity, which also touches in some of the gender diversity issues that I explored in my last post for Rewriting the Rules. We had a great time on the photoshoot and hopefully the models will think that the final pictures and post do justice to them and their relationship.

You can read the Photoworks post here as well as seeing one of the other photographs that we took during the shoot.

You can also view a presentation on polyamory by the trupple here.

You can read more about the Queer Embassy Bar Wotever talks which the video was part of here.