Relationships and reading

Some weeks ago, I went to a holiday party at the house of some people my family knows. The hosts are a husband and wife who got married pretty recently (for the purpose of this post I will call them R and E). Before that, my family had attended some game nights hosted by him, out of some circumstances with which I knew that he was then polyamorous. (But did not know, going to the party, if that was still the case).

He greeted us at the door; when we came into the living room (we were pretty much the first people there) we saw a woman who I then assumed was E. However, pretty soon after that another woman came into the room and it turned out that in fact she was E, and the first woman was thus clearly not (I will call her J). I asked J if she lived there too; she said she did not. I subsequently (including while watching E and J interact) started wondering if they were metamours. This turned out to indeed be the case.


Later at the party, I overheard a different person telling a story about how she and her girlfriend went on a roadtrip and got repeatedly taken for sisters, despite the fact that they don’t look alike. This isn’t the first time I’ve heard that kind of story.


Together, this made me think about reading relationships working out as this combination of getting impressions on some level, and then interpreting them with what you have in your mind.

On some level I got impressions about J not feeling like another guest, and my brain went to other options I might have associated with what I was getting. Since I did have polyamory and etc in my head to work with, I could think of that one. If I hadn’t, I can see myself having wondered if they were, say, sisters-in-law, or other extended family.

Similarly, some of the people the other couple encountered might have been on some level getting the impression of ‘something other than friends’ – and then again, going to other options they have available in mind as associated.*

*To be clear, the reason what-people-have-in-minds works this way is heteronormativity etc and this is bad. This is me having thoughts about its existence, not saying it’s ok.

Some thoughts about relationship labels, paradigms, etc (or, n-dimensional space, amatonormativity, romantic comedies, and sexist/gendered adventure stories)

Relationship labels in n-dimensional space

In thinking/noticing some things about relationships I have and labels recently, I went thinking about about the general situation.

One of the things I’ve repeatedly run into is that as a culture we have like five or something relationship terms among a very n-dimentional space (the axes/dimensions here being ‘things that can vary between relationships and could be used to categorize them’) for most of which our culture doesn’t give us much tools for really recognizing/thinking about/etc those dimensions to begin with.

Obviously, this leads to a lot of lexical gaps, a lot of words doing coverage over very large and disparate territory, problems that arise when different distinctions in the n-dimentions are important to different people (or there are any of a variety of other things that lead to people trying to draw their word-concept lines pretty differently and then running into disagreements).

Relationship paradigms and amatonormativity

I was also thinking about not having very much material to work with. As noted, we tend to lack the material that would deal explicitly with the axes/dimensions of relationship things – that might help me figure what various ones of them are and thus which ones might matter most to me, which ones feel right as category divisions, etc. (We have material for axes like ‘are you having sex’, but those are often not the ones I’m interested in).

Lacking that, a next best thing might be seeing what relationship categories someone else has and how they work. Or, since I don’t really have someones to survey, and also since people’s personal ideas are likely to have connections to social ideas, what relationship categories some other social relationship paradigms have.

As such it occurred to me that I don’t actually immediately know any.

A relationship paradigm I run into a lot, including often in the context of it being the norm, is amatonormativity. Specifically the ‘you have one sexual, romantic, life partner etc relationship that is your only relationship with those traits and also the most important relationship in your life (this is your partner, and everyone else is friends)’.

This made me realize two issues thinking more about this runs into in my head. One, in my head amatonormativity ends up at odds with the ‘heterosexual couples divide their time between passionate romance and yelling’ view of relationships, which I also run into in the context of social norm narratives etc (I can’t think of the proper term for this, though see Awful Wedded Life and Slap Slap Kiss for some relevant TV Tropes things). (Er, to be clear, this is not a disagreement with amatonormativity things or anything like that, this is just my particular thread of trying to think through some particular things and stuff that ends up in my mind.)

Two, amatonormativity is clearly not a consistently universal norm across time, and what might have been around at other times and how things moved is also relevant.

This ended me up with actually thinking of two particular relationship paradigms, which I then wanted to write about.

