An illustration of someone with the symbol for polyamory on their t-shirt holding hands with two others. This represents the young people treading a new yet well established path away from traditional monogamous conceptions of relationships. Illustration by Pearl McNames

There’s a lot of debate surrounding how to best go about relationships, specifically romantic ones. With just one Google search, hundreds of articles come up: some saying that monogamy is the only way to have relationships, others saying that polyamory (the practice of, or desire for, intimate relationships with more than one person at the same time, with the consent of all involved) is better. In this conversation, oftentimes a lot of the complexities and nuances of individual relationships are lost. There’s more of a focus on subscribing to a label, and less on finding the practices and ideas that best suit an individual. People generally build relationships (platonic, romantic, or ambiguous in nature) together because they enjoy each other as people and want to work towards a deeper connection. 

In some ways, conventional approaches to relationships do serve this purpose. Spending quality time with a partner is a great way to bond, and sharing beloved activities can bring people closer together. There are practical advantages to living with someone, and sharing physical space with someone can help you feel closer emotionally. Weddings can be a way to celebrate a relationship with the larger community, and there are legal benefits to marriage.

However, there are components of traditional monogamy that don’t serve many people: the way in which connection with another person is presented as the ultimate betrayal, as opposed to a lack of communication; the restriction of the expansive nature of the friendship, evidenced by the idea of “emotional cheating”; and, perhaps most of all, the strict adherence to the socially prescribed hierarchy and progression of relationships at the expense of the needs and desires of the individuals involved.

Common critiques of cheating often focus on the cheater not loving their partner enough, not appreciating what they had, being greedy, or other sentiments along those lines. These all miss the point as to what makes cheating morally wrong: healthy relationships are built on trust and communication, and to violate that is to break that foundation. Considering this, it is not multiple intimate relationships that is the issue, but the deceit that often accompanies them. In its most extreme form, cutting someone off from their social connections is considered a form of abuse. Community and other social relationships are part of what creates a healthy environment for individual relationships to form.

This focus on exclusivity in romantic-designated relationships also prevents platonic-designated relationships from reaching their fullest, richest potential. In many ways, what’s considered emotional cheating is virtually indistinguishable from a close friendship: quality time, emotional intimacy, and generally enjoying someone as a person. What crosses this line depends on the source: sometimes it’s secrecy, just like with traditional cheating, but sometimes it’s something else: prioritization. When someone begins to prioritize friendships over romantic relationships, it becomes a betrayal of their romantic relationships. Through this lens, priority becomes one of the key distinctions between romantic and platonic relationships. The feelings of all parties are less important in this case than the social and cultural norms surrounding relationships, and here we arrive at the core flaw of the conventional approach to relationships.

Perhaps this idea is best exemplified by the concept of the relationship escalator: the socially prescribed progression that a “relationship” follows. Most people are probably familiar with this set of steps because it’s how relationships are portrayed in the media, and often how they are experienced in real life. It starts with meeting someone, going on some dates, and eventually becoming “exclusive.” Later, it becomes moving in together, getting married, having children, and prioritizing that relationship ‘til death do they part. For better or for worse, this model of relationships doesn’t serve everyone. Not everyone wants or can have kids, not everyone wants to live with a romantic partner, and not everyone wants to have a romantic relationship as their highest priority. Knowing all this, it’s easy to see why public interest in options beyond monogamy continues to grow.

I talked with two teens about their experiences with monogamy, nonmonogamy, and relationships. Bennett George is a Franklin senior who identifies his relationship style most with open polyamory. To them, polyamory “just feels natural.” When he was growing up, they didn’t really see relationships beyond monogamy represented at all. “I remember introducing polyamory to my mom when I was 13, and she gave me this incredulous look and said ‘Like Sister Wives?’” he says. One misconception they think people have about polyamory is that it’s “some sort of sexual deviancy which it’s not necessarily; it’s just a type of relationship.” 

From Bennett’s perspective, “Polyamory is one way we can challenge the whole nuclear family construct that we have here in America, and that concept doesn’t serve anyone very well. I just want people to know that there are other options. There are lots of ways you can be happy in life without conforming to that expectation.” Even for people who are wanting to stick with monogamy for now, he thinks that “challenging the ideas of what a relationship necessarily looks like, not necessarily in the sense of opening your relationship, but just in how you interact with each other within it,” is something that everyone can benefit from. For people wanting to learn more about polyamory, Bennett recommends Leanne Yau’s Instagram page @polyphiliablog, and the zine “Infinite Relationships,” available to read for free online.

Lucas McKinney, a student at Alliance Charter Academy, considers himself a relationship anarchist. In his own words, Lucas says, “I practice relationships in an anarchic way. I experience and practice and build my relationships, not on their value and what they mean as a status, regardless of [their label as] friend, acquaintance, boyfriend, partner, but rather in my individual relationship with that person regardless of what I can call them.” His first exposure to relationship anarchy was through a friend who described their problems with both monogamy and polyamory as approaches to relationships and gave him a zine called “Infinite Relationships” (mentioned above). Lucas remarked that this was his “initial introduction to that kind of relationship, and opened [his] eyes to breaking down those hierarchies and practices and the ways that [approaches] such as monogamy and polyamory enforce the structure that oftentimes dooms them from the start.” Lucas found that both monogamy and polyamory, create a situation wherein “[only certain people are] allowed to fulfill certain needs or [are only allowed] some amount of closeness with[, which creates] this impossible job for the person with you, and they become much less someone you want to engage in closeness with because you like or love them, and instead someone who is fulfilling a role in your life as an occupation.”

 He wants people to know that relationship anarchy “is an ongoing and open process.” Lucas thinks that “with the word anarchy it immediately feels very extreme and foreign and even intimidating because the word carries such a weight with people who are inexperienced or have a lack of understanding with it.” Also, he says that “Relationship anarchy isn’t an extended form of polyamory because [it] also rejects the structures of polyamory, but instead is a way to experience relationships that is more liberating from the rules of what kind of relationships you’re allowed to have impressed on you by an entirely monogamous culture.” Lucas also practices relationship anarchy because “it aligns so much with the way [he] views queerness and gender and sexual liberation. In these ways [it’s] an extension of [his] rejection of queer or sex or gender-based oppression because the relationship styles of monogamy and polyamory are often, consciously or unconsciously, perpetrating these forms of oppression, and relationship anarchy is another personal step [he takes] to remove [himself] from it.” He recommends the zines “Infinite Relationships” and “Kill the Couple in Your Head” to anyone wanting to explore relationship anarchy.

Through a combination of analysis and real life experiences, it’s clear that traditional relationship structures fail us in some key ways, and that the path forward is filled with creativity. There’s no one way to go about having relationships, and it’s worthwhile for everyone to take some time to reflect on what they actually want out of their interactions with others—separate from any socially-prescribed norms. 

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