Are romantic relationships really that different from platonic ones?
It struck me the other day that all adult relationships outside of our families are essentially the same. The only difference is where you draw the boundaries. What degree of emotional intimacy is allowed? How much time will you spend together? What emotional needs will you meet for each other? Is physical touch allowed — touching, holding hands? How about kissing or cuddling? What about sex?
The only problem is that in most relationships, we don’t talk about where these boundaries are.
For the purposes of this story, I am using the word “relationships” as an umbrella term for relationships between non-familial adults.
I am in an open relationship. This allows my partner and me a lot of freedom in how we design our lives. Admittedly, this gives me a different perspective on the role of romantic relationships, but I have always believed that you can and should have emotionally intimate platonic friendships. In the words of the fabulous Carrie Bradshaw:
Maybe our girlfriends are our soulmates and guys are just people to have fun with.
My new thinking about relationships highlighted all the things I was doing wrong when I was in monogamous relationships. For example, in a previous marriage, my husband and I never once discussed which emotional needs we expected to have met in the relationship, where exactly our boundaries around sex were, and how much time we wanted to spend together, apart, and with friends. Although I still believe we wouldn’t have stayed together long term, having these conversations would have greatly improved our relationship.
What goes into a relationship?
There are five main areas I believe can describe a typical relationship:
- Emotional intimacy
- Meeting emotional needs
- Time spent together
- Physical touch
I treat all my relationships as the same mix of these five things, whether I would consider that person a romantic interest or not.
For example, my best friend and I have an emotionally intimate, non-sexual relationship, but she lives in another state. Our relationship looks like this: we are emotionally intimate and share a lot of private information between us. We see each other two or three times a year, and we fulfill certain needs for each other, like accountability and offering compassion. We engage in physical touch, which can include hugging, holding hands, cuddling on the couch. While we are comfortable talking to each other about sex, we don’t kiss each other or have sex.
Let’s look at each area individually and how they might work in different types of relationships.
Emotional intimacy is a measure of how close we feel to another individual. Sanam Hafeez, a neuropsychologist and faculty member at Columbia, defines emotional intimacy as “allowing yourself to connect more deeply with your partner through actions that express feelings, vulnerabilities, and trust.” Partner could just as easily mean friend here.
In many monogamous relationships, we tie emotional intimacy and sex closely together. We expect that both may take place exclusively within our romantic relationship. We may worry that emotional intimacy may lead to sexual intimacy or vice versa, but these are two separate spokes in any relationship. We also put a lot of pressure on our primary relationship to be both our most emotionally close relationship and our most sexual relationship. Sometimes we use the word romantic to describe a relationship dynamic that encompasses both intimacy and sex. These expectations can pile up quickly and overwhelm a relationship.
In our society, men suffer from a lack of emotional intimacy outside of their primary romantic relationships. I believe we can’t cut partners off from developing emotionally intimate relationships with people just because there is a risk they may develop a sexual relationship. There are types of non-monogamous relationships where sex may be allowed but developing emotional intimacy is not; however, the risk is there. I understand it can be scary to let your partner develop other emotionally intimate relationships, but it’s part of what helps us develop into healthy and fulfilled humans.
Because female friendships tend to be more intimate than male friendships, it can be more difficult for men to develop intimate relationships outside of their primary partner. This is harmful for men and puts a lot of the burden of men’s emotional well-being on their female partners.
Meeting Emotional Needs
We all have emotional needs. In traditional monogamous relationships, we default to having our primary romantic partner meet most of those needs for us. However, one person is unlikely to meet all of our emotional needs, and I think it’s unfair to expect that they will.
So what’s the solution? We need to talk about it. In any of our primary relationships, it’s worth discussing which emotional needs you can expect to be met within the relationship. Consistently meeting each other’s emotional needs helps builds trust and intimacy.
For a primary romantic relationship, whether you’re monogamous or not, I also recommend having a discussion about what emotional needs other relationships will fill. For example, I might tell my partner that my best friend fills my needs for compassion and accountability and that I don’t need him to focus on meeting those needs as much.
A great tool for starting this conversation is the Emotional Needs Wheel developed by Bret Stein based on Marshall Rosenberg’s teachings on Non-Violent Communication. Define which needs are important to you and think about which of your relationships contribute to which needs.
Time Spent Together
I like a lot of alone time. This can be a challenge in maintaining my relationships, especially if I have a partner who wants to spend a lot of time with me. In previous relationships, I never had a conversation about how much time we would spend together. In an open relationship, this is a requirement.
My wife and I need to talk about how much time we’ll spend together, how much time we want to spend with other partners, with friends, and by ourselves. Remember, your time belongs to you and you alone. Your partner is not entitled to as much of your time as they want, and it’s worth discussing and negotiating this need.
Often when partners live together, any time both people are home tends to become default time together. This may be great for people who like a lot of time together, but it can be challenging to navigate. During the pandemic, I’ve had many friends talk about how they feel like they’re spending too much time with their partners because they’re always around each other. Even if you live together, or maybe especially if you live together, it’s worth being intentional with your time.
Different relationships may be allotted different amounts of time, and it’s normal for this to change as people grow and change.
Physical touch is different than sex. In the U.S., we are perpetually touch-starved, a condition exacerbated by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Most of us need more physical touch, not less. I’m a firm believer that our non-sexual relationships should help us meet our needs for physical touch.
Women are better at engaging in casual platonic touch than men. Men touching other men can, unfortunately, be seen and judged as homosexual behavior. If we were in a sufficiently accepting society, the perception that something is gay wouldn’t be an issue. Men are (blessedly) more careful about touching women these days. And in some romantic relationships, another person touching your partner might feel threatening. We need to disentangle touch from sex — people need human contact.
Decide what physical touch will look like in your romantic relationships and friendships. Do you like to be snuggled up on the couch when you watch TV? Will you hold hands with friends? Massages? Hair braiding? Where are your own boundaries, and do you understand your partner’s boundaries? Have you discussed your comfort level with physical touch outside of the relationship?
Sex is a sensitive topic and typically not something that is allowed outside the primary relationship in monogamy. But what is sex? Do you have agreements around kissing, pornography, or different kinds of sex workers? Are you on the same page about sexual fidelity?
If you’re in a non-monogamous relationship, what agreements have you negotiated around sex, sexual safety, and information sharing? For example, have you asked your partner to tell you before they have sex with someone, afterward, or not at all? Do you only have sex with other people when you’re both present?
There is no one right way to set expectations and boundaries around sex other than to make sure you’re actively discussing and negotiating them.
As relationships evolve, these five pillars may flex and change. For me, sex is generally on the table, and it’s an intentional choice whether or not to include it within the bounds of a relationship. I have had friendships that evolved to include sex and changed back again without harming the friendship. An open relationship allows a little more flexibility here. I don’t need to separate my platonic relationships from my other ones, and ending a sexual connection doesn’t mean the relationship needs to end. Each relationship can exist in the way it works best at that moment.
I also want to note that a lot of these conversations don’t need to be explicit. For example, if you have a friend that you only meet one Sunday per month for coffee and a hike, you don’t need to talk about time spent or emotional needs. These items are implicit in the nature of your relationship. But for deeper friendships, romantic relationships, and maybe even casual sexual partners, these pillars can help guide conversations if something about the relationship isn’t working or needs to evolve.
Exploring non-monogamy has taught me to be more intentional with setting expectations for the relationships in my life and given me more tools for doing so. What other elements of a relationship are important to you? How do you think about setting the boundaries around your relationships?