Some relationships involve one person, others involve more than one relationship. This includes monogamy, friends with benefits, open relationships, polyamory and also friendships.
Below I explain about different kinds of relationships but notice how they are all on a spectrum. Also notice that the meanings of these words are different from person to person – even the ‘obvious’ ones like ….
This is where two people decide to have a sexual or romantic relationship with just each other and make it their rule that they can only do this with each other.
If people have a sexual or romantic relationship with someone other than that person, without their knowledge or agreement, then this is known as ‘cheating’ or ‘being unfaithful’ or ‘having an affair’ or ‘playing away from home’ or ‘doing the dirty’ (I could go on …).
Although people think it’s obvious what those things mean it differs from person to person. What do you think it means? Now text a mate and ask them what they think it means – do you agree? What does being ‘faithful’ mean to you?
Is it about sexing someone else? Is it about having entry sex with someone? Is it about oral sex? Getting naked with someone? Snogging someone? Sexting? Does it matter who it is? Is it ok if it’s a stranger or is it worse than if it was someone they knew? Could it even be about fantasising about someone else? Or watching porn?
Does it have to be about sex? What about going out for the evening with an ex? Or staying up all night talking to someone? Or spending loads of money doing something exciting or luxurious with someone else? Remember that not all romantic relationships are sexual – what would constitute ‘cheating’ in an asexual relationship?
Because it’s assumed that relationships are monogamous, many couples rely on telepathy to try and work out what the rules of their relationship is – which is weird, cos telepathy is really hard*. I reckon it’s better to try and talk about your rules together. Both about what happens outside the relationship but also what happens inside too. It’s a good idea to keep talking about this because things change.
*unless you’re a Jedi and look at how hard they find their relationships ….
Or buy my book Can We Talk About Consent? Thank you. Now on with the article.
Friends with benefits
These are non-romantic relationships that are sexual or affectionate
Friends with benefits (FWB) was invented in 2007 by a group of young people who decided that you don’t need a romantic relationship in order to have sex*.
FWBs may start out as friendships but then they decide to have sex when they feel like it. Or it may be people who are in a relationship but change it to more of just a sexual thing with someone they see as a friend. Or it might start as just casual sex where some friendship blossoms. Or it might be people that aren’t really friends but just meet up for sex when they are both feeling horny (hook-ups, booty calls, shag buddies etc).
Again it’s not just about sex. Many people have friendships which are also affectionate too. For instance giving each other cuddles, or hair stroking, or spooning or sleeping in the same bed.
People say that FWBs are always doomed because the sex means that one person always feels differently (usually more affectionate) than the other. Maybe, maybe not. But think about other relationships too? Do people always feel the same about each other? Think about your friendships? Are there people that you are more keen on hanging out with than others? How does this change? What do you think?
People may only have one FWB but sometimes they may have more than one. Or they may have an FWB and another kind of relationship too. What do you think about that? People have more than one friend, why not more than one FWB? Does the sex bit change that?
*that’s a lie
Lots of relationships start from friendships where people know each other. Some people say this is the ‘best’ way to get to know someone – maybe, maybe not. Dating generally involves meeting someone that you don’t know in order to see whether you want some kind of relationship with each other.
Some people choose to only date one person at a time because they want to devote their thoughts and energies to one person (exclusive dating). Others have a bit of an overlap. Others see lots of people at the same time because they enjoy going on dates with people and don’t want to commit to one person quite yet (non-exclusive dating).
If you’re a dater you might want to think about how you feel about this for you and for the people you date? Is it important that someone is only dating you or is it ok for them to date others or do you not mind so long as they don’t tell you? Or something else? Perhaps think about how you can communicate this (maybe if you’re on something like Tinder for instance).
Open relationships are where people agree that they can have other relationships with other people.
These are relationships which are non-monogamous – ie they can involve more than one person. Sometimes this is where there is a couple who are happy for their partner to have sexy times with someone else (and they may have an agreement that they can also do the same). Or it might be less to do with sex and more to do with people having a romantic or intimate time with someone.
Open relationships might be an opportunity for people to have experiences with other people that are very different to what they can have with their partner. For instance if someone has a particular kink, or sexual orientation. But it might also just be about experiencing something or someone new and that being OK. Maintaining independence and doing your own thing is important in any relationship – people in open relationships say that this is just part of that.
People may make their own rules about this – such as not wanting any details (or wanting all the details), or not being allowed to do certain things (such certain sex things, or sleepovers, or spending loads of cash).
Polyamory is where people are in a loving relationship with more than one person.
This is similar but different to open relationships (the definitions get a little bit hazy at this point as different people prefer different terms – so bear with me yeah?). Polyamory is where people are open to being in a loving relationship with more than one person.
This may mean that someone has more than one girlfriend / boyfriend / partner / spouse / lover. Some people are really into this, some people not and others are in between somewhere.
Some people organise their relationships like a hierarchy – where it’s agreed that one relationship is the most important. Others don’t really believe in this approach and prefer to view their relationships as being as important as each other (or similarly important). Some people are in relationships which are all with each other – so three people in a relationship with each other would be a triad.
Other people don’t make distinctions between they people they have sex with, the people they share a bed with, the people they live with, the people they are friends with and the people they are related to. They may just see all the different forms of love in their life and nurture and celebrate them. Some people call this ‘relationship anarchy’ (cool term yeah? some interesting posts about this here).
This is where two or more people agree that they like/love/support/care/have fun with each other. They may want to hang out either in person, or via their phones or online through social media or forums. Most friends are cool with people hanging out with other friends (though sometimes people can get jealous of people other people’s friendships). There isn’t usually a limit to the number of friends that someone may have but they may spend more time with some friends with others. These relationships often last for a very very long time (often for a whole lifetime) as they are able to adapt and change and grow older together. Sometimes they might go through periods of being really close but then sometimes a bit less so.
Why do we see friendships so differently from romantic relationships?
Write your own vows
What a lot of these terms means differs from person to person – so talk about what it means for you.
Imagine writing your own vows for a relationship – even if it’s not a very serious one. What might they look like? What would you promise for your partner within the relationship? What would you promise for outside the relationship? What would you promise for yourself? This isn’t just for romantic relationships either, think about what this might also mean for all your other relationships. What vows would you make about your friendships?
We all need more than one
I think we all need more than one person in our lives …
Something else we can learn from non-monogamy is that (I think) we all need more than one person in our lives – even if we are in a monogamous relationship or are single. Placing so much importance on a romantic relationship to give us the support, love, intimacy, fun and hugs we need to get through life a) places a massive burden on the relationship and b) is a massive diss to all the other people in our lives who provide us with so much of what we need.
Thinking about the range of people in our lives and what they give us and what we give them. Our friends, family, colleagues, peers but also what we can give ourselves.
Do leave a comment below if you have anything you’d like to add or if you have questions. I moderate all comments before they go live. Click here to ask me a question
© Justin Hancock, 2022
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Justin Hancock has been a trained sex and relationships educator since 1999. In that time he’s taught and given advice about sex and relationships with thousands of young people in person and millions online. He’s a member of the World Association for Sexual Health. Find out more about Justin here