Conceptualizing Relationships

As someone for whom being able to conceptualize things is very important to thinking and feeling about them, and who also has both a practical and theoretical interest in relationships, including non-mainstream relationship structures, I spend a lot of time thinking about ways to conceptualize relationships. I also repeatedly run into issues that show me holes in various existing conceptualizations.

Zack was trying to explain to me that he likes one book series more than another because of the lack of friendships in the second, and we spent a bit of time with me arguing with him and him trying to explain because I couldn’t figure out what he was actually talking about. The moderator of a blog on alt relationships stated that they don’t understand the difference between a queerplatonic relationship and a very close friendship. I for at least the second time ran into the problem of not knowing how to refer to a significant-other relationship that is sexual but not romantic. Etc.

At the moment, the conceptualization of relationships that works best for me in terms of capturing everything I want to be able to capture is a combination of two axes and a tag system.

The two axes are used to plot two measures of significance: 1) How emotionally important a relationship is to you, and 2) how large of a role this person has in your life. Emotional importance runs from ‘complete strangers’ to ‘focus people’, with focus people being the term I’m using for ‘most important people’ – people who would be your ‘hostages’ for the second task of the Triwizard Tournament, who would be the best targets if someone wanted to blackmail you into something or haunt you with visions of horrors, for whom you would drop everything if they needed you or were in trouble. Role-in-your-life is about time and ‘utility’ – how much do you interact with this person, are they meeting some of your day-to-day physical and emotional needs, etc.

For some examples (note: I’m using some personal examples because I find this works best for me when thinking, but I’m basically making up the exact numbers here, and they should not be taken as any kind of declaration of who is how important to me and such):

  • My best friend is very emotionally important to me, however I see her about once a year and don’t talk to her much more often than that.
  • Some villains will abandon their right-hand minions in time of trouble, because while these people are practically useful for what they do, they’re not emotionally important to the villain at all.
  • Zack and I used to live closer to each other than we do now. This change decreased our presence in each other’s lives, but did not decrease his emotional importance to me.

RelationshipGraph1

The tag system covers everything else. Is this relationship sexual? Is it romantic? Is it a Relationship? (I’m using capital-R Relationship to mean the ‘we’re in a relationship’ kind of relationship, wherein this is how the people involved see it and think of it). Is there a legal bond involved? A biological connection? A financial connection? D/s? Is one person in authority over the other? Do they have shared responsibilities? Etc.

This allows me to answer the earlier questions. A queerplatonic relationship is distinguished from a close friendship by the ‘+Relationship’ tag. The thing Zack wants in books is relationships that are high up on both axes, but do not have ‘Relationship’ ‘romantic’ or ‘sexual’ tags (in other words, are –Relationship, -romantic, and –sexual).

It also allows me to talk about some other things I want to talk about. For instance, I’ve been struggling for a while on how to define ‘significant other’. This gives me a definition – ‘significant other’, to me, is the intersection of ‘very emotionally important’ and +Relationship. Likewise, I now have a definition for what ‘primary‘ means to me – it is the intersection of either-or-both ‘very emotionally important’ and ‘very large role in life’, and +Relationship. So, a life partner can be a primary partner without being emotionally important (as, say, for a sociopathic villain), and a significant other can be a primary partner without having the largest role-in-life (as, say, in a long-distance relationship).

Meanwhile, when I talk about culturally conceptualized ‘idealized monogamy’, I mean that in our culture it is considered the right way to do things to have a relationship that’s in the top right corner of the graph (very emotionally important and very large role in your life), that is +Relationship, +romantic, +sexual, and preferably +married, and additionally that no other relationships in your life should be that far in that corner, or have those tags.

So – possibly more adjustments to this system as I do more thinking, but meanwhile, this is what I have.

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Mono, Poly, Etc: a Spectrum

So, I’m currently visiting my best friend (who is also now getting added to the ‘people I am out to’ list), and we were talking about relationships, and this ended up giving me the thought that ‘monongamy’ is another word that actually has multiple meanings. So I ended up thinking of this spectrum. It’s probably missing things, and has other such problems, but it helped me think through this particular thing, and having it out there might also help me think of the other things.

[Note that it is also in no way a value judgment. Different things work for different people, and as long as there is open communication, consent, etc, whatever works for whoever is totally fine.]

  • Absolute monogamy: a person has one significant-other relationship in their entire life. They only have sex and similar intimacy with this person, they and this person build their life together, etc. They and this person dedicate their lives to each other, and that’s it. (Some religious fundamentalists will advocate this one.)
  • Serial monogamy: a person has only one significant-other relationship at a time. While in such a relationship, they only have sex and similar intimacy with this person, they and this person build their life together. However, such a relationship can end, and if it does, the resulting single people may form another such relationship with someone else.
    (Note: this option actually spans a whole part of the spectrum, relating to what an ‘OK ending’ is. So, the most restrictive is ‘if one of the people dies’, and from there it basically goes through the same spectrum as divorce laws, from ‘if one person does something accepted as sufficiently terrible’ to ‘if the people/one of the people just want it to end, for any reason whatsoever’.)
  • Relationships are monogamous: If a person has a significant-other relationship, they only have one at a time, and while in such a relationship, they only have sex and similar intimacy with this person, they and this person build their life together. However, if a person is not in a significant-other relationship, they can have non-significant-other relationships with multiple people, and have sex and similar intimacy with these multiple people. (This is where the ‘we are getting serious, let’s be exclusive’ trope comes from).
  • Open relationships: A person has one significant-other relationship at a time, and they and this person build their life together. However, they can also have other non-significant-other relationships at the same time, and have sex and similar intimacy in all of these relationships.
  • Polyamory: A person can have multiple separate significant-other relationships at the same time.

Additionally, there’s a perpendicular axis for polyfidelitous relationships – moving along that axis, the word ‘monogamy’ in each point is replaced by ‘polyfidelity’, and a significant-other relationship functions the same way as noted in whichever point it fits under, but includes multiple people.