When the one and only, isn't
We would like to outline a way for conceptualising - and living - relationships and friendships. This approach has gone a long way to making intimacy, both emotional and physical, more wonderful, fulfilling, and exciting in our lives.
The thoughts in this article came from our own experiences of friendships and relationships, but we found that many of our friends' experiences were similar. We've tried this approach in our own lives and have, on occasion, evangelised on its behalf to our friends. Perhaps we have been too premature and positive about this. Our friend/relationships are far from perfect. We're constantly afraid of hurting the special people in our lives for whom this world view doesn't gel. At times, we've both wanted to go back to our old ways of living our lives. But that way doesn't fit - at least at the moment - and we hope that this new approach will work out for us and for others.
Thinking about 'relationships'
In our culture, 'relationships' are meant to be a number of things, including heterosexual, monogamous, and 'perfect', or at least self-contained. Most of these concepts haven't worked for us in our lives, and we think they have broader political implications. Whatever their sexual identity, many people we know are looking for the perfect partner. "Is he/she the one for me?" is a common question about partners. The idea of a perfect partner is expressed in concepts such as romantic destiny and star-crossed lovers, and in mainstream magazines, dating agency ads, and countless movies and songs about 'true love'. This partner is meant to be all things: lover, sole sex partner, best friend, problem-solver, and our main source of emotional support. With such an expectation placed on partners, it's no wonder that so many don't come up to scratch - it's an impossible ask, or at least a very difficult one. (Some people do get lucky, but to base relationships on such luck is not totally unlike basing one's finances on winning the lottery.) It's also no wonder that people are so distraught when relationships 'break up'. Whether the person was perfect or not doesn't matter; it's the idea of a lost perfect, 'other half' that matters - and the hope that, with a bit of gentle persuasion from us, they might have become a perfect partner.
Defining heterosexuality as the norm is obviously heterosexist: it ignores and denies same-sex attractions and relations. One effect of heterosexism that we have acutely experienced is that it constrains our friendships with others of the same sex, because we're constantly cautious of 'crossing the line' or giving our friends the 'wrong impression'.
The concept of monogamy is historically grounded in patriarchal notions of 'property'. And, like heterosexism, it is currently supported by institutions such as marriage, social security, and his and hers bath towels. While some heterosexual relationships today may be relatively equal, heterosexism and monogamy have been, and still are, used as tools to kept women in a subservient position to men. And expecting people only to be close to one person of the opposite sex prevents men from exploring what it means to love/have sex with other men, and women loving/having sex with other women. It has also inhibited women politically mobilising with other women. Monogamy has therefore 'protected' men's power and privilege from non-heterosexual and feminist challenges.
While we believe that each of these three expectations are politically problematic, we also think that they could greatly contribute to the actual problems people have with relationships and intimacy. We believe that people are capable of being close to others, but one reason for relationship problems could be the very concept of relationships themselves.
All intimacy and no real respect for partners, or being in a relationship for the sake of being in a relationship, is a recipe for disaster. Relationships may have more chance of working if they can have an ethical base of mutuality, care, concern, flexibility, and respect. While these are supposed to exist in relationships, we get the feeling that too often they are glossed over in the pursuit of other expectations, such as the ones above. But these ethical approaches are often present, and work well in, friendships.
Friendships: ethical but limited
The common conception of friendship is different from relationships. What it means to be in friendship is less rigidly defined, is not socially sanctioned (like marriage ceremonies sanctioning relationships), and is less scrutinised. (It's common to be asked how relationships are going; less common to be asked about friendships.) People in relationships often think of themselves as one unit, such as in structures like marriage. This can also happen in day-to-day situations like disagreements. At times, we have both experienced even minor disagreements as a threat to relationships. Disagreements in friendships are more often respected, because there's not as much invested in the other person being our perfect 'other half'. Thinking of partners as other halves is fine until one or the other changes - then it's harder for the perfect, boxed-in unity to work. The whole thing suddenly doesn't fit it in the box, or one person can end up feeling more like a quarter.
On the other hand, friendships can be constantly renegotiated and built upon, because there's no set definition of what it means to be in friendship. We noticed that our friendships are based on what we could actually give and receive, and what's actually possible. So friendships are maintained not through deference to a vow or preconceived definition; they are created and recreated based on where friends are actually at, and where they want to be. In their respect for other people, friendships have an ethical base. While the popular phrase 'relationships come and go, but friends are forever' may not be literally true, it does suggest that friendships' flexibility makes it easier to deal with growth, difference, and change.