Two relationship paradigms

(Note: this is in no way me saying I know things about society or etc. I am not making any kind of claim about something being the case, having been the case, etc. This me working pretty much entirely off media, with the selection heuristic of ‘I’ve run into it and it came to mind when I was thinking about this’. All these things have way more forms and variety than I am going into here. The point of this is helping me think about things and it is not intended to be particularly more meaningful than that.)

Paradigm romantic comedy

(General sources: romanic comedies I have seen, which is mostly a few ones aimed at teenagers and stuff since I don’t actually watch romantic comedies. Romantic comedies I have heard about, read summaries of, watched trailers of, etc. Other media things).

You have a romantic interest/significant other/spouse/etc. (Using the categorization of the-like-five-words-we-have, they are your partner relationship).

You Have Feelings for them. You want to or are having sex with them. You are either on or, in a happy ending, going to be getting on the relationship escalator, involving moving in together, getting married, combining households, and having children if that’s a thing you’re going to do.

You might do fairly intense and intentional thing for your relationship. If you’re separated, you might go across the country to see them, end up moving with them, etc.

Your relationship with them is often very roller-coaster. Some commonly appearing relationship elements are general nice times together (more likely in relationship building stories), general miserable times together (more common in relationship-has-existed-longer-stories), passionate emotional moments, and high-conflict fights.

The core issue of fights is generally whether/how much one of you cares about the other (or both directions of this). Fights generally end via later demonstration that they are over and things have returned back, generally though something that shows you like each other. Sometimes there are apologies of gestures of apology, such as buying nice things for the other person. This tends to be gendered. You are unlikely to discuss the issues behind a fight.

You are often unlikely to go to your partner for support with problems, struggles, etc. (As a particular exception that might also happen, if you have a Central Issue in your life, you might confide it in your partner and they might encourage you.)

You also have friends.

You are likely to be in fairly common casual contact with them. You see (or are otherwise in contact with) them pretty often, but not with high intensity or intention. Most of your time together is spent either doing something else (if you’re coworkers etc) or doing casual nice things (like being in a coffeeshop).

You are likely to go to your friends for support with problems, struggles, etc, including ones re your partner relationship.

If you have a conflict with your friends, it is probably about :lack of loyalty:. You left them for the popular kids or other kinds of similar dynamics. The issue ends with you realizing you were in the wrong and coming back. You will probably apologize, but like the conflict, the apology tends to be fairly standard as opposed more specifically personal to you and them.

Paradigm sexist/gendered adventure story

(General sources: LOTR movies, Arthur Conan Doyle Sherlock Holmes, somewhat older medieval-type fantasy and non-fantasy, etc).

You are a man.

Of very high importance in your life are your comrades (using the categorization of the-like-five-words-we-have, they are your friends). Together you do important things such as fight for your cause, go on important missions, etc. You give assistance to your comrades in times of danger, would go to great lengths for them, etc.

You are less likely to confide your emotional struggles to anyone. However, if you do, you are likely to go for support to your comrades and to older and more experienced mentor figures who are also among your comrades.

You might have conflict with your comrades about decisions relevant to pursuing your cause. If this happens, you might separate and pursue separately for some amount of time.  This generally ends through you coming together again.

The greatest conflict comes if a comrade betrays your cause. You will consider them an enemy because that is how it is, but will retain comrade-originated feelings. You will have a physical fight with great emotion and bury them with grief.

At home, you have a wife/fiancee/beloved (using the categorization of the-like-five-words-we-have, this is your partner relationship). You love them. You do or will have sex with them, though this is less likely to be brought up. You plan to or do live together and have children together if you will do that.

When you are away from them you feel longing/yearning for them. They likely represent peace, a reason you fight, hope for afterwards, etc.

Much of your relationship is likely to be in less verbal terms. You think of them as images. You express emotions by crying, laughing and running to each other, gestures of care, etc.

If you have conflict it is about moments of them not wanting you to leave. It resolves, likely in emotions, as you both know you must.

Your partner is also likely to have friends, who are people in a similar situation to them. They and their friends are in contact through the general activities of living, and might also visit separately. They are likely to commiserate together. If your partner needs advice, they are likely to go to their own older mentor figures. This is likely to be about your relationship.