But friendships have their own limitations. Both of us have often felt not as emotionally or physically close to our friends as we'd like to be. The tension between friendships and relationships has been very apparent in our lives, and it seems like it's common for many others. These limitations in friendships come from thinking of friend- and relationships as different. They are often cast as opposites: people often think they have to choose between one or the other. We think this is worth exploring - and moving beyond.
What's the difference?
Whether two ends of a 'intimacy continuum', or total opposites with no middle ground, friendships and relationships are said to be different, and there's an expectation that we live them differently. But this doesn't really make sense to us: people are in some kind of relationship with everyone they relate to (just as extended family are called 'relations'), and for us, friendship should be a solid base in every close relationship.
Thinking of friendships and relationships as opposites also limits them. It supports the culture of 'relationships for relationships' sake' and that 'friends can only be "just" friends'. For us, there's nothing 'just' about not being able to be really close to friends, to give them a big hug and a kiss. And having sex with your friends is supposed to be completely unthinkable - or suddenly lead to a 'together forever' relationship. Even attraction to friends is meant to be problematic - just this year, this has almost destroyed important friendships for both of us. And if you find yourself in love with your friends, what then? But why should wanting to be close to friends be a problem? For us, not being close to friends is more likely to end the friendship than being close.
And why should intimacy in relationships be such a hassle? We have both experienced the silencing effect of what we thought was 'intimacy'. We have both been afraid to disagree with someone we have been in a 'relationship' for fear that the relationship would end, and that this would bring with it an end to that intimacy. We have also experienced the pain and frustration of having our close friendships seen as a threat to relationships we have been in. The friend/relationship split doesn't work for us, and we suspect it fails many others too. It has led to less respectful relationships and unsatisfying friendships in our lives, and we want to move beyond it.
Shared special spaces
To move away from the friend/relationship split has meant we've had to come up with our own ways of being with other people. One concept we've found useful is talking about the 'shared special spaces' that we have with the people in our lives. Basically, speaking of the shared special spaces we share with people means speaking about what's actually there between us and others. Shared special spaces acknowledge the different emotional and physical intimacies we share with people, and how these differ from person to person and time to time.
Choosing not to use shorthand (and almost vacuous) terms like 'relationships' or 'partners', means that we've had to speak about specifics. It's meant that we've had to think about what the people in our lives really mean to us, and work out ways of letting them - and others - know. Working out what to say instead of "he's my partner" is difficult to do at first. Instead of the false safety of grandiose terms of endearment, we've chosen to talk about what we like about others, what they mean to us, how we like relating, and what we like doing together. We've found this to be more accurate and more rewarding. In some cases, it has taken our friendships to amazing places. It's also meant that we've had to examine other concepts in our relationships, like monogamy and non-monogamy.
We should acknowledge here histories of people who have resisted being boxed into traditional relationships, including the ongoing queer challenge to the friend/relationship/family split.
Both of us spent years trying to fit into the monogamy/non-monogamy framework, but neither approach fit. By moving beyond the friend/relationship split, and honoring the various shared spaces that we share with people in our lives, we've actually found that the concepts of monogamy/non-monogamy don't make much sense. This doesn't mean that we suddenly have wanted to have sex with all our friends, or that our existing 'relationships' are any less important. Instead, we've found it more useful to think of all the people we are close to as important for what's actually there.
Defining our relationships purely in terms of sex has felt arbitrary, hasn't been as clear cut as it sounds anyway, and it has ignored the other spaces we share with people. So if sex/no sex doesn't make too much sense to us, neither does monogamy/non-monogamy. This isn't to suggest that sex doesn't complicate relationships - it does, but for us, it shouldn't be an all-encompassing way to think about the people in our lives. Defining relationships only in terms of sex is also disrespectful to people in celibate relationships, and 'monogamous', non-sexual relationships. Having moved away from thinking about relationships as monogamous or non-, we can still decide to share an intense physical space with only one person. But this would be for its own reasons, and not out of deference to concepts which don't make sense to us. In fact, choosing to be in a (sexually) monogamous relationship may be easier if other friendships are places of strong connections and support.
This way of approaching connections is fundamentally different from traditional questions of monogamy vs. non-monogamy. By throwing away these very concepts, and arguing for more sensual/sexual options in friendships, our approach could be seen to be arguing for non-monogamy, but it's actually quite different.
We are aware that for us as men to suggest this approach could be problematic and downright dodgy. We're aware of how popular non-monogamy and sexual liberationist arguments have been used by men for their own gain. These are usually based on concepts like individual freedom, not respect, mutuality, and shared spaces. As many feminists have pointed out, while the sexual liberation rhetoric of the 60s benefited many women, it also perpetuated expectations of women's availability to have sex with men. While some feminists in the 60s and 70s were calling for an end to monogamy to end women's sexual oppression, many men we seeing it as an easy chance for more sex. Sexual liberation liberated men, not women, because of our existing position of power and privilege. Under sexual liberation, some men felt they had licence to leave existing relationships and families. Even recently, men without a strong understanding of - or commitment to - feminism are critiquing monogamy.
Fortunately, there is a growing body of practise-based theory that argues for a respectful non-monogamy, and includes the stories of people who've made this a workable, loving reality in their lives. While much of this writing does little to challenge the concepts of monogamy and non-monogamy, the ethics and ways for making such relationships a reality are exciting.
Will it actually work?
Will such a radical departure from societal expectations actually work? We hope so, especially for our own friendships, but for others also. There are many reasons we think it will work. Such a way of approaching friendships supports itself. As some writers on friendship have noted, friendships can be a great site for political change, and provide support for people to challenge the status quo. To challenge what friendships mean and build closer connections with people stands a good chance of also creating a supportive network or community from which to collectively challenge old, restrictive concepts of friend/relationships.
But living our lives like this has led to a number of difficulties. This is understandable given that we are challenging such an pervasive way of looking at the world, and we've only really begun to get our thoughts - and practice - together on all this in the last year or so. We're constantly aware of not wanting this approach to be at the expense of the people we're closest to, especially women. The main difficulty we've come across is respecting the wishes of people that we care about who see things differently than we do. Neither of us have used this approach to tear our special spaces apart through promiscuity. But wanting to acknowledge and build on the closeness of other connections has been threatening to some of the people closest to us.
Abandonment fears - ours and the people closest to us - are very real. After all, if we can't say we are someone's 'one and only', where do we stand? But like other insecurities we feel when we step away from the (falsely) reassuring structures of patriarchy, abandonment fears themselves are tied into patriarchal, hierarchical ways of relating. Being at the top of a pedestal can feel great; it can also be very precarious. The higher something's built, the harder it falls. We have found it challenging, painful, and scary to negotiate this way of relating with people this doesn't fit for. We hope that because our closest relationships are based on friendship and shared special space, then the space is shared. We need to remember that it can't only be on our terms.
This approach may only work when we feel secure in relating to others. If we're afraid of losing a 'partner', then it may just not work. However, having stronger connections with a number of people has increased our security in relating to others. Having a number of strong connections will also be helpful when we need massive amounts of support that one person can't give us, such as: when one friendship isn't going so well, or relationships break down, in raising children, and in times of loss and grief.
We are aware that this way of looking at things won't work for everyone, but we are still optimistic about where it could lead. Where could relationships take us when we are in them for more than the sake of being in a relationship? Where could our friendships go if we had a deeper commitment and better connection? What might it mean for the raising of our children? We hope it will lead to a world where we relate to people as people, not labels. Where all our human connections are recognised and celebrated, and where we can revel in the different emotional and physical intimacies we share with the important people in our lives.
Ron would like to thank Mark Trudinger, Kathryn Gow, Peter Poropat, Dawn Baker, Steven Ryan, Wendell Rosevear, and Ingeborg Veriend, many of whom are unaware of the part they have played in inspiring and guiding my thoughts.
Mark would like to thank all the people who have influenced his thinking about these issues, and supported him in making them a reality. He would especially like to thank Darlene Corry, Ron Frey, Scott Gibson, and Penelope White (yeah!). Thanks also to Mark D'Astoli, David Denborough, Michael Flood, Deborah Kelly, Kierstin Koch, Chris Krogh, David Newman, Norman Radican, Jessica Scullard and Jenny White. You're all inspirational people.
This article is a distilled and simplified version of a more extensive paper we are writing. If you'd like a copy, write to us care of
First published in the magazine XY: men, sex, politics, 5(4), Summer 1995&endash;96. XY, PO Box 26, AINSLIE, ACT, 2602, AUSTRALIA. Reprinted with permission. © Copyright 1995