A few immediate thoughts

  • One thing this immediately helps me thing about is what ‘friends with benefits’ (which could be seen as one of our ‘secondary’ (in the like-primary-and-secondary-colors sense, not the importance sense) existing relationship labels) means. Within a relationship paradigm, this is someone where your relationship has the tone and other features of a ‘friends’ relationship, but you also have sex with them.
  • The older mentor figure relationships appear in the second paradigm in a way that I don’t thing I see them appearing so much in ‘more contemporary’ relationship paradigm things.

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.


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.

Special Cases?: Differing Philosophies on Non-Monogamy

So, some amount of time ago, I was reading one of those ‘rules for non-monogamy’ lists (unfortunately, I’ve been unable to find this particular one again), and one of the points listed was ‘have an exit strategy’. This point was talking about having a plan to end any of your non bounds-primary relationships, to use in the case where your bounds-primary decides that they can’t handle you having that relationship anymore. And, this being one of those times when seeing someone for whom something works differently than it does for me makes me realize the existence of these multiple possibilities, this led me to some thoughts.

In the set of ideas on relationships that is prevalent in our culture at the moment, relationship partners do not have the right to control most elements of each other’s lives. If I don’t like one of my partner’s friends, or if they don’t like one of my hobbies, we can try to discuss this with each other. We can express worries or concerns. We can decide how and whether to address the other’s concerns. If this is a serious enough dislike, we can end up parting over it. But, unless there’s a serious effect on our lives together (my partner’s friend is stealing from us, or I’m neglecting important household responsibilities to engage in my hobby), we do not have the right to expect that because we don’t like this about the other, the other needs to put an end to it.

Sex, similar intimacy, and relationships are the major exception to this. They are a special case. In mainstream ideas, I’m expected to want my partner to not have these things outside of me, they’re expected to want the same of me, and it is accepted that we should abide by each other’s wants in this.

Some kinds of non-monogamy keep these as special case, while having a different idea of what the people involved might want. In this non-monogamy, each partner does not put a blanket veto on the other partner’s outside sex, similar intimacy, and relationships. However, they still have the right to more specific vetoes – ‘don’t go to this restaurant’, ‘don’t do this specific sex act’, ‘all other partners must be approved by me’, etc.

On the other hand, some kinds of non-monogamy do not. In this kind of non-monogamy, I have no more right to tell a partner they can’t date or play with someone else than I do to tell them they can’t play chess with someone else. I can express concerns and expect them to be addressed in some way, and not dismissed. I can share feelings I’m having and we can work through them together. I can, if there’s a situation we cannot come to a mutually acceptable place on, decide to end the relationship. But I do not expect that my desires on my partner’s other sex and relationships should take precedence over theirs, just like I do not expect this for other parts of our lives.

[Note: While I at least currently think that type two is the kind that works best for me, none of this is a value judgment of any kind. Different things work for different people, and as long as there is open communication, consent, etc, whatever works for whoever is totally fine.]


So, I’m reading some polyamory writings, including a bunch of definitions, which led me to a thought on the multiple things that people mean when they use the word ‘primary’ for a partner. Here are three that I’ve encountered (note that they are not mutually exclusive, and a lot of people use ‘primary’ to mean more than one of them at the same time):

  • Some people use ‘primary’ to mean what I use ‘significant-other relationship’ for. So, a centrally important intimate relationship wherein all the partners have such feelings and have agreed that they have such a relationship status.
  • Some people, for instance here, use ‘primary’ to mean ‘building a life together’ and such. I would probably use ‘life partners’ for this.
  • Some people use ‘primary’ to mean people with whom you set rules about each other’s other relationships. I don’t have another word for this, but I think it would be good to have one, because it’s a very particular thing that it’s important to be able to talk about. Until I get a better word, I’m going to be using the term ‘bounds-primary’.

Personally, I don’t use the word primary much myself. If someone asked me if I had a primary/ies, I would say yes, meaning my significant others. I think being life partners with someone, for me, would necessarily also mean being significant others with them. And I don’t have a third-type primary/bounds-primary at all, and don’t really forsee having one, because I have a different relationship philosophy from the one that concept is part of.